NOTES on: Berger, P.  and Pullberg, S.  (1966) Reification and the Sociological Critique of Consciousness.  In New Left Review I/35 56 -71

Dave Harris

We can divide sociological theories into those that sees society as 'a network of human beings', or as 'a thing—like facticity' (56).  Social structures are either the result of human interaction, or some external reality.  These two types can be represented by Weber and Durkheim.  What is really needed is a new perspective showing their interrelatedness.  Durkheim is useful for showing how social relations look real and are taken as such, but we also need to examine how they become given or real.  We do not need some abstract model that contains both, but rather to retain aspects and both theories—how do subjective meanings become objective and factual?  How do human activities produce social things?  Neither Weber nor Durkheim can do this on their own, and we need to understand the full comprehensive process, 'involving both subjective productivity and objective product' (57): this means we must 'understand society as a dialectical process'.  Certain marxian categories are useful here, although there is no political commitment, and we want to develop a sociology of knowledge.

Reification, for example, might be useful.  In Hegel, we need a dialectical perspective to show how the experience and consciousness are related.  Experience involves not only knowledge, but also praxis, as an all encompassing 'philosophical totalization' (58): 'Spirit objectivates itself, alienates itself and recovers itself without respite', and this constitutes experience.  The dialectical link overcomes rigid oppositions between being and thinking.  Although Hegel never used the term, we can see reification in each stage, whenever objects are experienced in themselves, something against a subject.  Such reification produces limited experience, and thus an impulse towards new and higher levels of thought, until we get to the absolute when we realise 'the complete dialecticality of thinking and being'.  This process is revealed in history, but at the absolute stage, alienation will be 'surmounted' in a moment of fully transparent understanding.

Marx objects to this in two ways, involving an attempt to separate alienation from the general process of objectivation.  In EPM, Marx accuses Hegel of reducing real activities and contradictions to dialectical moments of [pure] movement.  There is a real process and existence which is not the same as philosophical thought.  From the point of view of Hegel, all human beings and their works must be reifications, but this confuses reification with alienation and with objectivity in the name of 'transcendental idealism' (59).  For Hegel, only thought can realize the dialectic.  Hegel absorbs human beings into thought forms, but he also develops 'an objective scientism'involving a particular conception of human nature: but humans are involved in constructing their own nature and even science.  We see this in commodity production, which produces a reified set of social relations as described in economics, and only the commodity seems to relate human beings to each other, as external things, separating and uniting them, but only as 'functions of the autonomous economic system'.  Labour becomes reduced to work and so on.  This is not economic determinism for B and P—they use that term to describe an uncritical deployment of this fetishized view of social life.

So there are two aspects of reification for Marx—'the autonomization of objectivity', stripping out human activity, and the specific 'autonomization of the economic' which turns human relations of production into something thing like.  Having pinned down the process in the economic, we can then extend it to all social relations, as do Lukacs and Goldmann.  As a result we get reified theory in social and political sciences.  These offer an understanding of ourselves 'precisely as reified', and this helps 'perpetuate and legitimate' alienation and reification (60).

We need to take away polemic and utopian thinking from this discussion, and clarify the terms.  Objectivation can be described as a general process where by 'humans subjectivity embodies itself in products'.  This is 'anthropologically necessary', since human beings are always intentional, and direct their subjectivity towards the world.  Objectification is something different: it is a stage in the process of objectivation that permits us to grasp what is going on in consciousness, using language, giving objects a name, communicating that name to others.  Alienation refers to a broken stage in this general process of producing objects: products appear 'as an alien facticity and power standing in itself and over against [us] , no longer recognizable as a product' (61).  This permits human beings to forget that they have produce the world in which they live.  Alienation is not the same as psychological estrangement, as in anomie—alienated products include religious interpretations and myth.  Alienation need not be experienced in terms of psychological stress, since it might be normal and healthy to see social life is produced by some divine force: 'Psychological "health" is a function of the social situation'.  Reification refers to the last stage in the process of alienation, when things 'become the standard of objective reality', and only things are accepted as real.  It requires 'objectification in an alienated mode'.  It is perfectly possible for any historical phenomenon to be alienated and reified, but it need not be so, unlike objectivation and objectification, which are anthropologically necessary and a priori.

Human beings produce a world because they are directed towards objects when they act.  Action means changing what is given, developing a meaningful totality with meaningful actions in it.  This is never completed but is always being constructed in a process of 'totalization'(62).  But this is always a social process, since 'sociality is a necessary element of human being'.  The reality of social worlds have to be constructed and reconstructed, 'continuously realized', meaning both actualized and recognized.  The reality of the world has to be constantly reaffirmed, again as a social process, involving the consent of others.  It is possible to see the constructed world as clearly expressing the intentionality of people who produced it, and it is this that makes it understandable.

Social structure is an objectivated part of a constructed world: 'social structuration is part of the human enterprise of totalization'.  Social structures have no other reality, apart from human activity that produces them, and they have to be constantly realized.  However, they are essential to existence, since they constantly provide sense to the individual and 'new modes of meaningful action' (63).  Social structures are both produced, and are an medium for further production.  We only become social through social structure.

These arguments so far operate with pure possibilities.  In concrete circumstances, social structures often narrow horizons for the people who inhabit them, appearing as 'an external facticity', something alien and opaque, something coercive—hence the notion of the social fact as something that resists the individual.  Individuals are vulnerable.  Structures also socialize individuals and this 'pervasive regulated functionality of social structure takes on an almost automatic character'.  Social structures must do this to maintain some kind of social order, since there are no biological constraints with human beings.  We can see this external character by invoking any of the institutions, such as families or workplaces, but it is also found in language 'the most fundamental social objectivation of all'.  Language is clearly a human product yet it is also an external facticity, and it regulates us in an automatic fashion, requiring a minimum of reflection.

All this is commonplace, but it implies that the institutionalization of human actions, and social structures, require alienation, in order to produce the taken for granted world.  Strangely, then, human beings are producing a world from which they are alienated—but there is at least the theoretical possibility of reversing the process.  One effect of alienation is not only to produce an external world, but to produce a closed self, an objective humanity, or reified consciousness.  [Note in the footnotes there are some references to Sartre].

There are in fact three levels of consciousness: (a) 'direct and pre-reflective presence to the world' (65); (b) the reflective awareness of the world; (c) specifically theoretical formulations.  Reification can occur on the last two levels, which implies that ' the foundations of theoretical reification lie in the pre-theoretical reification of the world and of oneself'.  Social situations can produce alienation and reification, as when expressive intentions of human beings, gestures, for example, are seen as things in themselves.  We now see how reification entails dehumanization.

However, human beings continue to reflect and even to theorize.  If this is done with already alienated objects, we get an alienated totalization, or alienated consciousness.  This can be 'designated as false consciousness', mistaking the results of the process and forgetting the process.  If this 'achieves a theoretical formulation', it can serve to mystify [as in ideology, although the authors do not want to use the term].  For example, an objectivated gesture gets further objectified on reflection, and then worked into a whole system or 'reifying apparatus by which any gesture is no longer a specific expression', but produces a stereotyped world view.  At a further level, a reified psychology might develop based on these world views. 

It is clear that theoretical levels do not simply reflect underlying social processes.  They can themselves affect pre-reflective forms of consciousness.  They can offer extra levels of reification, becoming dogmas and closing off any further possibilities.  The example, page 66, turns on role theory—the notion of role objectifies action, further reflection about roles might want to apply this to all action, and a sociology might develop 'that regards roles rather than people as the prime reality', as a further mystification, as in it is roles that interact: people are only playing roles.  This model of the world can be internalized, and indeed, is quite likely to affect 'certain middle-class college-educated strata in America' (67) [a footnote specifically exempts Mead who retains a dialectical link between I and me.  It does echo the mockery of Goffman as a theorist of American bourgeois].

This is a typical process of reification, involving roles and institutions as reality.  Roles are reified versions of action, as we saw, and can be seen as constraining individuals, who can only embody roles.  The analysis can be applied to all levels of social development.  They can produce a particular kind of false consciousness as when businessmen argue that they are acting on behalf of the economic system.  There can be religious undertones in this view in that human beings merely represent 'various superhuman abstractions they are supposed to embody', and religious or scientific theories can develop on this basis.  Institutions are reified by seeing them not as objectivations, but as something supra-human, factual as in something natural.  Families can be reified like this, producing deviants who seem to rebel against the very nature of things.  A current example is 'the horror with which "sexual perversion" is still regarded today'[things have moved on a bit since then, but pedophilia, I suppose, would remain as an example].  Even the deployment of medicalized categories instead of moral ones 'hardly mitigates the harshness of theoretical annihilation' (68).  These reifications might tap into something fundamental, 'the terror of chaos'.

After these reifications, the dialectical process is lost, and replaced by some notion like mechanical causality.  Human relations are understood as relations of things.  The dialectic stops, and only society produces men—this is 'sociologism [which] represents reification on the level of theoretical formulation'.  The reification 'converts the concrete into the abstract, then in turn concretizes the abstract'.  It reduces quality to quantity, and this helps an institutional system function, seen best in bureaucracies.  The process is 'cross cultural and historically recurrent', found in people and the 20th century, the 12th century and 'the primitive in just about any century'.  Reifications help systems of any kind run more smoothly, minimizing reflection and choice, making conduct automatic, and the world is something taken for granted.  'Reification in this way comes close to being a functional imperative'.  It helps reduce actions to graspable processes, actions without the actor.  Social processes are therefore 'intrinsically alienating and dehumanizing'[always?  They have always been so far?].  However, there is not a strong anthropological necessity, even though reification is the reality for 'most'societies (69).  We cannot see this as some fall from original paradise, and,  nor is it confined only to capitalism [Levi Strauss and Savage Mind is cited].  Psychology suggests even that 'reification is at least a stage in the biography of the individual as it is in the history of the species'(69) [a footnote cites Piaget!].

Dereification remains as a theoretical possibility, but there have also been three actual 'socio-historical constellations' which are 'conducive'.  In the first place, social structures can disintegrate in a crisis producing 'catastrophic disenchantment', and this has happened in ancient societies as well as modern ones.  Secondly, cultural contacts can dereify even if they do not produce cultural collapse.  Contacts lead to a crisis in knowledge, 'a clash of worlds', and several consequences might arise ranging from 'promiscuous syncretism to violent xenophobic retreat' (70).  Thirdly, some groups and individuals may serve to marginalize mainstream views, as with European jews, or Indian ascetics, both of whom contributed debunking and sardonic comment.  Some individuals may deliberately seek marginality in order to become more aware, or they might have been placed in a marginal position 'as a result of one or another biographical accident' [and the footnote cites Simmel on the stranger, and Vebelen on the Jews].

The sociology of knowledge is itself marginal: philosophy claims to be best able to analyze consciousness, while sociology tends to focus on social locations.  However, inputs are required from both.  Philosophy tends to isolate itself from the world in order to contemplate it, and as a result it can itself become 'alienated activity, estranged both from man and his world'(71) [the self chosen fate of Deleuze].  Philosophy can become unpopular and unintelligible, but philosophy is still a human product, and philosophers are socially located: it can be seen as a superstructure based on 'actual concrete living human intersubjectivity'(71).  It should turn instead to a critique of everyday life [and Schutz and Lefebvre are good examples].  Sociology can turn into narrow empiricism or abstract theorising, and again both depart from everyday life and turn into superstructure.  It can also produce unintelligible pomposity.  It must also return to clarify every day life which 'entails a critique of consciousness, which is the very stuff of everyday life'.  The sociology of knowledge offers an essential meeting place between the two disciplines, and will stop alienation both in philosophy and sociology.  The analysis of reification is one example of possible progress.

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