Monday, 18 January 2016

Are Our Differences Inventions?

by Alfred Perry-Ward

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist who has wrote copious amounts of material on an array of concepts. He often focused on the structural makeup of systems, be it social, political or economical. Significantly he deduced, across all social constructions, that “we exist in relation to our social ties.” This concept suggests that we as human beings can only live in accordance with the reality in which we enter and the people that we surround ourselves with. It's interesting observing social groups through the eyes of this theory; take the social structure of our school for example; is it not fair to say that people are drawn to those who are similar to them? It's a simple (and some would say obvious) idea because why would you not be drawn to people with similar ambitions, thoughts, personalities and opinions. In all honesty, it's never a bad thing to exist in a social construct. Many people find purpose and comfort being part of a bigger, cohesive group or structure and it’s a fairly natural thing if you look back at the overall history of human organisation. What many sociologists take issue with is the idea of letting a social construct render one’s everyday existence. The book “The social construct of reality” by Berger and Luckman explains, in simple terms, that when people exist in different social groups they habituate certain thoughts and concepts that, over time, develop into genuine, mutual ideologies. These ideologies and ideas can be manipulated very easily to become manifestations of hatred and prejudice just as much as manifestations of love and kindness. For example, concepts of racism, sexism and classism had to have a beginning and be manipulated and sustained by certain people if they have been so prevalent throughout human history and (one could argue) are even worse today. As these ideas develop, they often spread and become embedded in the normality of our understanding of the world. For example, why is it that we have come to accept that when a woman “sleeps around” she is degraded and insulted whereas if a man does the same thing he is championed for it. Are they not doing exactly the same thing, the only difference being that one is female and one is male? This is the idea behind all reality being a construct and that our differences are, to an extent, invented by us.

If we study children and the way they interact with one another in their social structures, anyone will notice that this concept of “groups” is far less coherent than it is with teenagers and adults. This is because our differences are not made aware to us until we progress through the education and maturation systems. If you trace back your own childhood it is difficult to say when you became aware that you were different to other people, be it physical or aesthetic differences. When people are made aware of their own differences it leads them to notice other people's differences. For some reason, we are encouraged to marginalise and mock people for their differences, which is quite a brutal and confusing period for victims of bullying. Shane Ryan, the chief executive of ‘Working with men’ (which is a charity that combats issues around masculinity), said in a forum that his first “memory of being black” was the day he found out racism existed, the day when he was attacked by 3 white men on the way to school. As unusual as it sounds asking people “when did you actually realise your were a girl” or “when were you made aware that you were Indian?” people often struggle for answers. However, those who have an answer usually recount an experience when they were on the receiving end of prejudice or being told that they couldn’t do something because they do not conform with requirements.

The question, therefore, is why were social constructions like race and gender, to an extent, invented and why we perpetuate a culture in which difference is so heavily persecuted. There is a quote from the poet Anthony Anaxagoru that goes “we are made of all the things that broke us” suggesting this idea of an agenda being pushed down on us from an elite that strive to maintain the conditions in which hatred grows. This means that the people will stay in the places that the establishment want the to be. In many cases, people who exercise hatred and prejudice are simply byproducts of the ignorance that is prevalent in the reality that they exist in. You can not fully understand someone until you examine the structures in which they developed. One huge benefit to knowing that racism and sexism were invented as social constructs is that they can be dismantled, a task which all young people could strive to contribute to.

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