Class 4: Social Construction of Reality
Meaning, while consensually agreed upon in most instances, is ultimately the social construction of actors, not inherent in the objects themselves.
One of the main positions of symbolic interactionism is that all objects have meaning, and that meaning is a product of communication between people. People can only interact successfully when they share meanings.
Objects take on a meaning in relation to the person's plan for them. An empty bottle can be a vase for someone who has flowers, or a weapon for someone in a bar-room brawl.
Society isn't something that's "out there," disconnected from our interactions. Society is a result of our interactions, and society guides our interactions.
"If men define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences" (Thomas & Thomas, 1928).
For example, how is it that one race is defined as inferior to another? It isn't just the act of defining one race as inferior to another, but the definition may result in others treating them as inferior, or them perceiving themselves as inferior. Therefore, while initial reality is soft as it is constructed, it can become hard in its effects.
According to Berger and Luckmann (1966), society is constructed through three stages.
- Externalization- we create cultural products through social interaction. These cultural products may be material products, social institutions or values or beliefs concerning a particular groups. When these products are created, they become external to those who have produced them, becoming products outside ourselves.
- Objectivation- is when products created in the first stage appear to take on a reality of their own, becoming independent of those who created them. People lose awareness that they themselves are the authors of their social and cultural environment and of their interpretations of reality. They feel as if the products have an objective existence and they'll become another part of reality to be taken for granted.
- Internalization- we learn the supposedly "objective facts" about the cultural products that have been created. This occurs primarily through socialization, the process of social interaction in which one learns the ways of society and one's specific roles-- the sets of rules and expectations attached to a social position in that society. In this stage we make these facts part of our consciousness. Because of this process of internalization, members of the same culture share an understanding of reality and rarely question the origins of their beliefs or the process through which these beliefs arose.
We have strong beliefs about certain mundane objects without much explanation. Imagine the toilet paper roll in your bathroom-- do you prefer that the toilet paper lay over the roll or hang under the roll? In this activity, we get into groups in the class and discuss the way the toilet paper should hang, and typically people do not agree. Surprisingly, some people are adamant that their way is the "proper" way. How did they learn that their way is right? Even when faced with the realization that toilet paper producers agree that either way is equally correct, people may still hold their strong viewpoints. These people have internalized the "objective fact" that there is a proper way to place the toilet paper on the holder, and it is hard for them to accept that their fact is false. For more information, see Burns, Edgar Alan. 2003. "Bathroom Politics: Introducing Students to Sociological Thinking from the Bottom Up." Teaching Sociology 31:110-118.
Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Books.
Thomas, W.I., and D.S. Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.