Constructing Socio-Cultural Context

In another post that I’m drafting, I claim that “individuals and societies together construct socio-cultural context”. Reading that got me thinking, and I want to explore that statement in more depth. So, what do I mean by “constructing socio-cultural context”?

Well, probably in large part due to assumptions fed to me by my educators (parents, teachers, documentaries, books), I take the view that societies and cultures (interrelated but still distinct concepts), along with their component parts (such as languages, narratives, medical and scholarly practices, laws, and so forth), are constructed. So, according to this framework for looking at life, individuals are also constructed (at least, to an extent). I’m constructed. In my opinion, my belief systems are a product of the society and culture I’ve grown up in. They’re also the products of other things:  my family and peer environment, during both my developmental years and my adult years; other experiences I’ve had as an individual that, arguably, don’t derive directly from socio-cultural context; genetics; and personality. (But isn’t personality socio-culturally constructed, you ask? Yeah, probably, to some degree. But while I’m not spiritual, it seems to me that everybody has an innate kernel of personality. For many people, it seems to be in conflict with strong socio-cultural forces in their life, whether that’s family, demographics, or something else, so – unusually, for me – I’m not convinced it comes from socio-cultural context. And I have a very difficult time convincing myself its roots lie in genetics, although I don’t even have anecdotal evidence for that. People who are markedly different from their relatives, I guess? So this spark that, in my little hypothesis here, is integral to each individual – a soul, perhaps? A spirit? Brouhouahoua, cough cough, much too metaphysical for me, back to dry theory.)

Now, “construct” is another loaded term (I talk about loaded words and connotation a lot in the upcoming post). And within my field, it can have quite negative connotations – it can indicate something false, manipulative, even conspiratorial. It can also have more positive connotations of something carefully shaped through dialogue and general consensus. As a rhetorician, I often like double-edged words like this, because so many concepts have different, sometimes contradictory facets. Double-edged words can be very useful for exploring these concepts’ big personalities.

So, back to socio-cultural context: Using the word “constructed” makes me uncomfortable, because it puts me in mind of authoritarianism, Big Brother societies, imbalances of power, and non-democratic trends generally, whether overt or covert, and whether rooted in the state, in religious authorities, in the military, or in business power-houses (perhaps it’s not so surprising these institutions are often mixed together).

But “constructed” can also mean democratic, diplomatic, organic, and dynamic; as with so many things, I think it’s mostly how you go about it. As human beings we (sometimes) network, bounce around ideas and prototypes, do maintenance and tweak the system, and occasionally scrap things altogether and start fresh.

I think “constructing socio-cultural context” can be either one of these things – an abuse of power, or an exercise of empowerment. In my typical fence-sitter way, I think societies and cultures embody both (abuse and empowerment), often in different proportions during different historical periods. I think of it as being like a yin yang, or the constantly shifting image you would get if you put a yin yang underwater and then prodded the surface of the water. As I always say, things tend to fall somewhere along a continuum, and most of the time they’re not quite at the endpoints. And they can move to different places at different times.

And how exactly do we construct socio-cultural context? Well, as a rhetorician, I tend to see things through the analytical lens of communication acts. So my answer would be that we construct socio-cultural context both through codified means and through uncodified means:  our daily conversations, architecture, fashion, folklore, popular culture, academic discourses, social infrastructure and institutions, identity politics (the normative labels we place on people – or refrain from placing – based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, class, and other demographic groupings). Anything we create embodies our assumptions, our biases, our receptivity, and our tolerance. Well, ok, maybe the shape, dimensions, and materials of a saucepan don’t say quite as much about our views of life, the universe, and everything as a newspaper article does. But the saucepan can still give a small hint.