Enter your email to receive the LSS Newsletter:

Chapter I: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

The Social Construction of Reality (Peter Berger)
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Book by Peter Berger
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge

For information on ordering, please click here.
We begin with Peter Berger—and his concept of the “social construction of reality.”

Culture is “objective,” Berger says, in that it confronts us as an “assemblage of objects in the real world”—outside of our own consciousness. We experience culture (the objects that constitute culture) as “there.”

Institutions, Berger explains, resist our attempts to change or evade them. They have coercive power over us—by the sheer force of their facticity, and through the control mechanisms that are attached to the most important of them.   

Institutions, as historical and objective “facticities,” are experienced as “objective reality.” They confront us as undeniable facts—external to us and persistent in their reality whether we like it or not.

Culture is objective in that we experience it as a real world separate from our own consciousness.  But its objectivity is also constituted, Berger explains, by the fact that it is experienced and apprehended “in company.” Culture is “there for everybody.”

The fact that it is there for everybody, Berger says, distinguishes the objects of culture from the constructions of the subjective consciousness of solitary individuals. Culture is the “external world,” remaining real by virtue of collective recognition. To be in culture is to “share a particular world of with others.”

Culture constitutes a shared social reality. “Society,” then, according to Berger, is a product of human activity that has “attained the status of objective reality.” Social formations are experienced by us as “elements of an objective world”—confronting us as an external, subjectively opaque and “coercive facticity.”

Indeed, Berger observes, society is commonly apprehended by us as virtually “equivalent to the physical universe in objective presence.” Society is experienced as given “out there,” extraneous to subjective consciousness and “not controlled by the latter.”

Culture, as an “objective, a priori reality,” impresses itself upon consciousness in the “most massive, urgent and intense manner.” We experience the assemblage of cultural objects as “self-evident and compelling facticities.”

No human construction can be called a social phenomenon, Berger explains, unless it has achieved that measure of objectively that “compels the individual to recognize it as real.” In other words, the fundamental “coerciveness of society” lies not in its machineries of social control, but in its power to “constitute and impose itself in reality.”

Although we experience the institutional world as a facticity, or objective reality, Berger insists that we recognize that society is a “humanly constructed objectivity.” The social order is a human product or, more precisely, an “ongoing human production.” It is produced by men, Berger says, in the “course of his ongoing externalization.”

Social order exists “only as a product of human society.” Both in its genesis (“social order is the result of past human activity”) and its existence at any instant of time (“social order exists only and insofar as human activity continues to produce it”), it is a human product.

How liberating to hear these words from Berger, reminding us that culture and the institutional order exist only insofar as human beings have produced or created culture and the institutional order.

What an oppressive world of social theory we have been compelled to live in all these years—dominated by terms such as “discourse” and “narrative” and “the symbolic order,” each suggesting a world “out there” that shapes our minds and bodies—independent of actual human beings.

The objectivity of the social world, Berger says, means that it confronts man as something outside himself. The decisive question, however, is whether he retains the awareness that—although we encounter the social world as objective facticity, this reality was “made by men (and women) and therefore can be remade by them.”

Berger goes on to explain that as a man externalizes himself, he “constructs the world into which he externalizes himself.” In the process of externalization, he “projects his own meanings into reality.”

It is this dialectic between human beings as the product of culture and human beings as the producer of culture—that has been lost in contemporary social theory. The question I pose is: Why does the symbolic order assume particular shapes or forms? Why do some discourses become popular and not others? Why do certain narratives “replicate” and come to dominate society?