This week’s topic is the social layer of the reality. I like to think that there are different “layers” in the reality we perceive. For instance, there’s the physical reality that exists out there regardless of us humans, there will be atoms, molecules and so on. Another layer is what our perception adds to the physical: we perceive colors, we hear music and so on, although all this is just light or sound waves in the physical layer. The reason why I’m writing about the social layer is because understanding its existence and how it works really changed fundamentally the way I see the world.😊 This discovery also convinced me to study more social psychology which has been a journey of growing as a person. I strongly recommend it!👍
To open up my idea of different layers, let me give an example: Color red. First of all, colors don’t exist in the physical world, different physical objects only reflect light differently and these differences are interpreted by our eyes 👁 and brains as colors. So the concept of red only starts to exist once we hit the layer of perception of the reality. Then again, red can have different cultural meanings. It might be linked to love 💗, Christmas 🎅🏻 or stopping 🚦 in case that we see it in traffic lights – these all depend on the culture and conventions. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a culture in which the light making cars stop would be a blue one. I.e. what red means to us is already part of the social layer of the reality. Hopefully this example illustrates well the point I’m making.
There is a multitude of theories about the socially constructed reality, but today I’m only going to introduce you to Foucault’s and Butler’s views of making sense of it. What I like about these views is that Foucault really wakes you up to try to see things differently while Butler’s theory brings hope of change by highlighting how dynamic our social selves are instead of them being static and unchangeable. 😃
Now first of all, I am not going to explain everything Foucault stands for, nope. This section will mostly be about how insanity was understood in different times.
According to his studies, Foucault found that firstly, in the Middle Ages or so, insane people were seen as less fortunate individuals who are on the earth to warn people about the dangers of doing sin. Later on, the insane were seen as problematic individuals without any hope of cure and thus they need to be isolated from the society into asylums. Then they were seen as people who are in need of help 🤕.
As you can see, the whole way insanity has been understood in different times has changed a lot over the centuries. To understand why that is, we have to talk about discourse. Discourse is a tool for us to negotiate and establish a common reality, it's all about institutionalized knowledge. What kind of people are the insane? And how can we speak about them? Foucault uses the concept of practice to describe the laws of discourse that make certain kinds of discourses possible or not possible. In other words, these practices, in a way, limit how we can think.
I'd like to give you a task. Think about a social phenomenon from the point of view of the discourse. Try to ask yourself how, for instance, the media constructs this phenomenon and what could be some of the discourses that aren't simply possible in the current media, and if they appear there, they aren't perceived as knowledge. Playing with such a thought really helps you to understand better what's going on in the world and it might even protect you from propaganda. 😉
Foucault also studied how subjectification and objectification are done. How do we create ourselves as intentional subjects in the discourse? For example sentences "I ate an apple" and "I was given an apple to eat" put the subject I in quite a different position. 🍎
The core question you can ask about the construction of your social identity is what you can become in this discourse. What are the limits of your social self given the practices governing the discourses you are part of? In the following section, we are going to see another way of presenting this kind of a question.
Butler is best known for her studies of gender. She emphasizes that gender is not some sort of a feature, a characteristic, we just happen to have, but it's an action.
How can gender be an action? 🤔 You might ask. Well, we are not defined as much by what we are as by what we do. By acting in a way stereotypical to our gender or by deviating from it, we are actually creating our gender identity. You are probably aware of the stereotypical assumption that men don't cry. Now see, crying is an action, and by obeying or disobeying this cultural rule, the male gender is made through the action. And these actions either change the stereotype or enforce the existing one. 🤓
The idea of actions defining us is not only limited to gender, but it can be applied to all social groups. You create your social group identity through your actions. I think that this idea is neat since it liberates us from behaving in a way people of our social groups should behave.😃 Men can cry and women can hunt, for instance.
The question here is really what you can become for another person through your actions. This is clearly a different way of seeing our social identities from that of Foucault. You are the one in control here – your actions define your identity. Is there anything more empowering than that? 😀
We looked at two different ways of understanding the social, but don't worry, there are many more ways for me to uncover in the future posts. 🤗
Foucault paints a picture of a world governed by institutionalized rules of discourse that limit how we can think, while Butler puts us in a more active role in constructing our common social reality. These ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive by any means, but they offer interesting ways of making sense of the social. ☺️
I mentioned the importance of understanding the social layer of the reality in the beginning of the post. I want to emphasize the difference between knowing about these things and understanding them. Everyone knows that things work differently in different parts of the world 🌍 , but only a few understand why that is from the point of view of the socially constructed reality.