The purpose of this work is to describe, analyse and understand what an anthropological understanding of social construction is and how it works. In order to do this, I’ll start by giving a general explanation of what a social construct is, after that I’ll bring three different concepts which I understand as social constructions. Specifically the three concepts will be gender, death and language using. To explain gender “Rites of Manhood: Sambia” (1990 ) by David Gilmore.
In discussing death as a social construction I’ll be using “Mother’s Love: Death without Weeping” in “Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology”(2012) by Nancy Scheper Hughes. In engaging with language as social construction I’ll be using “Without saying” (1998) by Maurice Bloch , “Small Places, Large Issues – An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology-third edition” (2010) by Thomas Hyllan Eriksen and “Elementi di antropologia culturale” (2010) by Ugo Fabietti will be quoted (and translated in Fabietti’s case) throughout the whole text.
To give a deeper understanding of what social construction is I’ll be engaging the issues of agency and dynamicity. By social construct we define all those things that exist only because their existence is socially accepted and therefore perceived by people and only because of this acceptance they become something that is considered real and that has influence on people’s life.
Social constructions are part of a subjective reality, they are existing because the majority of us has agreed on the fact that a particular symbol, mechanism or social intercourse is carrier of a well defined signification on which, as I already said the majority of us is aware of and has somehow agreed upon. It must be noted that social constructions are not static objects, since they are strictly related to societies and societies are in a continuous evolutionary process. Societies evolve and adapt to the social changes as time goes by.
The task of anthropologists is to investigate the causes of these social changes. Some of these constructions, have an universal, or almost universal recognition, this was probably made easier by the globalization process in the last years, and some others are strictly local and influences only certain areas of the world, the people belonging to a particular ethnic group or religion etc. (Eriksen page 310), so we will find different social constructions in different countries but also the same social construct that have different meaning and a different affect on people from disparate cultural backgrounds.
It’s inevitable to be affected by social constructions, since man is a social animal and his thought is influenced since birth by the opinion of others, by history and by the rules or dogma on which the fundamentals of society are grounded. Illuminists philosophers such as Rousseau and Diderot saw in social constructions the reasons of inequality, they idealised a man before society, a man without history, without preconceptions that was naturally good from birth, because he didn’t have any ideas of competition, private property, money, and religion which were seen as instruments used by a part of the society to oppress another one.
As I said they idealised this man since they were well aware of the impossibility for men living completely outside of the society and escape preconceptions, even the people living in the most remote regions of the world are somehow organised in society and every man from the day of his birth is influenced by those who surround him. “What we think of as our human character is not inborn; it must be acquired through learning. The truly human in us, as anthropology sees it, is primarily created through our engagement with the social an cultural world; it is neither exclusively individual nor natural. (Eriksen 2010: 44).
Does this means that we are all somehow doomed to surrender to social constructions and that we all have to live as the social construction are telling us to? Theoretically yes but fortunately for us we were all born with the capacity of reasoning and with something called self determination, these two elements together forms what we know as agency that allows us to act differently from the way that the social construct would tell us to. “The notion of agency thus implies that people know that they act, even if they do not necessarily know the consequences of their acts.
In other words, it is always possible to do something different from what one is doing at the moment”(Eriksen 2010:52). One of the main difference between individuals in nowadays society is the one referred to sex and gender, men and women are different biologically speaking and this is an objective fact on which we can all agree upon, the term sex is the one used when we speak about biological differences therefore anthropology is not much interested on it. What interest this discipline is the gender issue, which can be easily called a social construction, why do women have to wear skirts?
Why is the miner considered a man’s profession? These and a million of others cliches are all socially constructed ideas about how the members of a certain gender should act and be. As I wrote in the previous point social construction varies from place to place and from society to society, “The work of the anthropologists has taught us how those that should be considered distinctive traits of femininity and masculinity are not intended everywhere in the same way as if they were products of a well defined biological nature.
Feminine and masculine traits or rather the distinctions of gender, seems more likely to be social constructions. Different cultures using biological differences in a symbolic way have created social and cultural representations that are often, surprisingly, very different from one another” (Fabietti 2010: 2. 2). On the basis of this I will now analyse gender (especially manhood) among the Sambia a formerly warrior tribal population of Melanesia which has a very particular conception of manhood according to Gilmore.
They are of unusual interest to anthropologist because of their masculine rites of passage. These includes acts of homosexual fellatio, as well as the more usual blood letting and hazing” (Gilmore 1990 <1943> : 146). Seen from our point of view using our scales of values this ritual could never be seen as an action supposed to turn boys into men, homosexuality in our society is usually coupled to with effeminacy, so how is it possible that an homosexual action could have been used as a ritual intended to develop masculinity?
By looking at it out of context this wouldn’t make any sense at all, anthropology need to look at the bigger pictures and look for the causes and reasons that stand behind a certain social phenomenon, further in the text is explained that: “The Sambia believe that women have a special internal organ, called tingu, present from birth, that slowly matures them naturally.
Although boys have the same organ at birth, they are constitutionally inferior in this regard: their tingu is weak and inactive and requires semen to grow (Herdt 1981: 167-72). The Sambia believe that masculinity is achieved only through ritual “insemination” which trigger the process, and through step by step guidance by elders thereafter, hence the importance of their male initiation rites”(Gilmore 1990 <1943>: 152).
By knowing this, the “fellatio ritual” has some logical sense in it, having a different cultural background can lead to different conceptions, and things that could look crazy to us seen through the eyes of someone that grew up in this particular context could be perfectly normal, but Gilmore’s text has a problem, it only shows us one side of the story, it’s doesn’t even take in consideration the fact that somebody belonging to the Sambia could not accept the ritual it doesn’t leave any room to agency of Sambia people, Gilmore text is written like if it contains an absolute truth, “this is how things are and that’s it”, even the fact of using the present tense doesn’t lead to think that thing could change Gilmore gives us a strongly structural functionalist description of the Sambia ritual that denies the dynamicity of social construction which has we’ve seen is something very dynamic and it’s subject to continuous changes and adaptations through time.
Death is something that every human being has to face,each one of us knows that sooner or later he’s going to die. Death is the greatest fear of men therefore every culture has come up with some way of dealing with it. Death is perhaps a main reason behind the birth of religions, and it’s the last taboo of modern societies that have largely abandoned religion. Since we’re living in a more resourceful situation it’s easy for us to avoid thinking about death in the everyday life, we see death as something that only happens in the movies or to people that we don’t know, this is the reason why when it come to touch us with the death of someone close to us we feel devastated, we are not able to accept it and we have a very hard time dealing with it. However there are places in the world where death is a constant presence, something that people face more often.
In a context of extreme poverty, war and violence death is seen as ordinary- one of these place is, or used to be, Brazilian favela Alto do Cruzeiro. Nancy Sheper Hughes (NSH from now on) had lived in Alto do Cruzeiro in the 1960s as a volunteer health worker and she returned in the 1980s as an anthropologist. She lived and worked with the women of the slum that often had to face the death of their babies due to the extreme situation they were living in “The food and water shortages and the political an economic chaos occasioned by the military coup were reflected in the handwritten entries of births and deaths in the dusty yellowed pages of the ledger books kept at the public registry office in Bom Jesus. More than 350 babies died in the Alto during 1965 alone” (Sheper Hughes 2012: 324).
What surprised NSH was the reaction of the mothers “What puzzled me was the seeming indifference of Alto women to the death of their infants, and their willingness to attribute to their own tiny offspring an aversion to life that made their death seem wholly natural, indeed all but anticipated” (Sheper Hughes 2012: 325) Alto’s women were dividing babies into two categories, the strong ones the fighters the one that wanted to live and the weak ones the one who were doomed to death and that were said to be chosen by God to becomes angels, the two categories were treated in 2 opposite ways “The survivors were nurtured while stigmatized, doomed infants were left to die, as mothers say, a “ningua”,of neglect. Mothers stepped back and allowed nature to take its course” (Sheper Hughes 2012: 325). NSH saw in this process a way for the mothers to protect themselves from the pain of the loss of a child which was in those days a very probable outcome considering the scarcity of resources and the lack of means of the situation they were living in. Due to the high possibility of losing their children the women of the Alto manifested what NSH calls delayed attachment.
In order to suffer less from the death of a son they tended to keep a certain emotional distance from their creatures “Another part is learning when it’s safe to let oneself love a child. Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of maternal thinking an practice. In the absence of firm expectation that a child will survive, mother love as we conceptualize it (whether in popular terms or in the psychobiological notion of a maternal bonding) is attenuated and delayed with consequences for infant survival” (Sheper Hughes 2012: 325/326). This is what shows us that agency is heavily involved in social constructions the Alto women deliberately chose not to let themselves loving their babies because they were afraid of losing them this led to a vicious circle, on one hand by “not aring” for them they actually increased the chances of their children death, but on the other hand by allowing themselves loving the baby they would have not been able to avoid the pain that the loss could have caused.
“The two girls urged me to console the young mother by telling her that it was “too bad” that her infant was so weak that Jesus had to take him. They were coaching me in proper Alto etiquette. I agreed, of course, but asked: “and what do you think? ” Xoxa the eleven year-old looked down at her dusty flips flops and blurted out: “oh dona Nanci, that baby never got enough to eat, but you must never say that! ” . Ando so the death of hungry babies remains one of the best kept secrets of life in Bom Jesus de Mata. (Sheper Hughes 2012: 326)
This “choice” had been also reinforced by the church, a church that finding itself in the difficult situation of the intermediary between the people and the authority could not openly say that the situation of the favelas was also fault of the government inefficiency and of the non-presence of some kind of welfare state, well actually they could have done it, but they made the easier choice for them and probably even for the mothers to tell that the babies were dying cause Jesus wanted them on his side “The church, too contributes to the routinization of, and indifference toward child death. Traditionally the local catholic church taught patience and resignation to domestic tragedies that were said to reveal to imponderable workings of God’s will. If an infant died suddenly it was because a particular saint had claimed the child” (Sheper Hughes 2012: 328.
What must be particularly appreciated in NSH text is the fact that she didn’t describe what she saw as something that could never change and therefore had to be accepted the way it was like her colleague Gilmore did, NSH wrote in a past tense and she’s also informed us on the end of her text that the situation got better for the people of Alto and that also the relationship between the mothers and their babies and the approach of the church toward the problem has radically changed demonstrating that social constructions are strongly connected to the context in which they form themselves and that, if the context changes and the conditions that the conditions that made possible a particular social construct are no longer the social construct changes in order to adapt to the new circumstances.
Language is the tool used by men to describe reality, is used by mothers to describe the world to their son and is through languages that different societies carry on their cultural heritage. Languages are probably the best example to show the dynamicity of the social construction, dictionaries of every language must be continuously updated, there are words disappearing and new words coming up as a society evolves, there are societies of experts of the languages that every year update their language (at least in Italy it’s like this and probably there’s something similar for every language).
Agency can be also be found very easily by analysing the social construction of language, seen that words have synonyms, and that these synonyms usually have a different emotional connotations it’s up to every person to decide what words to use and what precise connotation do they want to give to their words (of course ignorant people have less choice), for example, is up to me if I want to describe an African person as: African, coloured person, black or nigger, each one of this words can be used to describe the same thing, but have very different meanings by means of which we can tell someone’s feelings and ideas towards the object of his words (another example could be Gilmore’s choice to write his text in the present tense).
Being the language strongly connected to the social background in which originated itself there’s no wonder to see that different languages describes reality in different ways because different people in different places have different habits, and different needs on the language use, for example I read somewhere that the Touareg have a lots of names to describe different kind of camels that have different characteristics, this a perfect example on how the language adapts to the life of the people using it, for us a camel is just a camel for us we don’t need to differentiate them but for a population that has historically relied on camel for their survival the difference between them could be of crucial importance.
These differences between languages could lead to problems in the anthropological translation process, if its practically always possible to translate what people are talking about is an harder, if not impossible, task to translate the feeling they put on what they’re saying and put in a language that was originated by complete different social and cultural circumstances “The second problem which arises from the impossibility of matching the organization of everyday thought to the semantics of natural language relates to the anthropologists own account of their informants’ thought processes. Anthropologist write books, in which information its inevitably presented by means of language. , and so their medium makes them slip far too easily into representing the hypothesized thought processes of those they study as though inevitably assumed the organizational logic of the semantics of language.
Furthermore, the problem is not just one of medium: anthropologists naturally attempt to produce accounts of intellectual processes which will prove persuasive to their readers, and reader, along with the anthropologists’ informants, expect accounts of the thought of the people studied to match the folk theory of thought. ”.
I started this work by giving a general explanation of what a social construction his by using my own understanding and by make this stronger by using some quotations from Eriksen, I then moved on engaging the three concepts that had chosen to analyse and prove as social construction here as well I’ve wanted to put some of my ideas on these issues in addition on those expressed in the texts that I ‘ve used and quoted.
I want to end this work with a quotation from Luigi Pirandello taken from his novel “The train has whistled”: “Whoever sees the body of a monster, ignoring the body attached to it, might consider it in itself monstrous. But if one rejoins it to the monster, it will no longer seems monstrous but rather as it should be, belonging to that monster, a quite natural tail. ” I have read this novel a long time ago and I had forgotten about it, but this sentence came back on my mind while writing this paper, I think it describes perfectly the anthropological way with whom we should approach social constructions in order to fully understand their existence.