Berger and Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality

[Readings] (03.27.09, 10:28 am)

This book straddles a dubious boundary between philosophy and sociology. The subject of the book is the sociology of knowledge, and, from the title, it should be understood that reality is socially constructed. The point of this is a surprising and powerful argument against introverted approaches to philosophy, suggesting that the deep philosophical questions of “what is real” and “what is meaningful” depend not on trancendental truths, but on communities of individuals. Along the way, the authors describe some progressive arguments regarding the processes of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. My approach to the book is to think of it from the perspective of models and how people imagine and percieve systems. As such, my focus is primarily on the topic of the construction of reality and the objective reality of society. I leave out the final chapter on society as subjective reality, but it should be noted that this is still important despite my neglect. Wikipedia also has a very useful summary of the book.

It should be noted that the book was published originally in 1966, and many of the attitudes and positions the book is being used to challenge are less dominant now. Particularly, this is the case with the transcendental philosophy of knowledge that is criticized early on.

Introduction: The Problem of the Sociology of Knowledge

This book is an approach to reality and knowledge that is in contrast with (and challenges) the philosophical dominance and interpretation of the problems of knowledge and reality. The authors wish to provide some medium between the “man on the street” view of reality and the perpsective of the philosopher. Some of this is dependent on ideas of what may be taken for granted. For the “man on the street,” reality is simply there and can be taken for granted. For the philosopher, nothing may be taken for granted, and it is necessary to question everything to uncover fundamental and eternal truths. The role of the sociologist is to challenge these views and assert that meaning occurs to people, and is dependent on the group who is percieving reality. The sociologist knows that different groups have different perceptions, but these perceptions must be acknowledged (instead of being questioned to yield absolute truths). The sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social construction of reality. In context, this is a rather bold claim.

Many of the base ideas of the sociology of knowledge come from German scholars, most notably Max Scheler (who originated the term), but ideas also come from Marx, who argued “that man’s consciousness is derived by his social being.” Scheler uses some specialized terms, notably “ideal factors” (Idealfaktoren) and “real factors” (Realfaktoren). The authors explain: “That is, the “real factors” regulate the conditions under which certain “ideal factors” can appear in history, but cannot affect the content of the latter. In other words, society determines the presence (Dasein) but not the nature (Sosein) of ideas.” (p. 8) In Scheler’s view, human knowledge and experience is ordered by society. This order informs how the individual sees the world, and because it is socially pervasive, it seems natural. This way of looking is the “relative-natural world view” (relativnat├â┬╝rliche Weltanschauung), a concept which remains very important. It is important to note how the descriptions used here are about perspective and views, which are similar to my approach to models. After Scheler, Mannheim and Talcott Parsons have been heavily influential in the sociology of knowledge.

Deciding scope, the authors explain that: “The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for “knowledge” in society.” (p. 14-15) This is meant to broaden the focus beyond mere ideas, which is the subject of some other approaches. The authors challenge the intellectual distance of theory about the fomulations of reality and knowledge. These are far removed from the day to day concerns that constitute peoples’ realities. The authors take on social reality comes from George Herbert Mead. THe authors see the inquiry as also pushing for a new direction within the scope of sociology itself, to understand the knowledge and realities of socieities.

The Foundations of Knowledge in Everyday Life

Everyday life is interpreted: “Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world.” (p. 19) The section examines sociological implications of everyday life. It is intersubjective, also empirical, but it is not scientific. Commonsense understandings are pre-scientific or quasi-scientific, but are functional and pervasive nonetheless. The authors approach to this is phenomenological. Consciousness must be understood as intentional. People form attitudes toward things, have intentions toward them, and understand things through experience and perception. Understanding of how things work comes from these experiences, and operates according to causal logic, but is not scientifically accurate. This is how naive theories of physics become embedded in one’s mind, because they are reinforced by experience.

Everyday life is embodied and immanent. It is organized around the “here” of the body and the “now” of the present (p. 22). Everyday life may be safely assumed as reality, and this is a domain of familiarity and experience defining a world of connected meanings. Things observed are given meanings and fit within the world, so that they can interact and interrelate with each other. This works until there is something problematic that does not fit into the model. The response for dealing with something problematic is to attempt to integrate it, to fit it into the model so that it is not problematic anymore. Another solution, although it is not really discussed, is to broaden the model. Problems seem to lie on the separate and incompatible nature of different realities. The authors describe everday life as paramount, but I disagree, as reality and domain shifts (a stepping out) may be a part of everyday life. Different realities, in this sense, are domains such as theatre or religious ceremony.

Face to face interactions are extremely real in that they are very present in the here and now. However, interactions are made more distant through the application of categories and functional understandings (a bank teller, a European, a stranger). As such, these lead to further degrees of anonymity as a person becomes less understood as an individual and more as a category. This, essentially, makes the other less real, at least in the sense of interaction. By contrast, in interactions that are intimate and face to face the individual becomes immediately important and generalizations are less powerful. This illustrates another sense in which anonymity can be constructed, and leads to a dehumanization. This level of distancing is also important in online interactions, as well as with characters in games. This suggests that a way to encourage identity is to create a sense of the here and now within the social context.

Signs, and by extension language, have the power to be detached from their context. When recorded, a sign indicates some meaning that was, at some point, belonging to a moment, a “here and now.” The sign becomes something that can be removed from its context and carried elsewhere, where it can be observed and understood without the original moment.

The stock of knowledge shapes areas of reality based on the parts of everyday life that one must deal with frequently. The world is structured in routines, all of which are fine until something problematic emerges. The world has its own logic, and is structured according to relevances. Relevances depend on interaction and have social value and meaning. The world of one’s reality is not simply a single unit that exists in detachment, but it is shared, or at least it overlaps with the worlds of others, because everyday life is a shared phenomenon.

Society as Objective Reality

This chapter is concerned with the existence of the institution and how reality is understood objectively in the social context. The argument is reminiscent of Foucault, that institutions form rules and interpretations for understanding; the discourse of an institution is enclosing. The social world leads to habitualization, and gradually, habitualization gives way to institutionalization. Humans are naturally world-0pen, in that they can shift from one world of meaning to another with relative ease. However, institutions are closed, in the sense that the world of meaning communicated by an institution is encompassing and shuts out other worlds. The authors introduce world-closedness earlier in the chapter, in discussion of the worlds of animals, which are limited and cannot be extended or opened to anything else (although animal play might contradict this somewhat). The authors summarize the objective view of society: “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.” (p. 61)

Institutional development involves the formation of logic, but this is not uniform or individually determined. Logic is social and shared. Individuals take part in an institution by developing biographies that are consistent with the system. (This resonates with Holland, as well as Denzin). Roles enable the self to be understood objectively (a la Mead), and are performed (a la Goffman). Roles enable objectification on the count of others, to enable oneself to be percieved as a type or a category, rather than as an individual. Types are necessarily interchangeable (a la Marx?). Roles represent and embody the social order, and are formed by the same process of institutionalization.

Symbolic universes are a level of legitimization of an institution. The authors explain that these universes are products of a gradual objectification, sedimentation, and accumulation of knowledge (p. 97). Their meaning comes from their history. Symbolic universes order and categorize biographic and institutional knowledge.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBerger, Peter and Luckman, Thomas
TitleThe Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
Tagsspecials, sociology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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