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Chapter II: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

Reification: Forgetting Our Authorship of the Human World (Peter Berger)
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Book by Peter Berger
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge

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It is important to keep in mind, Peter Berger says, that the “objectivity” of the social world, however massive it may appear to us, is a “humanly produced, constructed objectivity.” Berger uses the term “objectivation” to characterize the process by which the “externalized products of human activity attain the character of objectivity.”

The institutional world is objectivated human activity, and so is every single institution. In other words, Berger explains, despite the “objectivity that marks the social world in human experience,” it does not thereby “acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it.” The paradox is that man is capable of producing a world that he then experiences as “something other than a human product.”

Berger emphasizes that the relationship between man, the producer—and the products of his social world—“is and remains a dialectical one.” Human beings and the social world interact with each other. The product acts back upon the producer. In short, human beings are the products of culture, and also the producers—or creators—of culture.

Berger poses central questions for sociological theory: How is it possible that subjective meanings become objective facticities? How is it possible that human activity produces a world of things? An adequate understanding of society requires we inquire into the “manner in which reality is constructed.” This inquiry is the task of the sociology of knowledge.

Berger uses the term reification to describe man’s tendency to “forget his own authorship of the human world.” As soon as an objective social world is established, Berger says, the possibility of reification is “never far away.” The objectivity of the social world means that it confronts us as something outside of ourselves. We forget our authorship of the human world.

A reified world is one in which we apprehend human phenomena as if they were “things,” that is, in “non-human or possibly superhuman terms.” We perceive the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products—such as “facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will.”

Reification, Berger says, implies that man is capable of “forgetting his own authorship of the human world.” The dialectic between man the producer—and his products—is “lost to consciousness.” This reified world is, by definition, a “dehumanized one,” experienced as a “strange facticity” over which we have no control—rather than as the opus proprium of our own productive activity.”

Berger’s concept of reification provides insight into modes of explanation that have dominated recent social theory. There is a tendency to theorize (or experience) culture as if a “thing apart;” a complex of ideas and institutions that exists separate and apart from actual human beings.

For example, the “symbolic order” often is presented as if it were an objective, external reality—possessing an independent existence. Rarely do we get a sense from those who theorize this idea that human beings are responsible for—have created—the symbolic order.

“Discourses,” similarly, seem to exist as reified entities—separate and apart from the human beings who create and embrace discourses. They seem to descend upon us—an act from “up above”—a transcendent domain beyond the world of concrete human beings.

Berger uses the term alienation to describe an “extreme step in objectivation” where society takes on the appearance of total fixity and the “human origination of society is forgotten.” In alienation, the total world appears as if something “other” than a human creation.

Berger uses the term “dereification” to describe the process of “remembering that society is a human enterprise.” It is possible for human beings to live “without the reified illusion?”