On Berger and Luckmann

In Sociology on June 13, 2009 at 10:00 am

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post is a precursor to a more detailed commentary on Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality,” and introduces the work through my favorite quote therein:

“In an important way all, or at least most, of the others encountered by the individual in everyday life serve to reaffirm his subjective reality.  This occurs even in a situation as ‘non-significant’ as riding on a commuter train.  The individual may not know anyone on the train and may speak to no one.  All the same, the crowd of fellow-commuters reaffirms the basic structure of everyday life.  By their overall conduct the fellow-commuters extract the individual from the tenuous reality of early-morning grogginess and proclaim to him in no uncertain terms that the world consists of earnest men going to work, of responsibility and schedules, of the New Haven Railroad and the New York Times.  The last, of course, reaffirms the widest co-ordinates of the individual’s reality.  From the weather report to the help-wanted ads it assures him that he is, indeed, in the most real world possible.  Concomitantly, it affirms the less-than-real status of the sinister ecstasies experienced before breakfast–the alien shape of allegedly familiar objects upon waking from a disturbing dream, the shock of non-recognition of one’s own face in the bathroom mirror, the unspeakable suspicion a little later that one’s wife and children are mysterious strangers. Most individuals susceptible to such metaphysical terrors manage to exorcise them to a degree in the course of their rigidly performed morning rituals, so that the reality of everyday life is at least gingerly established by the time they step out of their front door.  But the reality begins to be fairly reliable only in the anonymous community of the commuter train.  It attains massivity as the train pulls into Grand Central Station.  Ergo sum, the individual can now murmur to himself, and proceed to the office wide-awake and self-assured” (149-150).

Berger and Luckmann mean here that the reality of being in society is daily recreated and fortified through contact with society through one’s morning routine.  The idea here is widely applicable despite Berger and Luckmann’s reliance on the somehow comic, stereotypical, John Cheever-esque New England businessman as representative of all humankind.  But, indeed, and again pace Cheever, if any one social type were to fall prey to metaphysical terrors it may well be our passenger on the New Haven Railroad.  More to the point, what fascinates here is the idea that our identity as an able participant in social processes requires a kind of patching together through ritual and regularity, and that, by extension, said identity emerges from sleep each morning somewhat fractured, spotty, several cards short of a full deck. 

The key word in the quoted paragraph is, I think, “massivity.”  Upon waking, emerging from dreams, “sinister ecstasies,” I check the time and stumble to the shower; the social world, “reality,” looms, but remains as yet thin and somewhat unbelievable. Thinking forward to the social being that in past days I have been, and all of the actions that accompany simply being in the world, I perceive a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the present “me” and the “me” that carries out these actions.  But, after coffee (chemical stimulus), dressing for work (confinement and limitation disguised by fashion as choice and decision), bidding goodbye to family (reinforcing responsibility and tapping into eons of pater familias symbolism), boarding the train (committing oneself to forward motion toward that location where sociability will be unavoidable), and recognizing fellow riders, nameless as they may remain, the full weight of the role that one will be expected to play begins, once again, to come home. 

At this point, massivity bears down and we are locked in, constrained and yet simultaneously propelled by the identity has, without our explicitly wishing it, cobbled itself together again over the course of three-quarters of an hour.  In this time, the earliest part of the day, we are ever becoming what we have become, and, just as inevitably perhaps, we become who are we are becoming. And yet, the fact that this cobbled together social creature, convincing as he may seem by midday, does not, can not, represent the totality of being, is testified to daily in the absolute incredulity with which he is regarded by the dreamer reluctant to surrender, however sinister, the dream.
  1. A connection to the spiritual realm…. About the 4th century Christian fathers who sought solitude and contemplation in the deserts of the Near East, Thomas Merton writes:

    “What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self,fabricated under social compulsion in “the world.” They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was “given” in a set, stereotyped form by somebody else.”

    The Wisdom of the Desert, T. Merton

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