Sympathists

Posts Tagged ‘Berger and Luckmann’

Statement of Intent and Concern on the Occasion of my Thirty-Fifth Birthday: Part I

In Life as Lived, Organizations, Sociology on June 13, 2009 at 10:02 pm

fff-blackMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Intent and Concern #I: Berger and Luckmann on Typification and Reification

Everything has a face, forms, sounds and colours: these are just appearances.  They are just forms and colours, and nothing more.  However, everything arises from what is formless and descends into that which is changeless.  If you grasp and follow this, using it to the full, nothing can stand in your way.

Chuang Tzu

This is the first in a projected series of posts which will represent an attempt on my part to synthesize a variety of theoretical and practical concerns that confront me as I approach thirty-five.  This post will begin with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, a book we have looked at before here on Sympathies.  I have re-posted the original post so that readers can familiarize themselves with the work.

A good deal of the writing on this blog has taken as its theme the relationship between the individual and the institution, and we have seen various attempts to come to terms with the ideal stance of one who, as we all do, exists within the grasp of institutionalization.  In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of institutionalization, and what they have to say provides me with my jumping off point.  They make the point that while man (and yes, The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the outdated gender-specific catch-all term for humanity), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (“reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control.  “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), but, being prone to reification, they will sometimes “{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, he forgets that “the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically, “reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it. I would like to extrapolate this to mean 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, 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 groups 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), not to mention lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments.  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 symbols. Indeed.  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. Continue Reading

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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. Continue reading