Social Construction of Reality Research Paper Starter

Social Construction of Reality

(Research Starters)

In 1966 Berger and Luckmann published their landmark study, “The Social Construction of Reality”. In their view, the reality that exists for members of a society consists of phenomena they construct by their social actions—by behaving as if they were following conventional rules, as if the phenomenon did exist. This work is based on a long tradition of scholarship from Immanuel Kant to Edmund Husserl and Alfred Scheutz. Kant had shattered the foundations of certainty of knowledge and rested it on the public use of reason. Scheutz, Peter Berger, and Thomas Luckmann presume that people create their own social order.

Keywords Berger, Peter; Externalization; Horizon; Internalization; Intersubjectivity; Intentionality; Luckmann, Thomas; Objectivation; Phenomenology; Structural Functionalism; Symbolic Interactionism

Day to Day Social Interaction: The Social Construction of Reality


What is the world that we perceive and live in with others? What is it made of, how, and by whom? These questions are certainly as old as humanity, or at the very least since humans began philosophical pondering. Social phenomenologists suggest that it is we who make the world as social beings through the relations we enter into. This is, of course, oversimplified.


Philosophers have tried to tackle this question. The famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) shook the foundations of the general understanding of reality and perception. The bits and pieces of his ideas were floating around for quite some time in the Western scholarly world of the eighteenth century. Between 1787 and 1790, Kant published his famous Three Critiques, which belong on every philosopher's reading list, as much as Plato's The Republic or John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

Immanuel Kant

It is basically impossible to give a short description of what Kant accomplished in these voluminous works. As with every highly important, equally sophisticated, and complex work in the history of ideas and science, its meaning has been debated and contested many times over and there are many rivaling accounts of its correct interpretation.

Some of Kant's predecessors had speculated on the reality we perceive: whether it exists exactly as we perceive it; whether our sensory perceptions are but a minute aspect of this reality; whether this reality is actually only a figment of our imagination; or whether this imagination is only one imagination and all the other people in it are imagined. This is called solipsism, and while you are reading this, ask yourself whether it would be possible if this text, your parents and friends, and the world outside of the window are all but products of your consciousness and nothing but this consciousness exists. In all of this, Kant asked himself a few supposedly simple questions: What does it mean to understand that things end? What does it mean to think that there could be a god who is immortal? What is time? What is space?

And then he asked what actually is it that our consciousness has to have before it ever has a perception whatsoever and what our mind therefore lays over the experiences we make in and with the world, while accepting that there is a world that affects us. In short, to summarize Kant, the things that make the world outside of our mind, we can never know. They are things-in-themselves, but they affect us. To make sense of the world so we can act in it, the mind does bring to experiences certain things that Kant calls transcendental or a priori to experience, meaning before experience. Most important of these are the concepts of time and space.

The concepts our mind uses to have thoughts of the world and to find direction and orientation in it are therefore not fixed or identical with the things-in-themselves. Therefore, there really is no concept of a truth that is really certain; some things we have to postulate and just take at face value.

So how do we gain any kind of certainty at all? Understanding, reason, and judgment are the tools we have for the task of making use of concepts. And we also know that there must be others like us, entities with minds of their own, each of whom has his or her own ways to find certainty. They and their actions become the touchstone for our judgments and our concepts about the world. We act with others and try our concepts and judgments out to find out if they match with others’. Reason is therefore a public affair. A century after Kant, scholars study this question in much more detail under the term “communication.”

Schopenhauer, Husserl

Many developments in science and philosophy have followed in the wake of Kant. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) published his seminal The World as Will and Representation in 1818–19. For the most part, he accepted Kant's central distinction of phenomena (that which is perceived) and noumena (that which is thought of). He introduced the concept of will to bridge the gap from the side of the thought, of the noumena. The world is therefore willed as a representation for the one who perceives. The phenomena are not independent of that consciousness.

Another version of this distinction was created by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Husserl founded the philosophical discipline of phenomenology. According to Husserl, by "bracketing" away the assumptions we hold in regard to the external world when viewing a phenomenon, we can actually reach the essence of this phenomenon. The consciousness as an act and the direction of the objects are two different things. There is no thought that is not directed, that does not have intentionality. Therefore, our directedness to the object in intentionality does therefore also constitute it. This speculation lead Husserl to another question—namely, what happens when several people refer to an object in communication, what is the "I" to which they are referring, if each subjective mind has its own intentionality and constitutes the object for each person in his or her own way. In the study of communication, this is the problem of intersubjectivity.

Alfred Scheutz (1899–1959) studied law and worked most of his life as a banker. He can be considered the founder of phenomenological sociology. In his native Austria, Scheutz easily gained access to the academic world of Vienna. He was also a known figure in Paris. But his emigration to the US in 1938 denied him the same kind of access that he had in Europe for quite a long time. The philosophical world of the US was long in the process of turning away from idealist and speculative thought and toward British logic and language philosophy, represented by Bertrand Russell and, later, W.V.O. Quine. US sociology was dominated in the 1940s and 1950s by Talcott Parsons' effort to create a common conceptual frame for the fragmented social sciences, which was dubbed structural-functionalism, or social systems theory. Scheutz tried to gain Parsons' attention, which made sense in so far as both thought of "social action" as a central concept of theory and both were deeply influenced by the work of Max Weber (1864–1920). But their correspondence was short lived to the regret of Scheutz, since Parsons had little use for what he called "contemplative philosophy."

Parsons was himself trained in philosophical thinking, economics, and biology, but he was fascinated by conceptual frames that could actually be put to pragmatic use and did not remain mere speculative thought.

The details of this chapter of intellectual history with regard to Parsons and his intellectual and conceptual background have been highly disputed (including his exchanges with Scheutz). Stingl (2008) has tried to give an account that could open up the debate in so far as he can integrate several different accounts.


Following in Scheutz's footsteps, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann published The Social Construction of Reality in 1966. Focusing on a perspective of the sociology of knowledge, Berger and Luckmann assume a constant process of creation of knowledge occurring in the interactions of people. This body of knowledge, thus continuously created, becomes socially accepted as a shared reality that the actors experience as both subjectively meaningful and objectively factual.

In their view, the reality that exists for members of a society comprises phenomena each member constructs by their social actions—by behaving as if they were following conventional rules, as if the phenomenon did exist. The most famous example is perhaps the assumption of the existence of social status.

Further Insights

Schuetz's Social Phenomenology

Scheutz tried to conflate Husserl's phenomenology with Weber's idea of subjective understanding, wherein the meaning of...

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