Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality” and Related Issues

Author’s Note: This piece is a re-write of a piece from my first blog, Classical Sympathies. At that time I was interested in the relationship between the individual and his or her place of work/ organization. Classical Sympathies was fortunate to have a number of regular readers, some of whom took the time to comment, sometimes at length. The blog got a surprising amount of traffic for some reason, although it is now lost to time. Some pieces from back then are, looking back, a little too flowery, however the style was the style. Andrew Inch, a guy that a uncatagorizable cross-section of people here in Japan knew back in the day, was one of the most prolific and interesting commenters, and I have left his remarks in this re-write.

Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality:

This piece will look in some detail at Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, and comment on some of the ideas that it raises. Anyone who works in an organization will be aware that the intersection of the individual, in all of her preferences and particularities, and the institution can involve some friction. In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of “institutionalization,” so they had obviously gave the matter some thought.

They make the point that while man (The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the gender-specific term), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (or “reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control. They write:

“Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise. Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations” (51).

Human culture, then, is invented. However, being prone to reification, people tend to:

“{apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world {and experiencing it} as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control” (89).

When mis-apprehending social reality as something other than the product of his own action and consciousness, man forgets that:

“the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically that,“reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

We can extrapolate the statement “even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” to suggest that the perception of sedimented, externally controlled or created, facticity continually creates the very facticity in question. Put slightly differently, the denial of agency diminishes, even uncreates, free-will, while the exercise of free-will depends in large part, perhaps entirely, on the strength of one’s belief in it.

Now, this is not to argue that reification is simply false-consciousness, or that groupings within society do not go to considerable trouble to perpetuate and legitimate reification of their activities. Berger and Luckmann make this quite clear in their analysis of what they call “socially segregated subuniverses of meaning” such as “Hindu castes, the Chinese literary bureaucracy, or the priestly coteries of ancient Egypt” (85), (and we would add to this list lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments, etc.). They write that subuniverses:

“become esoteric enclaves {…} to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries {…} The outsiders have to be kept out {but} if the subuniverse requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure. This is done through various techniques of intimidation {…} mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols” (87).

“And generally the manipulation of prestige symbolsindeed. Those who engage, consciously or unconsciously, in the manipulation of prestige symbols are, in Berger and Luckmann’s language, involved in creating a “typification.” The acceptance of typifications, in turn, sediments social facticity and brings into being a taken-for-grantedness in the performance of social actors.

The authors indicate that while the typified actor may “act-into” a socially authorized way of acting in public, the same actor, in the privacy of their home, the confessional, or the bar may seek to establish a certain “role distance” through behaviors which blur, or indeed outright contradict, their public “face;” this distance is apt to shrink again when the times comes once again for the actor to take up their public role. In so doing, the actor re-activates that segment of the self which is objectified in terms of the currently available socially available typification(s).

When I started my first blog in 2009 I wrote at some length about why I wore a necktie at work, even though I didn’t really have to and some co-workers thought it was a little strange. My buddy Andrew Inch wrote an extensive, and highly perceptive comment on the topic which is instructive here. Mr. Inch, it will be apparent, is one smart dude. It’s kind of long, but it is worth it.

“Reflection on MT’s devotion to this apparently innocuous task, knotting a piece of cloth around his neck each morning, leads us towards what has become a key element of many recent theories of ideology. Derived from Pascal’s advice to non-believers, ‘kneel and pray, and then you will believe’, the French philosopher Louis Althusser sought to assert the materiality of ideas, and how ideology works through our actions as well as our words to define us as certain sorts of subjects. For Michel Foucault, one of Althusser’s students who sought to break with Marxism and the concept of ideology, the knotting of that neck-tie might have been considered a ‘practice of the self’, a way of disciplining oneself in line with a particular matrix of power and knowledge. The question that I think both of these thinkers struggle to address, however, is the extent to which we are able to shape our own selves, rather than simply being shaped by power. What scope do we have to resist the power embedded in these apparently mundane everyday motions? {…} By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities. And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting. In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all?”

“In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting?” This sentence is phenomenal, and predicated on a particularly alert and acute piece of self-knowledge. Mr. Inch is saying that those in the office who refused to put on a tie, or who flaunted the organizational dress code altogether, while thinking that they were “rebelling” and “sticking it to the man,” were in fact playing into a pre-determined archetype every bit as much as I was with my neckties and apparent “conformity.”

Mr. Inch is essentially making the same point that Berger and Luckmann do when they point out that roles and typifications are “endemic to social interaction {…} All institutionalized conduct involves roles.” And then, the authors bring matters home:

“The institution, with its assemblage of ‘programmed’ actions, is like the unwritten libretto of a drama. The realization of the drama depends upon the reiterated performance of its prescribed roles by living actors. The actors embody the roles and actualize the drama by representing it on the given stage. Neither drama nor institution exist empirically apart from this recurrent realization” (75).

In short, both Mr. Inch and Berger and Luckmann do not confine the acting out of prescribed roles, the submission to typification (e.g. “conformism”) to those in positions of authority within an institution. To the contrary, I read them both as saying that both the master and the servant, the “teacher’s pet” and the “bad boy,” the necktie wearer and the necktie shunner, the consummate insider and the professional rebel are all engaged in the recurrent realization of pre-typified activity.

Explication With Reference to Obama and Talleyrand:

Now, it is true that the above reading of Berger and Luckmann may leave the door open a purely cynical outlook by suggesting that all forms of behavior by institutionalized actors are equal. This is not quite what I wish to argue. Barack Obama has defined his political philosophy as “ruthless pragmatism.” While I understand this formulation, it does seem a little cold (as Obama is famously said to be) What if we added the word “principled” here? Could “principled ruthless pragmatism” sustain meaning without slipping irrevocably into the realm of the oxymoronic?

Let’s take a closer look in relation to organizational life as opposed to the political sphere. “Principled” because one’s initial agreement to engage with institutionalization (through the acceptance of a job offer for example) assumes a principled acceptance of the role one will be asked to play and the attendant tasks and behaviors that will be expected.

“Pragmatic” in that in order to accomplish anything in the social world, wherein competing interests, visions, and ideologies are, and ever will be, an unavoidable reality, one must be prepared to lose the battle in the service of, hopefully, winning the war. It has been my experience that the inability to lose a battle is a problem for many people in the modern workplace. Related to the ability to lose a battle is one’s attitude toward “compromise.” Is “compromise” a dirty word? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the actor who blithely declares “there can be no compromise where my principles are concerned” may sooner or later find their principles encased under glass in their own private shrine to imagined rectitude. In other words, total denial of the possibility of compromise is tantamount to surrendering all hope of getting anything done. In the immortal words of William Jefferson Clinton, “sooner or later, you have to cut a deal.” On the other hand, there are a certain class of situations where certain compromises just do not feel acceptable, situations where one has what we could call an existential objection to the terms of the proposed compromise.

The question does not, I think, concern whether deals should be struck in general, they should, so much as whether any individual deals is in the long term interest of the project in question and the people involved with this project. This is where “ruthless” perhaps applies. At the very least, the pragmatist needs to accept in herself a degree of strategic focus where goals rooted in principle are concerned. We cannot deny, of course, that this is an easily misused sentiment—if we continually apply “pragmatic ruthlessness” to a project which we are deeply attached to there is the real danger of a concomitantly continual shifting of the moral goal-posts. In short, these are muddy waters.

Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister is, perhaps, most famous for his remark that “treason is a matter of dates.” Gives you the chills, does it not? Benjamin Schwarz writes of Talleyrand:

“Arguably a turncoat, possibly a degenerate {…} certainly a shameless flatterer and world-class bribe taker, Talleyrand was also the most skillful and farsighted diplomat of his age and a man of arresting grace, wit, and style {…} He was as seductive as he was obviously dangerous {…} Talleyrand subscribed to the idea that statecraft’s modest but arduous task is to enable one’s country to survive and prosper in the world as it exists–not to transform international relations and not to further the alleged cause of mankind” (The Atlantic, December 2007, 93-4).

A hero or a villain? Schwarz is not sure, but he is charmed. For my part, I see in Talleyrand perhaps an 18th century form of “principled ruthless pragmatism” where France’s survival and prosperity was the principle from which his ruthless pragmatism stemmed. While your own cause may or may not be the triumph of the French nation, the application of a ruthless pragmatism in the service of a deeper principle does hold a certain appeal. However, I just don’t personally feel that “ruthless” is really the most appealing qualifier for pragmatism in regards to acting within the public sphere.

Comment:

Instead, I am more interested in understanding how and when to “follow the rules” and surrender to form, as opposed to how and when to do a little end-run. To function effectively within an organization it is essential to realize the power inherent in form. At times, often times really, a “surrender to form” is required. However, instead of simply surrendering to form and that being that, we may be able to add a qualifier of our own. Certain situations may call for a “strategic surrender to form” for the moment, while at the same time “bracketing” or “pocketing” the possibility of the end-run. Here, perhaps, we may have a window into a pragmatic post-post-modern stance which takes post-modernism’s relentless questioning of form and turns it inside out, recognizing that the tyranny of form is something we bring upon ourselves by allowing form to tyrannize.

Put another way, we can expand slightly on Berger and Luckmann’s claim that “an apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative derefication of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography” (90). I would suggest that an apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative dereification of consciousness which may then lead into the ability to either and/or alternately i) embrace reification and role typification as a strategy (that is to inhabit a form which brings with it certain prerogatives and forms of access), and ii) radically overthrow reification and typification through the recognition that the establishment of social facticity is but a spectacular bluff resting on the manipulation of prestige symbols and the shaman’s art whereby an illusory thinness is reflected as an eternal massivity. In so doing, we may be of service to truly worthwhile cause, protecting a space for action and free-will in the face of the ever-expanding institutionalization of both the public and the private sphere. That might be worth working on.

Dedication: For Mr. Inch. Thank you for commenting. You rock baby.