Sunday, July 6, 2014

Berger and Luckman, 1967, The Social Construction of Reality (sociology)

This is an important source because it represents a culmination of the thinking on sociology and the sociology of knowledge as it evolved from the 19th C.  Scanning the references, Marx and Nietzsche prompted the rise of dialectical thinking, which was dominant by the 1870s. Dilthey suggested a non-anglosphere form of empiricism in the 1880s. Weber, Durkheim, Simmel and Lukacs had put the pieces of modern sociology into play by the 1890s, but some of the minor works and lesser-known players, like Scheler, Stark, Schutz and others do not appear to have been translated until the 1970s or later, giving B&L a linguistic advantage as bridges to an emerging world of scholarship that shaped 1960s positivism.  After B&L, it was up to Anthony Giddens to wrap up the dialectic in a clear structure-and-agency narrative: repeated human actions produce social structure, which influences human agency, but there’s nothing predetermined about it, and B&L seem fine with this.

Berger and Luckmann locate their work midway on the continuum from ‘man in the street’ (what am I doing today?) to ‘philosopher’ (what’s the meaning of life?).  The social scientist asks, what, how, and why, and the tools B&L bring are primarily thought experiments, which tend to push them towards the philosophy end of the spectrum, and lead them in their conclusion to disparage functionalism as sleight of hand, though they disavow any polemic purpose. I think structural functionalism, at least in politics and the study of institutions, is probably mid-way between the sociological empiricism of B&L and the constructed reality of the ‘man in the street’. 

The book is organized in three parts – a short introduction on how we see reality (the foundations of knowledge), society as objective reality (in which they demonstrate that reality is socially constructed), and society as subjective reality (in which they demonstrate that the reality we socially create shapes individuals through socialization).  The origin of institutionalization is habituation and typification – recognizing typical roles.  These experiences then become layered like sediment and preserved in language. Collective knowledge is reaffirmed through symbolic objects and rituals (like flags and parades). Specialization produces growth in knowledge and further differentiation of roles. All roles represent the institutionalization of order, but some roles (like heads of state, or military heroes) symbolically represent the totality of the order.  Roles are the mediators of the stock of common knowledge (think of the roles of professionals, qv Etzioni, 1969).  The objective reality that society creates for itself is legitimated as symbolic universes, including the family, the business, the government, and so on. We maintain these symbolic universes as concepts, often taking them for granted; we can only examine them by theorizing about them. Social organization helps to maintain our symbolic universes. With specialization, knowledge becomes removed from day-to-day experience, more theoretical, and sometimes more conservative. Conflicts arise between rival experts (think of medicine or law). These conflicts are resolved through mergers (not either/or, but both/and), liquidation (kill all the believers), or protective segregation (marginalization – it’s ok to believe, but don’t tell anyone). I particularly liked the definition of an intellectual as “an expert whose expertise is not wanted by society at large” and who therefore becomes a counter-expert or sometimes a revolutionary, but plays a key role in defining reality – another reason to have a place for intellectual counter-experts in any profession, though it can be a dangerous role (see Ball, Curiosity, for historical examples). 

The third part explains society as subjective reality, primarily internalization of socially constructed reality through socialization, with two short addenda on theories of identity (identity is formed by social processes, and there’s no such thing as a collective identity—only individual identity types) and on the biological organism (‘animality’ is transformed but not abolished by socialization).  The meat of this section is about socialization, with some clear and practical concepts. Society is an ongoing dialectial process of externalization, objectivation, and internalization (qv Giddens). Socialization is the comprehensive and consistent induction of an individual into the objective world of society. Primary socialization creates the child’s consciousness of progressive abstraction from specific to general roles (from mother to motherhood…).  The biological sequence is important in primary socialization. Secondary socialization is artificial and optional – helping us to internalize institutionally-based ‘sub-worlds’ like a sports team identity, or a profession.  The extent of secondary socialization is determined by the complexity of the division of labour. Sayings, ceremonies, and physical objects play a role in secondary socialization, and the biological sequence is not important.  Socialization is never complete, and there are continuous threats to the way that we see the world, so we resort to mechanisms like contact with significant others, or conversation, to maintain or transform our understanding of reality.  Socialization always takes place in the context of a social structure: maximal socialization occurs when there is a minimum distribution of knowledge and simple division of labour. As knowledge expands and diffuses and labour differentiates, counter-realities emerge more frequently from differentiated groups.

Berger and Luckman are important for their clearly conceptualized argument about the social construction of reality, and for their signposts to the earlier work by the big guys, especially Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, and Lukacs, but their argument really stands on its own, and has clear relevance to the intersection of constructivism in international relations and institutionalism in political science.

(also posted on Amazon)
David Last, 5 November 2013

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