What's the difference between the phrases "socially constructed" and "socially constituted"?

In a number of books I have read, it seems we should be able to distinguish ways in which things like gender, rationality, nationality etc are "social constructed": they can be socially distinguished, socially constituted, or socially caused... But I'm having a hard time understanding the difference, again especially between socially constructed and socially constituted...

  • 3
    This all depends on what one means by constructed and by constituted. You have first to establish what you mean by these two words (they can have a technical definition which differs from the 'common' definition) before you can decide on their difference. – M. le Fou Nov 5 '16 at 11:22
  • I think this is a good question. probably most writers use these terms loosely, but there is a difference. here's another: socially *instituted". – user20153 Nov 5 '16 at 20:07
  • These phrases do not have a well-known distinction in any of the areas of philosophy I work in. Some philosophers may use them idiosyncratically, but we would need to know who you are reading to guess if they make a distinction. – virmaior Nov 6 '16 at 2:01
  • @mobileink That is not related. The two 'con' constructions are about coming together (often unintentionally) the 'in' construction is about being put in place intentionally. The people constitute a democracy, they construct a literary tradition. No one in particular does these things. Someone might institute a court system but it can't be all of us. – jobermark Nov 6 '16 at 23:07
  • from the detail of your question, seems like the difference is that what is socially constituted would exist without our society, whereas some socially constructed things would not. i would suggest gender is an example of the former, and nationality the latter – user25714 Mar 1 '17 at 4:44

There may be a distinction you could draw between the use of the phrase 'social construction' that Berger and Luckmann (1966) popularized in the Social Construction of Reality, and more reflexive ideas about the constitution of social rules or 'methods' such as Garfinkel's (1967) ethnomethodology.

Berger and Luckmann's understanding of how social knowledge is accumulated and retrieved in response to the always-current need to make sense of the world draws on Alfred Schütz' concept of 'interpretative relevance', which in turn draws on what Schütz' describes as Husserl's phenomenology of time in the "passive synthesis of recognition". When we encounter some phenomenon in time, we draw on our stock of social knowledge - retrospectively - to formulate anticipations and projections to make sense of it and respond in some way. Schütz suggests that this functions as a kind of reflexive normativity - a way to synthesize subjective experience with a stock of knowledge about how things are commonly done, used, or understood. This enables us to reflect on, rationalize and stabilize our otherwise fragmentary experiences of perceptions and thoughts over time.

Garfinkel was also strongly influenced by Schütz' phenomenology, but equally strongly by Wittgenstein on rules and language games. Following Schütz', he acknowledges that social knowledge and phenomenological experience are reflexively co-constructed, but for Garfinkel this also means that the materials and objects of study for the phenomenological sociologists like Schütz are inherently unstable. Therefore following Wittgenstein, he focused on the reflexive constitution of social norms through the language-game-like 'methods' used by a social group in a way that constitutes their group-ness. His studies in 'ethnomethodology' are literally that - studies of the relatively stable methods by which members of a group constitute the relatively unstable norms, rules and phenomena of their social world.

The implications of this distinction are that while you can theorize about the social construction of gender, rationality, nationality etc. these theoretical constructs are not necessarily involved in how these abstractions are socially constituted. Conversely, in ethnomethodological studies such as conversation analysis, to claim that gender, rationality or nationality are being constituted through social interaction, analysts must be able to show that those constructs are interpretatively relevant to participants in a particular setting. So one distinction could be that describing something as 'socially constructed' presents the analyst as occupying an etic epistemological standpoint, whereas understanding how something is socially constituted might require a more emic description.


Well, construct and constitute are synonymous...

In such cases I find it helpful to look at the etymology of each term to think about where there is overlap and where there is divergence. Otherwise, if an author has not explicitly articulated their particular useage of synonymous terms, it might very well be that they are not terribly clear on what they are trying to convey. You could always analyze their useage and consider how a particular morphology of the term is used by the author. Does anything change in the sentence if the terms are swapped?

For example, in chapters 1 and 6 of "The Construction of Social Reality" John Searle discusses rules and distinguishes regulative and constitutive rules. Would his distinction be as clear if you replaced "constitutive" with "constructive"? Personally, I don't think so.

For another example, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in chapter 3 of "The Social Construction of Reality" say that, "By virtue of this accumulation a social stock of knowledge is constituted, which is transmitted from generation to generation and which is available to the individual in everyday life." Would their assertion change much if "constituted" were replaced with "constructed"? Personally, I don't think so.

Off the top of my head, I usually think of "constructed" as the result of a prolonged action of building something which results in a whole construction. "Constituted" I generally think of as composed of particular materials, or constituents, that a construction is made up of. For example, a house is constructed by a crew of people, but the house is constituted by wood, nails and such.

Hope that helps.


gender, rationality, nationality etc are "social constructed": they can be socially distinguished, socially constituted, or socially caused

seems like you are saying that the following three are examples of socially constructed things

  1. socially destinguished things
  2. socially constituted things
  3. socially caused things.

If so, then your question is answered if you know e.g. the difference between 2 and 3. Which seems fairly simple: the cause of something is why it exists; but how something is constituted is only why it exists how it does. The difference is between a spark causing a fire, and the strong wind causing it to burn as it does.

If your author is using "caused" and "constituted" in these ways, then arguably at least, 'gender' is socially constructed but not socially caused, because "men" and "women" would have different sex organs or chromosones, however society constituted that (e.g. men are strong and women are nurturing). Whereas 'nationality' is socially caused, because nationality necessitates nation states, and nation states would not exist in any way without a society in which "nations" have borders etc..

Hope that helps: I'm only saying how I would read that, obviously not very immersed in the literature.

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