In 1966, two relatively unknown sociologists published The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge — a book length monograph written in pellucid prose that would become a seminal work not only in their field, but in disciplines as varied as economics and communication studies. Translated into 18 languages and never ceasing to go out of print in the 51 years since its publication, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s examination of how knowledge is objectified and collectively shared — how meaning is essentially forged from the self and held to be true, or agreed upon by the many — has spurred a number of empirical and philosophical inquiries, applications that now move beyond physical reality and into digital frontier (Vera, 2016).
Though its intellectual heft and influence is obvious to any scholar of the social sciences, canonized in a variety of introductory field texts as a keystone school of thought and theory, Berger and Luckmann did not set out to rattle the intellectual ferment (Baran & Davis, 2015). Nor did they ever conceive their treatise would become a permanent epistemology that would provide a fresh lens to view the world and gather data through their unique orientation (Creswell, 2009). Their intentions, as Berger wrote, as part of a series of reflections published on the 25th anniversary of their treatise, were “quite modest” and they “did not expect that many other people would share our excitement” (Berger, 1992).
Central Concepts (Partial)
This section of the literature review will focus strictly on the central concepts of The Social Construction of Reality. While the work is relatively short in scope, just under 200 pages (in contrast to other influential opuses like Kant’s 856-page Critique ofPure Reason), it contains an abundance of general and specific concepts and sub-concepts that can, if singularly focused on, drive a plentitude of research in a variety of contexts. That is its blessing and curse, as evidenced by the multiple disciplines it has influenced and most harmfully, the “glaring and persistent misinterpretations” the work has produced, as discussed at length by Vera (2016). This is predominantly generated through a reductionist interpretation of the book as influenced by, and restricted to, its title —namely the metaphoric applications and interpretations that can arise from viewing the world through the meanings incurred through limited focus on those three words that can be filled with an ocean of meanings, “social,” “construction,” “reality.”
In fairness, Berger and Luckmann may have sealed their interpretive fate when they began the introduction of their book with the following: “The basic contentions of the argument of this book are implicit in its title and sub-title, namely, that reality is socially constructed and that the sociology of knowledge must analyze the process in which this occurs.” That reality is stated so forcefully as socially constructed seals a self-evident fate — and a myriad of interpretations that hang solely on that premise and the metaphorical, mostly descriptive marathons of research that ran on that premise. However, it’s the latter aspect of that declarative that is representative of the central explorations and concepts of the book — just how exactly is reality constructed, the process in which this occurs.
Broadly, that means undertaking an examination of how knowledge is created and established as objective fact in human society and through that examination defining and analyzing the specific processes that result in the genesis, formulation, and solidification of knowledge from the subjective to the objective — in other words, the development of socially constructions at any given point in time and in any culture or society. Socially constructed knowledge involves all knowledge, from the everyday to the specialist domain, that arises in individual human acts and interactions with others and society at-large. Of particular concern for Berger and Luckmann is knowledge that “guides conduct in everyday life” — “the world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives. It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these.”
How that subjectively meaningful reality is generated and maintained is the heart of their thesis: that we, in our individual and collective actions and thoughts, incessantly construct an “objective reality” comprised of meanings and that “objective reality” and its associated meanings becomes the reality that we are a part of and that we, in some fashion, may (normalization) or may not (deviance) respond to or internalize (Burr, 2003). We are born into a pre-fabricated world and we pass another pre- fabricated world to the next generation. The lines and arcs of life are woven well before our awakening: “All members of a society can now conceive of themselves as belonging to a meaningful universe, which was there before they were born and will be there after they die. The empirical community is transposed on to a cosmic plane and made majestically independent of the vicissitudes of individual existence” (Berger & Luckmann, 1991).
However, despite the whiff of determinism evident in this passage, Berger and Luckmann note that there is an “ongoing correspondence,” or dialectic influence, between the thoughts and actions generated by an individual and the reality constructions formed in the world by others. We create reality within, thus serving as a genesis of meaning beyond us when we share it. And that may ultimately spur a “common sense” that is shared between the self and the collective about what constitutes reality: “common-sense knowledge is the knowledge I share with others in the normal, self-evident routines of everyday life.” However, this reality of everyday life — the quintessential common sense — is taken for granted as is: “it does not require additional verification over and beyond its simple presence.” It just is — and nothing more: I drink hearty, I eat well, I live, that is, they say, the good life. But those internal axioms were not born from a void. They came from somewhere else, society, culture, family, school, institutions, the constructions of others that spawn a collective of common sense, or intersubjectivity, the everyday perception of how things are based upon the fact that they are shared by members of a culture or society, as objective fact, the facts of life (Segre, 2016). Hence, the ongoing dialectic of self and world — and the intermingling and absorption, radiated out from the self to the broader “world” and broader “world” reflected within, the internalizations of the world radiated onto us, baking notions, providing the way of life, being.
But what are the specific processes that create this shared knowledge or the common sense — that shared intersubjectivity? What are the processes that spur individual knowledge? How do social constructions influence individual knowledge and how does individual knowledge influence external constructions? And how do we empirically analyze effects on individuals and society?
Ultimately, how do we move beyond the philosophical, beyond the sweeping determinism, and identify the specific causes and effects of social reality construction (how we shape the world and how the world comes to shape us)? Three aspects of the theory provide clarity: externalization, objectivation, and internalization (Burr, 2003).
Reality is absorbed, or internalized, through socialization into our consciousness, thus affecting our thoughts, behaviors, outlook, worldview. In essence, this is the process in which the social world is transmitted to us through our varied interactions with it. Internalization is also the process in which new generations receive previous socially constructed fabrications of reality before they were born, as this internalized body of knowledge is passed from the old to the new (Berger and Luckmann, 1991). Previously constructed objective reality, internalized by past generations, is passed to them and later generations.
Language, thus communication, is the key mechanism of internalization, allowing externalizations of thoughts (expressions, which can become objectivated over time into a body of shared stock of knowledge) to be internalized, or learned, by others. As Burr (2003) notes, “socialization entails our coming to understand objectivated events, artefacts, words and signs in terms of the meanings previously conferred upon them by our society and so we become able to participate in meaningful interaction with other people” (p. 185). Internalization represents the moment in which a person’s subjectivity is received and potentially integrated within another’s consciousness (Berger and Luckmann, 1991).
Objectivations exist separately from the “here and now,” but borne from “the original expression of human subjectivity that gave rise to them” (Burr, 2003). Language and communication are key mechanisms of objectivation, in which an object such as a knife, for example, can become an objectification of aggression, dependent upon the meanings attached to the object. We use language to imbue an object, event, moment, with meanings, or signs. As Baran and Davis (2015) explain, “if you were to wake up tomorrow morning, head on your pillow, to find a knife stuck into the headboard inches above your nose, you’d be fairly certain that this was some sort of sign. In other words, people can produce representations of objects that have very specific, very subjective agreed-upon meanings.” That’s objectification. The object, event, moment is given meaning by an individual or society, then externalized, then potentially the meaning is agreed-upon by members of a society; a social construction is born. The objective social world comes into existence through objectivation, a process formed from human action, interaction, and communication of action and thoughts through language with others.
Therefore, knowledge is socially objectivated — forming a “body of generally valid truths about reality” (Berger & Luckmann, 1991) This socially objectivated knowledge “provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future” and it is “internalized ... as objectively valid truth in the course of socialization.” Objectivations — which in complex form become ideologies, cultures, institutions, and religions — are internalized, thus the individual forms an understanding and awareness of the “objectivated structures of the social world.” To use the colloquial phrases, this is the way it is; this is the way things have always been — unquestioned acceptance of “objective fact,” following a process of meaning making and widely shared social agreeance — the common sense. In addition, various objectivations can coalesce into typification schemes, “collections of meanings we assign to some phenomenon that come from our stock of social knowledge to pattern our interaction with our environments and the things and people in it” (Baran & Davis, 2015).
Language, as a system of symbols, gives us the ability to represent things, events, so on. Through language, we externalize our experience to others based upon our subjective experience (Burr, 2003). Those externalizations may be formed from or influenced by a shared stock of knowledge, or socially objectivated knowledge — that socially shared framework in which the world is viewed through, perceived, and understood.
Those objectifications also color an individual’s internalizations and externalizations, creating coherence and potential tension with the objectivated social world and the incessant production of inner, subjective reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1991). As Burr (2003) explains, externalization is “possible because we attach meanings to objects and turn them into signs.” Those signs — or representations of objects, events, moments — become objectifications, “detachable from the here and now, from the original expression of human subjectivity that gave rise to them” (Burr, 2003).
For the first time in history, we can all “live” in a global village. Marshal McLuhan’s speculations have become the present moment. But with its sheer size and rapidly evolving conditions, as new technologies modify the flows of information, culture, and knowledge, how do mass media researchers grapple with its complexity? What framework or paradigm provides a viable and fruitful entry into these new communicative structures, an entry that provides plausible and reasonable explanatory findings upon exit? The constructivist paradigm provides promise for this research field, given its concerns, particularly meaning constructed through social fields. All new media is social — a vast endless web of social interactions where knowledge, values, beliefs, and attitudes are constructed on the fly by corporate owners of news and entertainment media and us on the street. But what does that dynamic pose, especially as the tilt toward media concentration and hegemonic messaging seems to pose an even greater threat on this playing field, now that their messages our beamed to our phones that we carry with us all hours of the day.
Gamson (1992) noted then that “we walk around with media-generated images of the world, using them to construct meaning about political and social issues.” Now we seem to live and breathe those images, sharing memes with our friends that were inspired by the latest mass entertainment treat. In the past, our political revelations were contained to the six o’clock news. Now, we awake to the latest gaffe, the latest misdeed, created and disseminated by increasingly concentrated and hegemonic mass media outlets, who, it is becoming ever more clear, shape that content to fit our attitudes and tastes. The institution creates “objective” knowledge that we, in turn, internalize and externalize via these new communicative forums. The cycle defined by Berger and Luckmann is evident in this arena.
The question is, can it reliably explain what we are all experiencing? In a reflection published on the 25th anniversary of The Social Construction of Reality, Luckmann began the essay with a Latin passage, “habent sua fata libelli,” translated as “books have their own destinies.” Perhaps this destiny of their work is now approaching.