The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann presents a striking thesis stating that everyday reality is socially constructed by human interaction. This is the most basic way to put the thesis and by no means covers all their points. Let us dig in deeper and explore their amazing argument.
Objective vs. Subjective Reality
A main aspect of Berger and Luckmann’s thesis defines the difference between objective and subjective reality. Objective reality is defined as the natural world. For example, the moon, the stars, or the ocean. These are phenomena that are basically always present and do not change. Subjective reality is socially constructed reality. For example, a role or status in society, such as a persons job title, becomes real and internalized through interaction and social definitions. This is done by the process of socialization (a key concept in the process of maintaining subjective reality). People are not born members of society, they are made members of society (Berger and Luckmann 1966:149). The interaction between people is what makes this real. Subjective reality is also defined as the subjective interpretation of objective reality. For example, society has determined that the sky is blue. This gives social meaning to an objective phenomenon. Clearly, this is subjective interpretation of objective reality.
The authors state, “All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which,
ipso facto, is apprehended by its performer as that pattern.
Habitualization further implies that the action in question
may be performed again in the future in the same manner and
with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:71). In other words, everything both social and non social done by humans can be subject to becoming a habit. The process of making coffee in the morning is a perfect example of these types of habits. The person learns the process, repeats the process, and it is done economically every time in the future. Habitualization is the first step in institutionalization.
Institutionalization is defined as, “a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:72). Put more simply, any institution is made up of a reciprocal interaction that becomes typified based on a habitual phenomenon. These typifications are shared in whatever society is being looked at (the knowledge of the institution is shared by the society).
Institutions, also, always have a historical nature (Berger and Luckmann 1966:72). Institutions cannot just appear out of thin air. They have to be constructed first by a habitual process, which then is shared by members of society. For example, the education system in the early United States was based on family teaching family. Over time, small schools were developed with one teacher and a few students. As more time went on, and as the population increased, bigger schools were built to house more students and teachers until we see what modern schools look like today. The point is that the education system did not just develop out of nowhere, indeed, it took interactions between social actors over a long period of time to get what we have today.
Legitimization is the process of keeping institutions institutionalized. “Legitimation explains the institutional order by ascribing
cognitive validity to its objectivated meanings. Legitimation
justifies the institutional order by giving a normative dignity
to its practical imperatives” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:111). In other words, institutions must have an ongoing process of maintaining themselves. Rather, actors in society are the ones that maintain the institutions. For example, society can be seen as maintaining itself through teaching in schools. Schools teach proper roles and rules of society, which, in turn, perpetuate the current social systems in place.
Signification and Language
Signs are of critical importance in constructing reality. The authors state, “[a] crucially important case of objectivation is
signification, that is, the human production of signs. A sign
may be distinguished from other objectivations by its explicit
intention to serve as an index of subjective meanings” (Berger and Luckmann (1966:50). For example, the pink breast cancer ribbon not only stands for the fight against breast cancer, but it also stands for the unity of women in society. Signs can take many forms in society, but the most important thing to take away is that signs are a tool for constructing and understanding subjective reality.
Language is another type of sign. Berger and Luckmann state, “The common objectivations of everyday life are maintained primarily by linguistic signification. Everyday life is, above all, life with and by means of the language I share with my fellowmen. An understanding of language is thus essential for any understanding of the reality
of everyday life” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:51-52). Language bonds different social meanings and helps individuals in society understand the world around them. It is critical for advanced learning and, thus, the creation of complex social institutions.
The Symbolic Universe
The symbolic universe is a plethora of signs that everyone in society ‘knows.’ The symbolic universe puts everything “in its place” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). For example, religion, laws, and all value systems are part of the symbolic universe. Without the symbolic universe there would be no shared understanding of the norms of society.
Reification discusses how the social world is treated like objects. The authors state, “Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or supra-human terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something other than human products – such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:106). In other words, reification means to make something a ‘thing.’ A perfect example of this is the economy. The economy is a complex social system of exchange, institutionalized over time. Today, the economy is treated as a ‘thing.’ People refer to the economy as being bad or good, just like a good piece of candy or a bad one.
Another aspect of reification is social control. Once the social system is reified it can end up controlling society. In today’s world, the economy is a major system of control. Bad or good economic times determine the amount of jobs, peoples’ access to capital, and overall quality of life.
Please, as readers of my blog, read The Social Construction of Reality. It is truly a major work in sociological history. It redefines the field of the sociology of knowledge, and has basically become my bible. Cheers,