One of my favorite ideas from the world of political science is the Social Construction Framework. In the framework, social constructions, that is ideas and concepts that people hold about groups of people, end up determining what types of policies can be adopted. The ways we think about people shapes the ways we treat people. We think of veterans as having made a great sacrifice for the nation, and as a result, we adopt policies that benefit veterans. We see people who commit crimes as having wronged society and consequently we develop policies that punish criminals.
Elliot Liebow reflected ideas from Social Construction Framework in his book Tell Them Who I Am when writing about the ways that homeless women saw and understood themselves. He wrote, “the women recognized only two classes: a working class and a dependent class, with each group claiming to be the deserving poor.” In this example there are two groups that share commonalities, but are differentiated by their work status. The social constructions around each group, the ways we (and they) think about the groups, was in flux, with each group trying to adopt a more favorable view than the other group. Adopting a more favorable construction would hopefully lead to more favorable policies in the long run.
First, the working poor wanted to be seen as the deserving poor because they were making an effort to participate in society, to contribute to the system, and to show that they were hard working and not lazy. They deserved aid because they recognized an unspoken expectation in the United States, we won’t help you unless you make an effort to work. Deservingness, according to this group, was determined based on how hard someone tried to make it on their own.
The second group was those who were not working, but still saw themselves as deserving. The group which was not working included women who had disabilities and could not work, women who faced discrimination and couldn’t work even if they wanted to, and women who had fallen on hard times and didn’t know where to go to get back on track. They were truly deserving because they had no other alternatives, no resources beyond what welfare and shelters could provide, and no hope of getting out of their current situation. They saw themselves as more deserving because they had no way to make money. Those who were working, on the other hand, should be able to get by without continuing to take handouts. In the view of the second group they were truly destitute and in need of aid whereas those who were working didn’t need the aid and assistance as much.
What Liebow’s quote demonstrates is the constantly changing nature of social constructions within the Social Construction Framework. How a group is seen, the framing used to describe the group, and the outcomes of those perceptions and perspectives is always in flux. Groups compete for favorable positions, all in an attempt to improve political and social outcomes. Subjective opinions and feelings often matter more than cold hard facts within a world dominated by the Social Construction Framework. The distinctions can be razor thin between one deserving group and another deviant group, meaning that even slight shifts in perspective can be the difference between how someone from one group is treated.