The Social Construction of Reality

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The thread of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s seminal book is that reality is socially constructed via the process of institutionalization. The authors develop an elaborate and coherent framework that addresses all main elements of any robust social theory: ontology, agents, structures, power, order, processes of reproduction, practices, change, and transformative mechanisms.

The book reveals brilliantly the social structures and mechanisms that underpin human activity within society. In this regard, the authors’ account is both highly informative and emancipatory. A possible criticism, however, is that the dynamics of social role-playing and reification are not exposed well enough.

While the book’s focus is on social roles as representations of institutions, it would have been useful to see a wider classification of roles. For example, in addition to social roles which there are plenty of in the modern society (e.g., ’father’, ‘wife’, ‘professor’, ‘cook’, etc.), there can be also emotional roles (e.g, ‘nice person’); biological roles (e.g., striving for leadership or a partner’s attention); attitude roles (usage of Active or Passive Voice in a language); and even more profound existential roles (e.g. ’victim’). The hierarchy of these roles is an interesting research question in itself.

Besides professional roles driven by the level of the division of labor in a society, there are more complex role scenarios or ‘games’ elaborated by Eric Bern in his Games People Play book (published in 1964, so two years before The Social Construction of Reality). These social interaction games pre-determine human conduct in such a way that participants have a very limited range of emotional reaction choices. One such example of a stereotypical response would be: “I naturally got angry” (glad, sad, etc.).

Another aspect of role dynamics touched upon only slightly by P. Berger and Thomas Luckman is reification. While the authors are right in arguing that men tend to forget their authorship of the social world, they omit the logically deduced conclusion that the question “Who am I?” is most stark when an individual’s role identification system is challenged or destroyed. The authors hint to this, but do not elaborate. ‘I’ or ‘Self’ allegedly crystallizes exactly at these peak moments.

A good example here is the collapse of the Soviet Union. A typical social programme was clear: school, higher education, professorship, membership in the communist party, pension, etc. Suddenly the state collapses, and the social roles that mattered become irrelevant. So either the old roles need to be discarded, or ‘upgraded’, or replaced whatsoever. Who makes that decision? Admittedly, it is in these rare moments when things fall apart that humans can exercise their agency to the fullest.

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