Reading Guide to :Berger P and Luckmann T (1966) -- The Social Construction of Reality: a treatise on the sociology of knowledge, London: Penguin University Books

by Dave Harris

Berger’s and Luckmann’s (B&L) Social Construction of Reality is an important book dealing with several themes - an attempt to found a new ‘sociology of knowledge’, an introduction to Schutz and social phenomenology, and a theoretical background for many of’the later works by both authors ( like Pullberg or the Kellners) in the fields of sociology of religion and industrialisation. The major theme concerns the ‘split’ between ‘structure’ and ‘action’ in Sociology, and B’s&L’s attempt to reconcile the 2 approaches. This theme is an important one in the book — in .the introduction, for example, the authors select 2 famous quotations which express the basic starting points for ‘structuralist’ and ‘action’ Sociology: 

‘The first and most fundamental rule is: consider social facts as things’ (Durkheim), and ‘... for Sociology … the object of cognition is the subjective meaning complex of action’ (Weber)

 B&L say that these 2 positions are not contradictory or mutually exclusive, and, further, that both are correct, and that all Sociologists know it. For them, the problem really is — how do subjective meanings become objective ‘things’? How do human actors so construct the world  that their products come to appear as things? Why does the social world seem real to people?

Throughout the book and in the Conclusion we find arguments that emphasise this dual nature of social life, the way in which social structures and individual consciousnesses are not separate but interlinked. We also find an attack on both functionalism and ‘later Marxism’ for giving a one-sided, distorted picture of this interlinking — functionalism reifies the social system, ‘later Marxists’ have reverted to a crude economic determinism. A number of other: positions are attacked to — e.g. those that operate with an ‘ahistorial human nature’ (which would include all those approaches claiming to have discovered: ‘essential’ timeless qualities of human beings and their personalities etc.). They also briefly discuss other ‘syntheses’ which ate ‘really rooted in one side of the ‘split’ and which merely account for the other side (e.g. maybe Parsons or simple attempts to use crude ’bridging concepts’ like ideology, possible even these approaches like ethnomethodology which see social structures are a mere backdrop to interaction?), Of course, B&L’s own approach can be criticised in just the same way as we’ll see..

For B&L, both ‘society’ and the individual’ are crucial for Sociological study The relation between the 2 aspects is not mechanistic, casual or one-directional but dialectic. B&L are not as specific in their definition of the term ‘dialectic’, describing the term as indicating merely an ‘ongoing relationship’ (sic!), a relationship between 2 phenomena which progresses and which leaves both changed It must be said, however, that, for me anyway, the idea that both phenomena are transformed does get abandoned rather at times - e g during the discussions on socialisation in Pt. 3 of the book — and, strangely, the book’ itself treats social structure and individual consciousness in 2 separate parts. Anyway, what are the stages or ‘moments’ of this dialectic ? The simplest model involves 3 key state­ments, and 3 parallel sets of social processes.

Society is a human product Externalisation, habitualisation, typification, sedimentation.
Society is an objective reality Objectivation ,institutionalisation, legitimation (in various stages), reification (and n.b.opposing processes like de-institutionalisation)
Man [sic] is a social product Internalisation, socialisation (in various stages) producing finally a ‘taken for granted’ ‘symmetry

All these terms are fully described in the book. Let me summarise the discussion and fill out these terms a little.

Human beings create society. As they act. they build up patterns of action, organising perceptions into coherent patterns, and organising their own actions on patterned lines too.  In other words, we fall into habitual ways of acting. When we relate to others we relate to them as typical, as ideal types (as in Schutz): Interaction takes place on.the basis of a mutual ‘typification’ process, and we typify in various degrees of anonymity, detail etc. (Cf Schutz on interactions with contemporaries, consociates., predecessors etc.). Sedimentation occurs when we selectively perceive, and store information according to its relevance to us — e.g. we soon learn what is relevant for interaction, with some people and we learn to forget the rest of the characteristics, of that person. (e .g., as a trivial example, we soon lean to ignore the physical characteristics of our students and focus only upon their minds). 

‘Men’ therefore are free to act but as they act they create regularities or patterns in various ways and for various reasons. Humans create ‘recipes’ for living in their social world — standardised ways of carrying on social life. These recipes can become embodied in institutions, which consist of interlocking recipes — such institutions might be families, industrial organisations etc. and here we are getting close to talking about whole societies, of course. , ‘Language’ (meaning symbolic utterances of all kinds, even non-verbal ones) plays a key part in these processes, enabling subjective actions to be named, conceptualised and objectified, and also offering its own limits to personal meanings etc.

Why do these processes occur? For B&L. it is a basic human necessity to limit free choice and the chaos or anomie that would result. We have no detailed biological forces to produce regularity in conduct, yet regula­rity is crucial, both at the personal and social levels. At this point, B&L. get very Durkheimian, spelling out the personal terrors of anomie, the similarity between ‘free choice’ and madness, the ambivalent nature of personal choice (which offers both ecstasy and angst.) Clearly, for B&L., no human being could tolerate disorder/chaos/choice very long. Throughout the book, the strongly social nature of the self is stressed continually — e.g. see the discussion on the difficulties of changing one’s primary identity, the necessarily dramatic nature of ‘conversions’ in adult life, and so on. Even simple 2-option choices are difficult for individuals to take - and we need a strong supporting social group to help us take even these.

Humans do construct social life, but this social life, becomes real, a series of ‘social facts’. This can be seen clearly in historical terms —and the famous ‘castaways on a desert island’ example make this clear

Briefly, B&L ask us to imagine being stranded on a desert island for a very long period. At first we would preserve our existing way of life, but eventually we might decide to change things -- maybe live in polygamous marriages, or let kids be raised by their uncles. We would be able to remember  when and how we decided to change things, but for the generation of kids born on the island, those arrangements would soon come to appear as 'natural', 'fixed', 'traditional' etc

For B&L, there are apparently inevitable tendencies to strengthen existing social patterns, to ensure they are seen as ‘real’ or ‘objective’ by newcomers (largely from within a Durkheimian focus on the need for moral solidarity). This is legitimation — the process of the creation of ideas and explanations, both explicitly theoretical and ‘common-sense’, both specific and very general, which explain and justify the existing state of affairs and even try to account for different beliefs within the existing state of affairs. The effectiveness of legitimations can vary between social structures — as in Durkheim, legitimation is simpler in pre-industrial societies, but made more difficult by industrialisation, the division of labour, pluralism and so on. Where legitimation is very effective, reification ensues — the existing arrangements are seen as completely acceptable, even as ‘natural’, as obeying some non-human logic of their own, and so on. Legitimation is clearly connected with the distribution of ideas, the control of ideas, and ultimately access to power and force - so power and conflict are catered for by B&L., although they are keen to reject the view that the range or content of ideas are inevitably limited, or even pre-determined in some way, by social structures. Ideas are dialectically linked to social structures Despite some references to the young Marx, however, this position can be criticised from Marxist positions, as we’ll see.

Humans, the creator of society, are themselves a social product. Having created structure, we then internalise it — it becomes part of our consciousness, it becomes invested with personal meaning, it affects the availability and the legitimacy of meanings. This internalisation is accomplished through socialisation in various stages: (see, the interesting discussion on ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ socialization, for example.) The mechanisms of socialisation are as in symbolic interactionism and Mead in particular. As with Mead, the simple passive view of the individual totally at the mercy of their socialisers is rejected — individuals interact with socialisers from the beginning, and, especially in industrial societies, individuals are likely to meet a range of significant others who disagree with each other. Nor need the primary socialisers necessarily be the most influential ones (although this is so often glibly assumed in Sociology and Social Psychology) Thus an individual’s collection of significant others can be unique, as can the reaction to them. This is what accounts for ‘individuality’: not some pure, non-social ‘personality’. Individuals can also go mad — i.e. find themselves with thoughts/beliefs/identities which are not socially supported by any group. At the opposite end of this possibility we have perfect: socialisation, where individuals conform completely to the ideas, beliefs and values of others with no reservations or inconsistencies, so they can act anywhere in society in a totally ‘taken-for-granted’ way. This kind of Parsonian dream (nightmare?) symmetry between actor and system is a highly unlikely possibility, as we have seen. The dialectic possibilities of socialisation occur throughout — e.g. it offers a basis for both conformity and change (I am socialised into using concepts and language which are common - but I use these to think my. own thoughts, for example.)


There are basic movements and processes which operate at the levels of both consciousness and social structure and thus re-unite the 2 approaches to Sociology. This is a dialectic process — not simply a matter of finding ‘bridging concepts’. The dialectic operates historically (between generations if you like) but it also operates continuously in the present. Everyone in society has to continually act to make the patterns work — there are nomic processes in social life as well as anomic ones (1). Industrial society in particular, offers a continued tension between order and disorder that must be resolved (2). Individuals, too, face a constant tension, a choice of identities (3) a tension between trying to use in situations, and learning new ones, tensions between the values learned in families and those learned in ‘secondary socialisation’ (especially for the socially mobile). Some social conditions produce more tensions than others (4) but B&L. say these tensions are inevitably part of human being in social contexts (5), that the opposing poles of ‘actor’ and ‘society’ really are ‘united opposites’ as in the Marxian sense.


As you might imagine, sociologists within the ‘structuralist’ or ‘action’ approaches proper find B&L to offer only a partial and simplified account of their views - thus see Walton and Gamble on B&L’s suspect ‘Marxism’. Compare also the views within Marxism which place conflict, struggle and material interests and activity at the centre of any attempt to understand social life. At the crudest level, compare a Marxist account of historical change with B & L’s account of change as random, accidental, possible but not structured, and ‘idealist’ etc.

 On another level try Giddens’ attack on interpretative sociology. Never mentioning B & L specifically, it raises particular problems for B&L by insisting that structures themselves have a ‘duality’ (including an unintended, non-voluntary constraining tendency etc.) By comparison, I think B&L can be seen as nothing more than an attempt to extend Schutz further into conventional sociology, rather than attempting to do full justice to both ‘perspectives’. 


(1) For a discussion and an example see Berger and Kellner on marriage in Dreitzel (ed) Recent Sociology Vol 2.

(2) Generally on industrial society and its moral crises etc. see Berger, Kellner and Kellner The Homeless Mind.

(3) See Berger’s article in Dale et al (eds) School and Society. 

(4) Berger and Pullberg ‘History and the Reification of Consciousness’.  Here, Berger and Pullberg make a crucial distinction between objectification (inevitable) and reification (occurs only in some circumstances — with heavy hints of Marxist analyses.) 

(5) As their individual work on the sociology of religion shows e.g. Berger The Sacred Canopy, or Luckmann The Invisible Religion.

 notes on more social theorists here