Lately I've been reading about "social construction"—what do people really mean when they say race or gender or anything else is socially constructed? Talking about categories being socially constructed often seems to me to be a very misleading shorthand for a bunch of other things. What we often really want to say is that there is a certain phenomenon out in the world, but people think about it—divide it up—in different ways. So, for example, there is the phenomenon of aging—it's surely a real part of biological organisms. But it can be represented in different ways. So one cultural group sees a 16-year-old as a child, while another sees a 16-year-old as an adult. One cultural group thinks you're old by the age of 50, but another thinks you're just "middle aged."
Someone might say "age is socially constructed" to express all of that. And I do think people use the phrase that way. But recognizing this sort of constructing isn't as liberatory as social constructionism is supposed to be. If age is socially constructed in this modest sense, it's not as if age would stop existing, if we didn't think about it. It's also not as if we could replace current age distinctions with just any distinctions. Like a block of wood can be cut in multiple ways but not in all ways, aging has a certain amount of inherent structure. You can't think of a five-year-old as an adult, though you may or may not think of a 16-year-old as an adult. So if age is socially constructed in this modest sense, our current categories are not inevitable, but age as a general phenomenon is inevitable, and all alternative ways of thinking about it are not equally possible.
I think this sort of modest social constructionism might be apt for thinking about some of the categories often represented as constructed. Sex, for example, seems socially constructed only in this modest sense and not in the extreme sense. We can draw lines in different ways, but sex is an independent reality in the natural world. Animals and plants are sexed, it seems to me, even if there are some "grey area" cases. I wonder how many supposedly socially constructed categories are actually only socially constructed in this fairly modest sense.
Bibliography (in case you're interested);
Ron Mallon, The Construction of Human Kinds
New Books in Philosophy interview of Mallon
Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?
Asta Sveinsdottir, "The Social Construction of Human Kinds" (I'm about to read this, and might discuss in my next post)