How Diversity Is Socially Constructed: Psychological Theories & Examples

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Diversity is a complex and important phenomenon that can be understood in a variety of different ways. This lesson discusses a psychological approach to understanding the social construction of diversity.

What is Diversity

Maddy is an Asian, heterosexual woman who was adopted in infancy by two white women. Maddy and her moms joke sometimes about the tremendous amount of diversity, or human difference, within their small family.

At the same time, they know that diversity is not really a laughing matter. It becomes fraught on both a political and a psychological level.

Maddy and her moms sometimes talk about the fact that diversity is socially constructed. In other words, the categories of social identity that mark human differences are not really absolute or essential. Instead, they are constructed by humans in historical and culturally mediated ways.

Maddy starts to think about why people are invested in difference and what the social construction of diversity means for people's lives.

Constructing and Maintaining Social Differences

For a long time, Maddy has heard phrases like 'race is a social construct' or 'gender is socially constructed', but she is not totally sure what this means. As she reflects on it, she looks at the category of race as an example.

Maddy knows that she and most of her peers would be hard-pressed to define exactly what race is. When someone asks Maddy to identify herself racially, she usually says that she is Asian, but she knows this is more of an ethnic definition, related to the heritage of her blood and body, than anything else.

When she was a young child, Maddy thought that race referred to skin color, and this, too, was confusing to her. After all, she and many other people who identify as Asian have very different hues in their skin! Maddy has always known her moms to identify as white or Caucasian, but their skin is not the same color as each other, either.

As she grew older, Maddy started to learn that race had a lot to do with history. For instance, many of her African-American friends identify themselves racially based on the history of violence, slavery and oppression of African-Americans.

Overall, Maddy can see that there is no one right way of defining race, and the fact that it is a social construct means that people construct, or mentally build, their own definitions and identities of race.

People also maintain this social category, however, for a wide variety of reasons. For example, Maddy likes to identify herself as Asian because it helps her form solidarity and community with others who are perceived similarly in society, who look by her, and who might share heritage.

At the same time, Maddy thinks that sometimes the maintenance of social differences has detrimental effects, like perpetuating discrimination or in-group biases.

Individuals as Perceivers, Individuals as Actors

When it comes to socially constructing diversity, individuals play an important role. Maddy knows that her perceptions, or how she sees things, contribute to the social construction of diversity.

This can be hard to move away from, for even in very early childhood, people are taught to notice and categorize based on differences. Maddy remembers looking out at her preschool classroom and deciding who was a boy and who was a girl. When she reflects on this, she thinks she mostly went by hair length and what color kids were wearing.

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