Before the eighteenth century, the term race was used to describe different breeds of domestic animals, their group membership or descent from a common ancestor. Later it was applied on human populations to define a group of individuals who differ from the rest of the population based on their genetic make-up alone. Although individually varying, these individuals are characterized by certain common features, which are acquired from their common descent. This means that the members of such a group share ancestry with one another to a greater degree than they share it with individuals from other groups. In addition, races are associated with certain geographical inhabitations thereby making them taxonomically different from other species. In most cases, race overlaps with ethnicity where the latter emphasis cultural rather than biological differences. Ethnic groups often share a sense of group identity through commonalities such as language, religion, and social institutions.
Regardless of the fact that the genetic makeup is the basic difference between human beings, the concept of race has evolved to become a socially constructed artifact where people are categorized based on their visual differences. Although people from different parts of the world differ in appearance, social boundaries and categories are created that are not based on biological or physical concepts. The society associates a certain group of individuals with certain fashion trends, art, dialect, mannerisms, and even in some instances professions and recreational activities. For example, black teenagers are associated with a certain type of dressing and talking, which a teenager would be ridiculed for engaging in. Some have argued that the social construction of race is founded on interactions with other human beings (Howard 92).This indicates that the meaning is not derived from events, situations, or people but rather facts are derived through someone communicating them to another. The recipient then translates the chosen information into meaning. This basis social constructionism of race on language as each person uses their linguistic experiences to construct their symbolic reality, which may significantly differ from that of others.
Similarly, gender is another social institution within which human beings organize their lives. The basis of gender construction is how an individual’s genitalia looks from birth leading to different treatment. This proceeds to the baby being dressed in a certain way based on whether it is a boy or a girl. As s/he grows, the child is taught how to behave based on her gender based on the gendered norms and expectations of whichever gender they are in. In addition, there are gendered roles for mothers and fathers as well as gendered jobs and positions, which in turn produces different experiences, feelings, and skills that are considered as either feminine or masculine based on the social construction of gender. This in turn results to the social relationship of doing gender, which essentially refers to the repetitive performance of the naturalized social norms of gender stereotypes (“The Social Construction of Gender”). Hence, the construction of social statuses is not founded on the physiological differences but rather evolves from the social practices that makes people behave in a particular way.
Historical developments contributed largely to the consistent categorization of people based on the visual and identifiable physical attributes and only through political struggles have these racial identities been redefined. It gained notoriety especially after the Second World War particularly through the passing of the GI Bill that sought to open up the opportunity for the war veterans to buy a home. Only less than 2% of non-whites were able to access these loans with stricter limitations placed on those who lived in the districts flagged as red and who were mainly colored people. Mortgages were not offered to people living in the red districts hence excluding them from the home ownership market. Consequently, this had a direct influence on their economic conditions, which furthered the social construction of racial identities.
Social constructionism based on cultural artifacts and political discourse has in many cases led to vicious perpetuation of negative stereotyping. These arise from the social interactions with others in which a certain non-universal criteria is set for judging the whiteness or non-whiteness of an individual. The determination is not as a result of a scientific test but from experiences with individuals from different racial backgrounds leading to a development of a socially constructed definition of race. This leads to the creation of social statuses through ascribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation and enforcement. While social construction of race is still institutionalized, gendered roles on the other hand are quickly evolving. Women are now venturing in professions traditionally held to be the reserve of men and men are engaging traditional female roles such as taking care of children. However, there are societies where the social order is highly upheld and an individual deviating from it is considered to have lost their social status.
- Howard, John. On the Social Construction of Race. The Occidental Quarterly, 9(2009), 2.
- “The Social Construction of Gender”. Boundless. 26 May. 2016. Web. Feb 4 2017. <https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/gender-stratification-and-inequality-11/gender-and-socialization-86/the-social-construction-of-gender-496-8675/> accessed February 4, 2017.