On social construction and expectations…

IMG_1584One of the topic areas I teach that creates the most comment and controversy is the area of ‘social construction.’ The idea here is that things we expect to be ‘natural’ or ‘innate’ are actually learnt behaviours.


There are various areas where many struggle to come to grips with this concept – but two areas in particular are ‘race’ and ‘gender’. That is, women and men are assigned certain roles in our society: these are not innate, but are a result of the way our society is structured. Traditionally, men have been assigned ‘decision-making’ roles and women have been carers – and we expect them to act in this way.


Likewise, we can see how certain groups based on skin colour have assigned expectations. As I tell my students in class, if we imagine a bunch of guys in a pub carrying on and they are caucasian (or white), we think ‘dickheads’. But what happens if they are Lebanese or Indigenous or another group? Do we still think dickheads or do we relate their behaviour to their skin colour? The lesson from that class is simple: dickheads are dickheads no matter the colour of their skin. But people are not dickheads because of the colour of their skin.


I recently wrote an article for New Matilda on expectations towards women in our society and how this gives rise to misogyny. Though the tone of the article is a little light hearted, the topic area is not. Key here is the emergence of expectations of women often accused of being at fault when they are the victims of violence. As I note in the article:

In Australia, a 2011 study on sexual violence conviction rates found that low rates can be attributed to, at least in part, to attitudes towards women. As the authors conclude, “misconceptions regarding the culpability of victims of sexual assault are still common”. In other words, male violence against women is justified by what a woman decides to wear or how much she decides to drink. This is echoed in a recent Canadian survey that found that one in five Canadians think that women encourage abuse by drinking.

Women have as much right to enjoy time out as men: but is seems they are judged harshly for their behaviours in a way men never are.


Just after it was published, I read an article about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson. Essentially Davidson deconstructs the death of Trayvon Martin and argues he was shot for being a young black man. The defence of the man who shot Trayvon argued that Trayvon should have acted differently: rather than respond to the confrontation and walking menacingly, he should have run away. As Davidson points out, a young black man running through the streets at night would probably have created just as many problems for Trayvon.


The two articles overlap because they focus on expectations: how we expect certain people to behave. Despite it being 2013, we still expect women to avoid violence by either staying at home, not wearing certain clothes or not drinking. As Davidson says, we expect young black men to avoid being in trouble by staying at home or not walking menacingly (whatever that means).


The problem however, is not with the victim – it is with those who perpetrate the violence.


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