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The debate over constructionism and essentialism is a longstanding philosophical argument, from Plato and Aristotle to contemporary debates over deconstruction in literary theory. Broadly and simply, essentialism suggests that qualities are inherent in objects of study, with little reference to contexts, ambiguities, and relativities. It is a ”belief in the real, true essence of things” (Fuss 1989: xi). By contrast, constructionism (and its allied concept deconstruction, as put forward by Derrida) suggests qualities are always bound up with historically produced, contextually bound meanings or discourses. They are always open to change and never fixed. Many terms are allied antimonies such as absolutism and relativism, realism and interpretivism, and holism and methodological individualism. Other terms, such as humanism, can be used by either camp.
Essentialist theories of sexual identities suggest that an inner sense of self unfolds through biological or psychic processes, and the task is to uncover the ”true” meaning of who one is sexually. A classic reading of Freud would suggest that although one is born of ”polymorphous perversity” and potential bisexuality, that is channeled into a relatively stable and repressed sexual and gender identity through the resolution of the Oedipal complex. Through inner struggles with feelings towards the mother and father, children assemble a (largely unconscious) libidinal structure which helps to define then as male and female, homosexual and heterosexual.
Constructionist theories of sexual identities are concerned with locating oneself within a framework of sexual categorizations. Most commonly, identities are seen as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual. But there are many others, such as sadomasochistic, sex worker, pedophiliac, or person with AIDS (PWA). Such terms, once invented, can be seen to characterize a person. But many of these are new; they are historically produced. Thus, Ned Katz in The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995) suggests that the idea of the heterosexual was not invented until the late nineteenth century, and that indeed the identity of homosexual was invented prior to this. This was also a period of clear sexual polarization – identities of being sexual were divided into a clear binary system that did not exist before.
Several problems have been identified with this debate. The first suggests that the debate tends to erect a false dualism or binary tension, in which each term actually comes to depend on the other. Without essentialism, constructionism would not make sense. Secondly, it is suggested that the debate is frequently drawn too starkly and sharply and that there are in fact ”different degrees of social construction,” ranging from those who more modestly suggest historical and cultural variability of meanings to those who suggest ”there is no essential … sexual impulse” (Vance 1989). Thirdly, it has been suggested that ideas of constructionism when taken in their simplest form create ways of thinking that are almost commonplace. And finally, the political implications of the debates are unclear. Constructionists can be radical and conservative; and so can essentialists. Spivak (1984-5) suggests that strategic essentialism champions essentialism even if it is not fully believed in because it is needed in the fighting of conflicts, intellectual arguments, and political battles. It can be a useful shorthand.
- Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking. Routledge, London.
- Spivak, G. C. (1984-5) Criticism, feminism and the institution. Thesis Eleven 10-11: 175-87.
- Vance, C. S. (1989) Social construction theory: problems in the history of sexuality. In: Van Nierkerk, K. & Van Der Meer, T. (eds.), Homosexuality? Which Homosexuality? An Dekker, Amsterdam, pp. 13-34.