The idea of “social construction” is really hip in the social sciences and the humanities, or at least it was really hip a decade or two ago. Generally the concept gets invoked with another idea, namely “essentialism.” Here is how the game works. We take some quality – say race – and then we argue about its nature. If we are essentialists (and it is pretty unhip to be essentialist about anything), then we would argue that race is somehow an inherent, natural, biological quality. If we are social constructivists (and being the hip, smart people that we are, we are, of course, social constructionists), then we argue that there is nothing inherent about race. All of the characteristics we associate with this concept are actually social creations that are not contingent on nature, essence, or anything else. The distinction gets deployed in normative discussions as well. That which is essential supposedly provides us with a sure foundation for ethical judgments. On the other hand, that which is merely socially constructed is open to revision and reconstruction according to . . . something (socially constructed or otherwise). This particular duo of concepts pops up in discussions Mormon from time to time, and I am skeptical that it is as useful as we hip thinkers think that it is. Indeed, Mormonism may be even hipper than we have thought.
The social construction/essentialism paradigm has produced the most heat (light is another matter) in discussions of gender. When the Proclamation on the Family declares that gender is an essential and eternal characteristic we are supposed to get very upset. The reason is that gender is taken as the paradigmatically socially constructed characteristic. Indeed, those who haunt the halls of women’s studies have even created a specialized vocabulary around the distinction. Gender refers to that which is socially constructed – think everything from nurturing motherhood to the missionary position – while sex refers strictly to biology, which is taken as essential (subject to the obligatory kibbitzing about hermaphadites). Hence, the Proclamation, by associating things like nurturing and traditional gender roles with eternity has committed the heresy of essentialism. What are we to do?
Thus far, I have seen basically two responses by Mormon intellectuals. First, there are embarassed mea culpas by some, who reluctantly admit that, yes, the Proclamation is a horribly reactionary document containing an indefensible claim of gender essentialism. Efforts at “damage control” generally consist of demoting the Proclamation from “important prophetic doctrinal announcement” to “politically motivated press release.” Second, there are those Mormons who pound their fists on the table and insist that some things really are essential and immutable, dang it!
The caricatures above are set up so that I can propose a third way (you knew they were, didn’t you?): the Mormon deconstruction of the essentialism/socially constructed dichotomy. Traditionally, God is the ultimate in non-socially constructedness. Divinity and eternity are the great realm of essence, where things exist not as a matter of convention but rather in their true form as what they really are. The concept, of course, is Platonic, and you can find the original statement in The Republic, where Plato has Socrates describe the realm of the forms.
Despite any Mormon attempts at ecumenicalism, we ultimately reject this model of divinity. According to one strand of Mormonism, we reject it in a way that radically undermines the essentialism/socially constructed categories. It all comes down to how you interpret D&C 93:29, which states, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” Some of our theologians, including Brigham Young and B.H. Roberts, have taken this to mean that discrete, individual agents are co-eternal with God. Put another way, society is eternal and God himself is inescapably socially situated. Now this is a fun concept to take for a joy ride. Perhaps it is social construction all the way down. Divinity itself may not be an essential category. Indeed, one way of understanding the doctrine of sealings is that we are personally and concretely involved in the social construction of God. At the very least, it means that the identification of eternity with essence and God-talk with essentialism becomes problematic.
Now I have to confess that I don’t really have any idea of what I am to make of arguments about gender in this context. It seems that we are in uncharted and perhaps even unimagined country here. That, of course, is what makes it so fun. It does mean, however, that Mormonism is going to problematize the neat categories of contemporary academic feminism. We are going to have to put down Aristotle and Simone de Beavoir long enough to make room for the Brigham and B.H. Roberts in our discussions.