This paper will try to discuss the feminist and social construction theories. The former, feminist theory, is a sociological theory of practice, of which was adapted by other minority movements like the Blacks, the ethnic minorities, as well as the gays and lesbians, sprouting at first in the United States and later on, spreading all over the world. This theory can be considered “reactionary” to, and specific to and for, women living in society, in a certain context. The latter, on the other hand, the social construction theory is also a sociological theory, but that of knowledge, following contemporary philosophical traditions, especially postmodern and post-postmodern thoughts on language, on language-and-reality and reality in general.
Feminism, as a philosophical system, reflects a world view that values women and that confronts systematic injustices based on gender.” Kathy Lay and James Daley, in their paper, “A Critique of Feminist Theory,” defined Feminist Theory (FT), in general, as “a perspective for understanding human behavior in the social environment by centering women and issues that women face in contemporary society. It also looks at individuals, groups, family, and organizations in their social, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural context using the feminist lens. Most often, FT is associated, directly or indirectly, with the rights of women. Being an extension of feminism, being the movement, of theoretical or philosophical discourse, it aims to understand nature of gender inequality, examining women’s social roles and lived experiences, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, communication, psychoanalysis, economics, literary criticism, education and philosophy. (Brabeck, M. and Brown, L. et. al. Feminist Theory and Psychological Practice, in Shaping the Future Femenist Psychology: Education, Research and Practice, American Psychological Association, 1997)
As a movement, it “began a widespread call for a major reassessment of concepts, theories, and methods employed within and across the academic disciplines. (Hesse-Biber, 2000, in “A Critique of Feminist Theory”) Since the movement strives to challenge traditions, methodologies, and priorities in all aspects of life, FT slowly found its way into the mouths and sentiments of women, as well as, those who find the application of the theory in context to society.
Since, by definition and understanding, theory is about understanding our world and everyday experiences; thus, Flax (1999) said that theory is “a systematic analytic approach to everyday experience” and at some point, he would qualify that this analysis is done unconsciously. Some thoughts and feelings coming out of expression, usually as we speak or write, in critique of our context, our society, in the process, much of “theorizing” is indeed done unconsciously. Something that is normal for human beings. That is why Flax continues on by saying that “to theorize, then, is to bring this unconscious process to a conscious level so it can be developed and refined.” One of the first theories so far that started FT are: (1) “men and women have different experiences in that their worlds are not the same;” (2) “that women’s oppression is ‘a unique constellation of social problems and has to be understood in itself…and (3) that oppression is part of the structure of patriarchy which has deep roots in culture at large.”
Because of these factors, together with a bunch of other issues that sprouted out in the past decades, FT proponents responded, at first, conservatively, until they have become assertive, even aggressive. Generally, FT, from Feminism, has evolved in different arenas rather than one unified concept i.e. black feminism, radical feminism, cultural feminism, lesbian feminism, liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, materialist feminism, and socialist feminism (Andermahr, et. al. in “A Critique of Feminist Theory”) Across these types of feminism, FT has evolved in 3 waves (Three Waves of Feminism: From Suffragettes to Grrls (http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/6236_Chapter_1_Krolokke_2nd_Rev_Final_Pdf.pdf).
First-wave feminism arose in context of industrial society and liberal politics but is connected to both liberal women’s rights movement and early socialist feminism in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States and Europe. The main concern of this wave was access and equal opportunities for women. One of its significant voices was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who outlined in the Seneca Falls Declaration the claim of natural equity of women and outlining the political strategy of equal access and opportunity, of which, gave rise to the suffrage movement in the 1800s. In the early stages, in the United States, feminism was interwoven with other reform movements, such as abolition and temperance, and initially closely involved women of the working class. This was also supported by Black women abolitionist i.e. Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, and Frances E. W. Harper, who also agitated the rights of women of color. By their joining the band, it strove to show the linkage of sexism and racism that functioned as the main means of White male dominance. That is why first-wave feminism members were largely white, middle-class, well-educated women. Later on, with the civil war in the United States, as well as, the two world wars, feminism in the first-wave also focused on the demands of national unity and patriotism.
One significant issue that the women of the first-wave poured so much effort was their voting rights (rights of suffrage). Of which, suffragists had to stereotype women to be: (1) unbecoming or unwomanly when they engaged in public speaking, (2) resisting the “cult of domesticity,” dictating that a true woman’s place was in the home, meeting the needs of the husband and children; and (3) the requirement of modesty and to wield only indirect influence, and certainly not to engage in public activities. (Who would have survived such stereotypes?) Eventually, just as the right of suffrage was granted to women, politically, it also led to the claim that women and men should be treated as equals and that women should not only be given access to the same resources and positions as men but also be acknowledge of their contributions and competencies. This concept is called “equal-opportunities feminism” or “equity feminism,” characterized by lack of distinction between sex and gender.
The second-wave, which emerged in the 1960s to 1970s in postwar Western welfare societies, when other “oppressed” groups such as Blacks and homosexuals were being defined and the New Left was on the rise. This wave is closely linked to the radical voices of women’s empowerment and differential rights. During the 1980s to 1990s, feminism were initiated, to a crucial differentiation, by women of color and third-world women. Key to this branch of feminism was a strong belief that women could collectively empower one another.
Under the theories of radical feminism, they believe that patriarchy is inherent to bourgeois society and that sexual difference is more fundamental than class and race differences. They even claimed that women – due to their primary social attachment to the family and reproduction – constitute a class and economy of their own, based on the unpaid work in the home, the productivity of motherhood, and their function as a workforce reserve.
The second-wave feminism, according to Luce Irigaray, a British feminist, helped us open a door to a different kind of thought and action, in which a continued process of diversification and multiplication takes over the frozen pairing equity (sameness) and difference. These movements had consequences, considering that in this wave, feminism is not only one, but many; it has become highly theoretical and consequently have had strong affiliations with the academy; have generated an explosion of research and teaching on women’s issues; and, has influenced communication through concepts of cultural feminism and gendered communication styles or “genderlects.”
This wave is also known, in the beginning, as radical feminism, using performance i.e. underground or guerilla theater, to shed light on “women’s oppression.” Florence Kennedy, one of its proponents, would say, “There are a few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.” Here, women were victims of a patriarchal, commercialized, oppressive beauty culture to such an extent that feminists of this wave even protested against beauty pageants, most especially, Miss America. (Friedman, in Three Waves of Feminism, in “Gender Communication Theories and Analyses”) This movement even criticized “capitalism” and “imperialism” and focused on the notion and interest of the “oppressed” groups: the working class, Blacks, and in the principles, and women and homosexuals.
The third-wave, stretching from the mid-1990s onward, springing from the postcolonial and postsocialist world order, in the context of information society and neoliberal, global politics. This wave manifest the “grrrl” rhetoric, which seeks to overcome the theoretical question of equity or difference and the political question of evolution or revolution, while it challenges the notion of “universal womanhood” and embraces ambiguity, diversity, and multiplicity in transversal theory and politics.
This was born with the privileges that first- and second-wave feminists fought for, and so, third-wave feminists generally see themselves as capable, strong, and assertive social agents; buoyed by the confidence of having more opportunities and less sexism. The movement has simultaneously criticized sexist language, appropriated derogatory terms for girls and women, and invented new self-celebrating worlds and forms of communication. And, instead of condemning the stereotypes used against them, they exaggerate them, beginning with the very word girl. By this, they developed a feminist theory and politics that honor contradictory experiences and deconstruct categorical thinking to such extent that even “slut” or “bitch”, once derogatory, was deconstructed to be concepts of grrrl empowerment.
With all that considered, third-wave is tied up with the effects of globalization and the complex redistribution of power, which challenge feminist theory and politics, mirroring the diversification of women’s interests and perspectives and the breakdown of master stories of oppression and liberation. This was at a social context where people are confused of the overflow of information or the concepts that the world has “no-borders.” Consequently, their consciousness formed concepts of equality and equity; a society whose individual parts are blurred by the “whole.”
With the first, second and third wave of feminism, the movement and advocacy issue is vibrant, diverse, and wide-ranging. Social issues that moved women long time ago to cry, if not call, and fight for their rights are still there: oppression, lack of power, or lack of control, over all, in a male-oriented culture, only that the world has become smaller where traditional boundaries or categories has become “non-necessary”. Across decades, with the world events putting up a modern history all together, feminism has survived and is still fighting the fight, proposing theories that applies and responds to their needs, to the “call of the time.”
Social Construction Theory
Peter Jackson and Jan Penrose said that Social Construction Theory (SCT) is concerned with the ways we think about and use categories to structure our experience and analysis of the world. (http://staff.washington.edu/saki/strategies/The%20Theory%20of%20Social%20Construction_files/v3_document.htm) These are sociological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social context. (Beaumie, Kim, et. al. Social Constructivism (http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/index.php?title=Social_Constructivism) What comes out of this analysis is the seeming “awareness” or “recognition”, if not “naming of,” social constructs which are products of particular groups. These social constructs are generally understood to be the by-products of countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature.
A major focus of SCT is to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the construction of their perceived social reality. It involves looking at the ways social phenomena are created, institutionalized, known, and made into traditions by humans. As such, it becomes an ongoing dynamic process and must be reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Because of social constructs as facets of reality and objects of knowledge are not “given” by nature, they must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist.
How are social constructs “constructed”? SCT considers reality as the product of social interaction; it begins with the language of a social context. With language, we categorize concepts into terms. From that, we try to negotiate these concepts as rational or symbolic, of which, requires to be tested or lived by the people. As it is practiced, rules are designed to deal with immediate adaptations. With regulated practice, habituation follows. By this time, that from which “constructed” by language, put into practice, becomes normal. As it becomes normal, institutionalization follows. (http://www.andosciasociology.net/resources/Social+Construction+Theory.pdf) Here, actual “construction” of social construct is achieved. Constant reification comes from time to time, checking the validity, the application, the “normalcy” of the social construct as people, in their culture; continue to live in a certain social context. Once social constructs are institutionalized, after it has been arbitrarily made conventional, or normal in a sense, the people use these constructs as lenses of which they view their life-world. By that, how we know something to be real depends on these social lenses.
According to Peter Berger (1967), in his book, “The Social Construction of Reality”, together with Luckman, argues that all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday reality, is derived from and maintained by social interactions. When people interact, they do so with the understanding that their respective perceptions of reality are related, and as they act upon this understanding their common knowledge of reality becomes reinforced. Since this common sense knowledge is negotiated by people, human typifications, significations and institutions come to be presented as part of an objective reality, particularly for future generations who were not involved in the original process of negotiation.”
Although this brings us to question reality, especially when reality, be it a thing or not, an idea or concept, is “constructed,” it also allows us to re-evaluate our perception of reality, using other various philosophical perspectives like that of language i.e. of hermeneutics or even that of epistemology. We get to “see” (analyze) the world we live in; our life-world. For instance, when we allow ourselves to do this, we can say, according to Rudolph Carnap, “all reality is thought, all thought is in a language, all language is a convention, and that all convention is socially acceptable, hence, it uses language to socially program.”
By this, true indeed, that man was given by God the power to “name” the plants and creatures in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1). By this, we have dominion over all things; we have dominion, then, over our reality.
Feminist Theory vs. Social Construction Theory
By preference, I am more adept to ground my discussion on SCT. Not only that its conceptual structure can easily be outlined, SCT has also proposed a workable process and is objectively applicable. By that, FT, then, can eventually ground its conception, its principles, especially from the standpoint of gender and their methodology, in SCT. Gender itself is considered in many schools of thought as a “social construct.” Sex, since it is biological, given by God – something natural – in all of us, cannot be arbitrated by a group of people. There’s no argument about it. But, its cultural designation, along with it is concepts of gender identity and gender roles are arbitrary; and of course, once institutionalized, becomes conventional. Gender, in other words, is not universal in application. This is anthropologically supported by many researchers who have eventually proposed cultural relativism as its “eye” in analyzing society, in studying the world. What is Filipino male and female, its identity, the expected roles and status, to Filipino understanding, may not be to the Americans or Chinese; more so, to tribes in Africa and Papua New Guinea. Given that, FT, since it is “reactionary” in favor of a specific gender — female — is consequently grounded on principles that are “socially constructed.” Thus, it is so difficult for women to delineate really what makes one a woman; and the men, man. In some sense, FT is “fluid.” That is why it has reached 3 waves, of which, the third-wave, by principle, has gone away from the principles the first-wave fought for. Deconstruction of FT was power to the third-wave. FT was more of interpretation or evaluation — from observation — of surrounding realities. But what made them “see” this oppression or inequality? Their being feminine of which is “just” a social construct. FT may be a project of sociological imagination contained only within the bounds of women-concerns; thus, cannot be generalized of which supposedly, theories should. SCT, on the other hand, though its foundation or grounding is “arbitrary” yet, as a theory, is applicable to general knowledge of reality; in fact, to everything. The “arm” of SCT is its “recognition” or “awareness”; more so, of its “naming.” To many language philosophers, this is a mechanism which, at first instance, allows us to study, thus, analyze, anything perceived to be real. By the fact that it is a product of language, even that of the fictional world can be conceived as real; and thus, SCT still applies. But with its arbitrary characteristic, it can be held in contention. There is always a moment from which man doubts its “construction,” whether it is real or not or is just a product of convention. By that, it can be argued and so, even changed. This is a fact. Once, in society, we do not like a structure or a process, change is possible because reality is a social construct. Dangerous as it may sound but this is a mechanism for analysis and evaluation. Who determines it is an issue. Who decides what to objectify is an issue. From this point, both FT and SCT can be subjective, individually and collectively.
- Lay, Kathy and Daley, James, A Critique of Feminist Theory (http://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/advancesinsocialwork/article/viewArticle/131)
- Three Waves of Feminism: From Suffragettes to Grrls (http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/6236_Chapter_1_Krolokke_2nd_Rev_Final_Pdf.pdf
- Hanish, Carol, The Personal is Political: The Women’s Liberation Movement classic with a new explanatory introduction (http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html)
- Petersen, V. Spike, Feminist Theories Within, Invisible To, and Beyond IR, in the Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. X, issue 2, 2004.
- Shaw, Alan, Social Constructionism and the Inner City (http://xenia.media.mit.edu/~acs/chapter1.html)
- Stam, Henderikus J., Introduction: Social Constructionism and Its Critics, in Theory and Psychology, vol. 11(3): 291-296, SAGE Publication, 2001.
- Jackson, Peter and Penrose, Jan, The Theory of Social Construction (http://staff.washington.edu/saki/strategies/The%20Theory%20of%20Social%20Construction_files/v3_document.htm)
- Cromby, J., What’s wrong with social constructionism?, in Social Constructionist Psychology: a critical analysis of theory and practice, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1999.