Have you heard people say “biology is a social construct” or “time is a social construct” and not known what they were talking about, or thought these claims sounded obviously false? I’ll explain what’s going on, what claim is being made.

Basics of social constructs

The textbook definition of a social construct is something that only exists in the context of a specific society, and could be different or not exist at all in a different society.

Some clear examples of social constructs are money and holidays. Money has value because of the combined beliefs, expectations, and agreements that people in a given society have about money. It only exists in that context. Holidays are the same: They exist because people believe they exist, and act collectively in accordance with that belief.

A different situation

In contrast to these clear examples of social constructs, people also sometimes say things like “biology is a social construct” or “time is a social construct.” What do they mean by these claims? Are they claiming that in a different society, biology or time could be completely different, or not exist at all? That makes no sense.

When we talk about biology, or time, or any big abstract topic, there’s two things we are simultaneously talking about: the underlying reality, and our understanding of that reality. The territory, and the map of the territory.

A biology textbook is talking about the underlying reality of biology, and it embodies a piece of our understanding of that reality. A clock tracks the underlying reality of time, and it is a tool by which we understand that reality.

When people say that a big abstract topic like biology or time is a social construct, they’re mostly talking about our understanding of that topic.

For example, our classifications of normal and abnormal biological functioning are societally constructed. A different society could classify things differently, or not care about the distinction at all. Our understanding of biology contains many examples like this.

When it comes to time, how we use time and the expectations we have around time are very socially constructed. Our society has a strong daily cycle and a strong weekly cycle when it comes to how we interact with time. We schedule meetings and appointments and work 9-5 jobs and structure our lives accordingly. All of these patterns are socially constructed.

In addition to our understanding of these topics being socially constructed, some elements of reality are controllable, and so our understanding of these topics will affect the reality itself. Based on our understanding of biology, we might change our diets, take some medicine, of otherwise affect our biological state. As a result, one’s personal biological state is societally influenced. I prefer the term “influenced” to “constructed” to connote this weaker degree of interaction. Rather than only existing at all due to societal beliefs, like money, one’s personal biological state is just affected by societal beliefs, just influenced.

When people say that a big abstract topic is socially constructed, they’re usually claiming that our understanding of the topic is societally constructed, and often also that our understanding influences the underlying reality.


Now, hopefully, it’s more clear what people mean when they say things like “biology is a social construct” or “time is a social construct”.

Personally, I’d prefer to make things more explicit and say “Our understanding of biology is socially constructed” or “Our personal biological states are socially influenced” or something similar. I find the specificity really helps, especially when using jargon like “social construct”. But now you’ll know what’s meant, either way.