The Social Construction of Reality is rooted in a sociological interest in the concepts of Reality and Knowledge. Berger and Luckmann argue that from a sociological perspective this interest is justified by the social relativity of these concepts. Berger and Luckman say, “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American Businessman. The ‘knowledge’ of the criminal differs from the ‘knowledge’ of the criminologist. It follows that specific agglomerations of ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’ pertain to specific social contexts, and that these relationships will have to be included in an adequate sociological analysis of these contexts.” (p15)
Berger and Luckmann believe that the sociology of knowledge should be concerned with a society’s criteria of knowledge and how this is developed. Their postpositivist stance is clearly laid out when they write of how members of society arrange their world view around their ‘here and now’, both originating and maintaining their ideas of reality and knowledge from their own thoughts and actions (and other significants in their life) rather than anything truly objective.
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. (p 33)
Berger and Luckmann believe that semiotics or signification is the primary means by which human beings categorise their subjective view of the world. They define a sign as anything that has an “explicit intention to serve as an index of subjective meaning.” (p50) These include gestures, body language, material artefacts, and the most important is language, which they say may be defined as “a series of vocal signs”.
Language provides me with a ready-made possibility for the ongoing objectification of my unfolding experience. (p53)
Berger and Luckmann believe that society and social order are solely products of human activity, and that social norms and rules are a man-made, rather than natural, process.
Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product. (p79)
Because of this social construction, members of a society or ‘institution’ who were involved in the construction of the social norms are much more likely to conform to their constraints. Social disorder generally comes from new members of society that were not part of the construction. In order to properly ‘socialise’ new members of the society, sanctions must be put in place to prevent them from breaking the rules.
Deviance from the institutionally ‘programmed’ courses of action becomes likely once the institutions have become realities divorced from their original relevance in the concrete social process from which they arose. To put this more simply, it is more likely that one will deviate from programmes set up for one by others than from programmes that one has helped establish oneself. The new generation posits a problem of compliance, and its socialisation into the institutional order requires the establishment of sanctions. (p80)
Institutional segregation causes the formation of “socially segregated sub-universes of meaning”. These sub-universes can be structured based on criteria such as sex, age, occupation or religion. Each sub-universe has it’s own structured values, norms, rules and barriers to entry. Berger and Luckmann give the example of the medical profession as a sub-universe and the various mechanics in place to keep non-medical professions following the instructions of doctors and to keep doctors from resorting to unapproved conduct like religious or homeopathic healing.
The increasing number and complexity of sub-universes make them increasingly inaccessible to outsiders. They become esoteric enclaves, ‘hermetically sealed’ (in the sense classically associated with the Hermetic corpus of secret lore) to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries. […] The outsiders have to be kept out, sometimes even kept ignorant of the existence of the sub-universe. If, however, they are not so ignorant, and if the sub-universe requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure. This is done through various techniques of intimidation, rational and irrational propaganda (appealing to the outsiders’ interests and to their emotions), mystification, and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols. The insiders, on the other hand, have to be kept in. This requires the development of practical and theoretical procedures by which the temptation to escape from the sub-universe can be checked. (p104-105)
On the topic of revolution and revolutionary leaders Berger and Luckmann say that often a group will take on an ideological doctrine because it has gain for them and people of their status in society. Involvement in such a group provides them with solidarity and legitimation for their cause. The revolutionary leader likewise must have others who agree with him and help to maintain the subjective plausibility of his ideology in his own mind. Practical success of the ideology fortifies the reality it possesses for the leader and the group as a whole.
Frequently an ideology is taken on by a group because of specific theoretical elements that are conducive to its interests. For example, when an impoverished peasant group struggles against an urban merchant group that has financially enslaved it, it may rally around a religious doctrine that upholds the virtues of agrarian life, condemns the money economy and its credit system as immoral, and generally decries the luxuries of modern living. The ideological ‘gain’ of such a doctrine for the peasants is obvious. […] Every group engaged in social conflict requires solidarity. Ideologies generate solidarity. The choice of a particular ideology is not necessarily based on its intrinsic theoretical elements, but may stem from a chance encounter. (p141-142)