Let’s Unpack That is a series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities and travel privileges to understand how they impact our travel experiences. We’ll be covering everything from race and ethnicity, to passport privilege and voluntourism. Each post will focus on a topic, concept, or phrase in order to dig deeper and reflect on our travel privilege(s). Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscious travelers.
This time, we’ll be breaking down the phrase “social constructs.” By definition, social constructs are understandings and ideas created by society that affect how we perceive the world and therefore become shared assumptions about our reality. Social constructs are everywhere and you can’t escape them (literally nor figuratively). However, you can recognize, reflect, and analyze their impact on you and the world around you.
You may or may not be familiar with the term “social constructs,” however we use and participate in them every day. Social constructs influence our daily interactions with each other, our belief systems, and show up in every social identity we hold as social identities are also social constructs. While they may seem abstract or ambiguous, they’re not. The best way to explain social constructs in our world is through examples. Let’s delve deeper into some popular and widely-used social constructs.
It’s time to unpack that y’all!
Table of Contents
Money is a popular social construct and travel privilege
In order to pursue many travel experiences money is necessary, but did you know that it’s also a construct? Think about it. Who told you that a five dollar bill was indeed five dollars? How do you know that? Money gets its value and importance based on the human interaction we place upon it, in addition to other factors such as economics and politics. Money being a social construct also links to other travel privileges including currency privilege, which we will cover later in the series.
Countries and their borders: constructed by who?
As travelers we go from place to place, country hopping, and country counting in some cases. Have you ever thought about who named the places we visit and how those names came to be? We agree on what these destinations are called because other people “agreed” on naming them as such. However, social constructs can be changed and this is especially true for country names. Many of the country names we refer to are often due to colonialism. For example, in the U.S., we are on Indigenous land and while many Indigenous people were murdered and displaced, the names remain. This is why knowing about the history of your destinations is important to understanding how a country functions today.
Social media influencers are architects of social constructs
Social media is the source of all kinds of information nowadays and where to travel is a must-asked question. Instagram is the destination to find out which places are cool to visit and see as you explore. Instagram travel influencers have immense travel privilege. They play a huge role in socially constructing how you envision a destination and what you want to do. With tools such as filters and presets, the line of what’s real vs. what’s not often gets blurred for success on the ‘gram. With social media, we have to think if images online depict reality. The hard part is that sometimes, in order to find out, you have to go, experience, and see for yourself. Or you can just live in the fantasy depiction of a destination. Your choice.
Social construct deconstructed: Gates of Heaven in Bali
Piggy backing off the previous point, travel influencers and bloggers were responsible for the popular rise of the Gates of Heaven in Bali. It became an insta-worthy, must-see site in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. The popularity was largely due to the mirrored image that made it seem like there was water surrounding the gates. A viral tweet revealed that the image is not water at all. In fact, the image was just a mirror underneath a phone that gave the illusion of water. Remember, everything is not always as it seems on social media.
In the end…
Almost everything is socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have real life consequences. We should ever stop reflecting or asking questions about their short-term and long-term impacts. As a Black woman, race is a social construct and racism is the real-life impact. Many aspects of our lives are defined for us without our knowledge or consent, and due to our socialization, we’re conditioned to believe them to be true.
Yet, it’s important to realize that the social constructs and travel privileges that may be true in our lives are not true for everyone. Yes, money and countries are seemingly universal constructs, but others are rooted in cultural practices and traditions that can vary. As you process, consider what are social constructs within your own social identities. Then, consider what may be different for people with the same identities in the places you’ve traveled.
This is like homework, but better!
Get connected with resources and travel perspectives that unpack social constructs and social identities (the first post in this series, which you can find here).
– How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch: Dr. Kiona curates a platform full of educational travel information to encourage her readers to travel more mindfully. Her “Perspectives” section in particular breaks down a variety of social identities such as traveling while Asian, traveling while queer, traveling while Muslim, and more. Get into her content and learn about how other identities interact with the world! You will also get the breadth and depth of travel privileges.
– Code Switch: A podcast by NPR and hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Maraji, Code Switch delves into one of the most dynamic social constructs: race. All of your burning questions and curiosities are discussed with special guests and experts. They also break down historical and political moments that shaped the social construction of race and therefore racism in the United States. Race vs. ethnicity will be covered soon in this series, so this will help you get ready!
That’s all for this post on social constructs in travel! Check out the video version of this topic below and tune in on IGTV @thesojournies for more episodes (that normally comes before the blog post if you’re needing more). Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below!