Professor Marshall

LESSON 2: Social Construction of Race, Class and Gender

The Social Construction of Race, Class and Gender

Note that this lesson will be best understood if you already have an understanding of sociological theory. If you're unsure of these basics, please review the following video:

Once you're comfortable with the basics of sociological theory you'll move forward in this lesson to learn about the following concepts in a sequence which flows from broadest to narrowest:

  1. Phenomenology
  2. Social constructionism
  3. Social constructions of race, class, and gender

Theory Tree


Now that you have an understanding of basic sociological theory, you can delve a bit deeper into sociological theory by learning about social construction theory (AKA social constructionism). To review, there are two basic levels of analysis in sociology: the macro level and the micro level. Social construction theory falls under the micro level, and also is part of a branch of sociology called phenomenology. Recall that all sociological theories address two key questions:

  1. How does society exist?
  2. How does society change?

Phenomenologists want to know the meanings of sociological beliefs, attitudes, feelings and experiences. They want us to question what we take for granted in society and to question our views of what is real. This theory rests on the notion that THINGS MAY NOT BE WHAT THEY APPEAR TO BE. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Phenomenology suggests that taken-for-granted socially constructed ideas allow us to exist.
  2. How do we change? This theory states that we change when we become skeptical and challenge what we think is proper and propose new "realities."

Remember that this is a MICRO theory, which means the focus is on the individual and how smaller group interactions change the structure of society.

There are also some basic historical concepts which lay the foundation for phenomenological theory that you need to know.

Historical Interpretations

Phenomenology is very closely tied to the field of philosophy, and philosophy gives us the main ideas and concepts of phenomenology:


Phenomenologists want to know how it is that we have similar perceptions to other people--how do we organize our thoughts and concepts about things so that what you think and what I think about things is similar? There are a couple of views about how this happens.

Schutz says that we all have a "common stock" of knowledge available to us. He thinks about this stockpile as "recipes" for behavior:

Recipe for Good Student Behavior

How is it that we know these "recipes?" Schutz says that we construct our own worlds by accepting categories which people and groups around us pass on to us. This is an easy concept to understand if we think about how children learn. When a toddler points to an item, someone usually says the name of the item and perhaps hands the item to the toddler (for example, a ball). The toddler internalizes that this item is a ball, and in future instances as the toddler grows, all items shaped similarly are balls, until the toddler is able to refine the concept of "ball" (a car wheel is not a ball, a soccer ball is a TYPE of ball). This is called TYPIFICATION, or the idea that the world is made up of TYPES of things.

Thinking about children and how they learn makes the concept of Schutz's recipes easy to understand. But what happens when we mature? The process remains the same, but it gets much more complex. So, now not only do we have a TYPOLOGY for things we can see, we also have one for things we can't see. For example, we might think a particular way about a group--we don't arrive at that thought independent of any sort of external input from society.

Giddens also draws on the work of Schutz and calls this same concept "mutual knowledge." He believes that we have large stores of mutual knowledge that we use to interpret facets of life. Further, he says that it is essential to have mutual knowledge in order for us to communicate in an understandable way. If you think about this idea, it makes a lot of sense. Everyday, we have conversations with others which ASSUME vast amounts of knowledge. If we had to explain ourselves at every turn, imagine how long and difficult just one small exchange might be. Routinization therefore is essential to everyday life because it minimizes anxiety that we might have if we didn't have a script going into events.

Mutual Knowledge

Giddens says that we must therefore rely on ROUTINIZATION, which he defines as using routine activities, to get through our days. When we follow these routines, small parts of the routine might be different, but we can process those bits and pieces as we follow our routines. As these routines get followed more and more, they become institutionalized. In short, routines allow us to maintain a sense of order about the social world, and therefore, we are willing to have exchanges with complete strangers. We take for granted how easy--and just how complex--exchanges with strangers are!

Garfinkel's work tackled one of Parsons' somewhat neglected concepts: the actor. What is it that makes a person motivated to act? Both theorists agreed that trust is the basis of human behavior, but Garfinkel was also interested in the factors which the processes by which people organize information. He called his method of investigation ETHNOMETHODOLOGY.

This type of sociology is opposite of Functional theories:

Functional versus Ethnomethodology


Ethnomethodology is the word that Garfinkel created to explain the method by which phenomenologists do their investigating. Garfinkel's Ethnomethodology can be defined as the ways in which people make sense of their world. Just as with Giddens, Garfinkel asserts that we do so many things without really having to think about them. Garfinkel wants us to think about these routinized events and activities--to uncover the taken-for-granted meanings of situations. He asks:

How is it that people present themselves in an "orderly" way to others?

How do you think of events and situations as orderly?

Ethnomethodologists do not seek to explain behavior. Rather, ethnomethodology is a form of explanation for how people make sense of everyday life. One of the ways we make sense is by ACCOUNTING:

Garfinkel goes on to further explain the interactions during a conversation with his "et cetera principle:"

How Ethnomethodologists Work

Some methods of inquiry which ethnomethodologists use are similar to those which other theorists and researchers use, while other methods are very clearly the domain of ethnomethodology.

There are many similarities in the ways in which ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists DO their work, but the foci of their research is quite different:

Symbolic Interaction versus Ethnomethodology

Social Constructionism

Berger, Luckmann and the Social Construction of Reality

Berger and Luckmann are interested in one primary question:

How does knowledge become reality? In other words, how does the "subjective" become "objective?"

Thus, they concentrate on one concept: creation of reality. When reality is created, they argue, two things are present:

  1. Objective fact (socially accepted and common order)
  2. Subjective meaning (something that is personally meaningful)

Both theorists say that the world is created by us, and is given meaning and order by us. Both objective and subjective realities must function in order for society to exist. Things must be meaningful to us, and also must "fit in" to society in an orderly way. So, how do Berger and Luckmann say we turn subjective meanings into objective facts? They argue that three things must happen:

Berger and Luckmann

Berger and Luckmann say that we view the world as an orderly place, and that this place is not a part of us--it exists outside of our minds (OBJECTIVATION). To make sense of (or accept) this external reality, we INTERNALIZE what we see as proper, and therefore we make it legitimate. Once this happens, we begin to create (and modify or recreate) society. Therefore, society is society exists in relationship to other humans and our interactions with them, which in turn creates society. Recall Marx's concept of the dialectic, and you can see similarities to Berger and Luckmann's explanation of how society is created and changed.

Phenomenology is a qualitative research field, which is problematic for many "old school" social science researchers. This field is however growing in popularity as new, fresh ideas and theories about society develop. The main point of phenomenology is:

THE INDIVIDUAL IS ACTIVE IN THE RESEARCH PROCESS--people are not passive, non-acting objects for researchers to observe--PEOPLE CHANGE SOCIETY.  

It is important to remember also that phenomenology is concerned with how we understand each other and how a concept gets from our own brains (how we define and see something) to how society views it similarly. It is concerned with HOW we construct meanings out of things--meanings which get shared among the members of society and which help us to go through our day in a way that doesn't upset us psychologically. To do so, this theory says we have to rely on scripts, or recipes for social life.

Socially Constructing Race, Class and Gender

It's easy for us to understand that resources are unequally distributed in our society. Furthermore, distribution of resources is not random, it is embedded in the structure of our society and we can note those patterns that develop over time regarding this distribution. One thing that we also easily grasp is that some people have more power than others. We often neglect to consider how race, class, and gender factor into these power relationships. Dominant groups in American society today are higher in our social order in myriad ways:

  • they have better jobs
  • they get better and more education
  • they have social connections and networks which can help them throughout their lives
  • they eat higher-quality foods
  • they live in better neighborhoods and drive better cars
  • they have more money
  • they have more wealth
  • they have more savings and the ability to save

These are just a few of the obvious way that the privileged have it easier than the nonprivileged in our society. Less obvious ways include the category of race, class, and gender.

Sociologists who study race see it into different ways: as an objective condition and as an ideological concept. It is this second way that we are most interested in with regard to social construction theory. Supporters of the second view explain the concept of race as something that arose to meet the ideological needs a powerful people. Historically in the United States this meant that the powerful (generally speaking, rich, white males of high social standing) were able to reconcile concepts such as "freedom" and slavery, thus socially constructing a society in which the powerful could manipulate understandings and concepts of race in order to meet their labor needs. For slaveowners, this created an important distinction which allowed them to think of those who were not like them (nonwhites) as "less than." This way of thinking also allowed for powerful white to see non-whites as deserving of a fate which was socioeconomically at the bottom of the social ladder.

Likewise, sociologists who studied gender also see it as an objective condition and an ideological concept. These sociologists are also more concerned with the ideological concept of gender as it relates to social construction theory. Just as nonwhites have been exploited in the United States, so have women as compared to powerful white men. When the framers of our Constitution claimed that "all men are created equal," it's debatable that they intended for the phrase to encompass all members of our society. Women in American society are still not on equal footing as compared to men, and on several occasions women have had to (just as nonwhite Americans had to) take to the streets in protest in order to try to gain some level of equal footing.

Class issues can also be viewed ideologically. Those who are wealthy and who have powerful political control often maintain that poor people in our society are simply not in control of their lives. Somehow, if poor people would just work harder, they could climb the social ladder and make something of themselves. Of course, this is a broad generalization as not all powerful, wealthy people view the poor in this light. Nonetheless there is some level of thinking about the poor in our society as somehow deserving of their own situation and the fate of their families.

Each of these views of race, class, and gender have been socially constructed. Further, they have been socially constructed by powerful interests it will work to maintain their control and their power over others. It works to the advantage of the powerful to construct views of groups who are not like them and to convince all of us that these views are valid and relevant. These types of ideologies have been used time and time again throughout history to justify colonization, slavery, sexism, indentured labor, Nazism, conquest, sexism, violence against women, and the list goes on. When we view groups that are not like us as less than it allows us to justify treating them in ways that we would not treat our own.

Today, our media and our government present images of a healthy American society which is egalitarian, which has moved past racial discrimination and class exploitation. However if we examine reliable and credible data we can certainly see that this is not the case. Issues related to race, class, and gender continue to directly relate to access to resources and opportunities in our society. Many groups in our history have been stigmatized due to race, class, and gender:

  • Working-class people are looked down upon because of the neighborhoods in which they live and because they don't have enough money to purchase the most common household items.
  • Even today, women are considered "the weaker sex." Many in our society today still see women as subordinate to men.
  • Racial issues have long plagued American society, and stereotypes about nonwhite groups continue to concern us.


There has been some contemporary research regarding how we see the categories of race, class, and gender in our society. Most of us find it somewhat easy to grasp that race is a socially constructed category. We understand race in terms of the history of slavery we have in the United States and we also have learned in our basic biology classes that there are, in effect, no substantial biological differences among racially categorized groups of people. It's also somewhat easy for us to understand race is a socially constructed category if we think about filling out various applications (for example, applications for school, employment, drivers' licenses, and so forth). In the past, we had just a few categories for race: White, Black, and other. Today however most applications and forms have several categories and many forms allow for individuals to fill in what they prefer with regard to how they view their own racial or ethnic composition. Thus we can see how our understandings of race have changed over time and this helps to solidify her understanding of race as a social construction.

We also seem to have little difficulty in understanding class as a socially constructed category. It's obvious when discussing class that it has been determined what the basic characteristics of our social classes are. Of course sociologists are constantly studying issues related to class and redefining and reconceptualizing what it means; however, it is not difficult for us to grasp that we created class categories.

It's more difficult for us to understand gender as a socially constructed category. Somehow, we seem to think that we are born with a predetermined gender is and how to "do gender" in an acceptable way. Really, what we are probably thinking is about "sex." I will discuss more about the differences between sex and gender later.

We are assigned a gender at birth (today, even before birth as the fetus is identified as either male or female in the womb and along with identification comes a whole host of expected behaviors based on gender identity). Most of us also assume that gender is binary, meaning that there are two gender categories – male or female – and that all humans neatly fit into one of these categories. Our ideas about the gender binary are reinforced through our lives. When we fill out forms for school for employment, when we enter the military, when we get a drivers license, or when we apply for marriage license we are asked to pick only one gender category. Further, we are only allowed two choices – male or female. We must however consider that gender (as well as sex) exists on a continuum. Although it is difficult to estimate there is a reasonably high rate of intersex births (estimates range from 1 in 500 to 1 in 2000). Seeing gender as socially constructed can help us to understand why we need to move away from binary definitions of gender. There are cultures around the world which have more than two gender categories, and this helps us to more clearly understand gender as complex and fluid.

Throughout this class you'll need to consider gender (as well as sex and sexuality) on a continuum. Challenging your own ideas about what gender is will allow you to exercise your sociological imagination.

It is only through an awareness of how race, class, and gender affect our standing in society that we can hope to understand ourselves. Each of us has a race, a class, and a gender which help to determine where we fit within the larger social structure. Note that as we move toward the study of sexuality from a sociological point of view it will be important for you to think about these intersections of race, class, and gender as they apply to our understanding of what it means to be "normal" sexual beings.