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Peter Berger

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berger                                     Peter Berger (1929- )                                  

  • Biographies

    Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann are included here together not because they have no significant individual works of their own, but because their combined work - the publication of The Social Construction of Reality A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966) has been one of the most influential Critical Therory texts in the latter part of the 20th Century.

    Like many of his Critical Theory colleagues, Peter Berger was born in Vienna and moved to the United States at the end of the Second World War. He is a sociologist and a Lutheran Theologian - a strange combination for someone so influential ijn Critical Theory. After completing a Bachelor of Arts he moved to the New School for Social Research in New York where he completed an MA (1950) and a PhD (1952). Following a series of appointments at Rutgers and Boston College he finally settled at Boston University where he has been a professor of Sociology and Theology since 1985. His many books include studies in sociological theory, religion and Third World development. Titles include: Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (1997); Modernity, Pluralism and the Crisis of Meaning (with Thomas Luckmann, 1995); The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions About Prosperity,Equality and Liberty (1988); and The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground (with Brigitte Berger, 1983). In the 1960s he met and collaborated with Ivan Illich developing programmes at the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

    Berger's co-author, Thomas Luckmann was born in Slovenia - a part of Yugoslavia. He too is involved in theorising in the areas of include the Sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion, the sociology of communication and the philosophy of science. Sijnce 1984 he has been an Emeritus Professor at the University of  Constance in Germany. He was educated at the University of Vienna and Innsbruck and (like Berger) The New School for Social Research in New York. THe is a major figure in the postwar development of the social sciences - not only in regard to religion. Hs name has also been associated with major theoretical and methodological developments in both philosophy and sociology. But it is for his work in the Socioloogy of Knowledge tghat he is best known. These particular works include his two books with Berger, The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and Modernity, Pluralism and the Crisis of Meaning (1995) as well as his Structures of the Life-World (1982, together with his colleague Alfred Schütz that he is best known. Schutz had a significant influence on Luckmann and his work is mentioned extensively in his Social Construction of Reality.(Schutz worked as a banker most of his life and taught intermittently at the New School for Social Research. He was primarily interested in the Phenomenology of Husserl and the works of Max Weber in the Sociology of Knowledge).

    Work

    As Berger and Luckmann so eloquently articulate, we are not born with the model or view of the world through which we order and interpret our sensory and cognitive realities. It develops as we develop from the institutionalised normativities into which we are born and through which we ourselves grow and develop. Its development is part of the normal process of socialisation which marks the course of our life experiences, and it is given shape and form by those experiences as we either accept or reject the socially institutionalised conceptions and meanings which form the basis of our everyday lives. It is ordered, in fact, by the classification systems which we use to separate, distinguish and organise our structured understanding of reality. 

    This classification system pervades every corner of our social existence and influences extensively our "knowledge" of the world.   This is the case in general, but it is also and perhaps particularly the case in the professions and the higher reaches of academia where high-order conceptual distinctions are made and legitimated between different areas of knowledge.  These high-order classifications exert a wide and pervasive influence not only within the professions themselves, but also in the wider world outside. Indeed, to speak of an "outside" or an "inside to professions is to acknowledge that the conceptual classificatory systems by which they operate are constituted of  linguistic boundaries by which they define themselves as an area of exclusivity.

    The conceptual categories by which the professions organise their "internal" reality as well as their collective understanding of the wider epistemological world within which this reality is located are, like all such understandings, socially constructed.  As institutionalised systems of common values and meanings, the professions engage in a continual process of reality formation, protection and modification. In general, this process of the social construction of reality is the province of the field of knowledge known as the Sociology of Knowledge - a term first coined by the philosopher Max Scheler, who was interested in the way in which socio-historical selection of ideational contents of knowledge categories might be studied, believing that the actual contents are independent of socio-historical analysis. 

    The field was later developed in much greater detail by Karl Mannheim, who first introduced the notion of a concrete relationship between knowledge and ideology,  suggesting that all human thought is infused with the ideological influences of its social context. It is Mannheim's theories, later developed in yet greater detail by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann which form the basis for this work. It is from this field, initially, that I will draw some explanatory models which I will use to investigate the ways in which the fields of architectural education and practice are socially constructed, and the roles played by ideological factors in their formation and development.

    To speak of knowledge as "socially constructed" is to say that even though social institutions and collectivities seem to have "a life of their own", their formation and continued endurance results from the collective actions, understandings and values which their members bring to bear upon the process of concept-formation. As Berger and Luckmann note:

    "Individuals perform discrete institutional actions within the context of their biography. This biography is a reflected-upon whole in which the discrete actions are thought of not as isolated events, but as related parts in a subjectively meaningful universe whose meanings are not specific to the individual, but socially articulated and shared. This has far reaching implications for any analysis of social phenomena. If the integration of an institutional order can be understood only in terms of the "knowledge" that its members have of it, it follows that the analysis of such "knowledge" will be essential for any analysis of the institutional order in question".

    This "knowledge" will necessarily be understood as the various and collective meanings which its members and participants bring to its language. In spite of normative theories to the contrary, there is no essential or unifying foundational thematic language - no core of meaning to any of the disciplines or fields of knowledge, no central theory that can be attributed to the field. Rather, there is a field of discursive activity where different and often opposing theories, meanings and ideologies engage with each other in a continuing struggle for conceptual inclusion. These competing theories represent the interests of opposing social and cultural groups. In other words, knowledge creation and reproduction is not a politically or ideologically neutral activity, but on the contrary, is the site of an acute ideological struggle linked to structures of institutionalised power which derive from the capitalist means of production.

    To explain the process of institutionalisation, Berger and Luckmann posit the empirically unlikely example of a male/female couple who create an institutional world de novo. As their mutual habituated interactions develop they are able to consign large parts of their lives to the background, in the process, releasing individual and mutual time and attention for an ever-widening engagement with the outside world. Their lives become increasingly efficient. With the birth of children, their habituated interactions assume an aura of historicity so that these interactions become, for the children, an objective reality, a given.

    The parents also experience their habituated behaviours as objective realities through the reflective perception of their children. Thus for the social collective as a whole, the institutional world is experienced collectively and increasingly as an objective social reality which antedates the individual's life span. Of course, in actual society it would be impossible for parents to enter into an institutional relationship ex nihilo - that is, without any prior socialisation. In reality, the objectivation of social institutions is an on-going process which is already heavily sedimented for each generation, and hence increasingly experienced as an objective facticity - as having a life of its own, separate from human agency.

    Language plays a fundamental role in both the formation and continuation of human institutions. It binds everyday reality and translates experiences into the terms of reference of realities as they are already understood. The very fact of language itself reinforces not only the taken-for-grantedness of everyday reality, but also the reality of non-everyday experiences within the frame of reference of everyday reality itself:

    "The common language available to me for the objectification of my experiences is grounded in everyday life and keeps pointing back to it even as I employ it to interpret experiences in finite provinces of meaning. Typically, therefore, I "distort" the reality of the latter as soon as I begin to use the common language in interpreting them, that is, I "translate" the non-everyday experiences back into the paramount reality of everyday life." 

    It does this through the  establishment of semantic fields which are conceptually bounded and which circumscribe all experience within the framework of the already-known.  Language is the keystone of the process of social institutionalisation therefore. Different aspects of everyday life are constituted and ongoingly reproduced through the objectifying uses of different languages. Professional work, for instance, is often constituted by a different semantic field which orders and makes sense of the experiences one encounters there. A process of selection operates by which some experiences are integrated into the semantic field and others are ignored or discarded. Some semantic combinations are more significant than others from a survival point of view (identifying domains of criticality) and these have greater prominence within the field. By this ordering process, a common stock of knowledge is accumulated which is passed down through successive generations and which therefore helps to maintain social continuity and stability across time.

    Social institutions, thus structure and organise themselves through the mediation of language, establishing distinct semantic fields which also reciprocally bestow social orientation and identity upon their members. In the professions, the selection of frames of reference which constrain these semantic fields define both the cultural inclusivity and the exclusivity of professionals as professionals - that is, the role and social identity of the professional is both defined and prescribed not only within the profession itself, but also within the larger social context of everyday life.

    These role definitions then circumscribe the common stock of knowledge about the social status and experience which is contingent upon it. Hence these reciprocal influences between role definition and social status tend towards a self-fulfilling reciprocity. Put simply, we can say that certain linguistic codes act as a social filter, ensuring that only those with a particular social background are attracted to membership, being best able to interpret and understand the codification of the complex language systems involved.   Pierre Bourdieu has separately and fully articulated the process by which this happens.

    Everyday conversation plays a crucial role in the process of the social construction of reality. Yet everyday conversation is rarely used consciously to define the nature of reality. Rather, it serves as a backdrop against which the nature of reality is silently taken for granted. Thus conversation implicitly and unconsciously binds the reality of the world together. This is to say that the binding power of language remains largely invisible. Language, which forms the basis of our internal conversations about the world is therefore fundamental not just to the process of describing reality, but in constructing and maintaining it. And since language is a social phenomenon, it follows that our conception of reality is mediated by the social forms which structure everyday life.  Social groups who use the same language (be it everyday language or specialised technical language) implicitly reproduce and convey through their conversations a model of the world imbued with particular meanings and associations of which they themselves may not be fully aware, but which bind together the concrete reality, the world in question.  In addition, we should keep in mind that, as Wittgenstein reminds us, the meanings inherent in language itself do not come ready-made:

    “...a word hasn’t got a meaning given to it, as it were, by a power independent of us, so that there could be a kind of scientific investigation into what the word really means. A word has the meaning someone has given to it.”

    Within the overall social order, different groups attempt continuingly to have their own version of reality accepted by the larger social collective as the paramount reality - this process is called hegemony. An extremely important aspect of this hegemonic process resides within the meaning and structure of language itself.

    In other words, one of the functions of attributing specific meanings to specific conversational words is social intentionality - that is, words are given meanings with the intention of creating an overarching common and shared reality structure which corresponds to the reality of particular cultural groups. In other words, the intentionality of language is deeply implicated in the social struggle of different social or cultural groups to establish their hegemony over society as a whole.

    Two groups may view the very same events or phenomena from a radically different point of view, and frequently, within the framework of the social struggle for hegemony, these viewpoints are dialectically opposed. Two such oppositional cultures will therefore attach oppositional meanings to key conceptual categories. Such oppositional meanings will more than likely also be mutually exclusive. To give an example, we will readily appreciate how, after the Reformation, the meanings attached to specific Christian beliefs, rituals and icons were transformed to become counter-beliefs. The beliefs surrounding the Virgin Mary (the notion of a virgin-birth etc.), the reputed infallibility of the Pope, the granting of Indulgences etc. were cast under Protestantism as evidence of the corruption of Christianity rather than its exemplification.   Similarly, after Marx, the notion of profit was cast not as the admirable result of good business sense, but as the exploitation of workers denied the surplus value of their labour. When such counter-meanings become widespread within the common stock of language, the significations of that language often becomes apparent to its proponents for the first time. Put another way, our conversational structures tend to remain invisible to us until we view them as an exteriority, ie. from within another conversational structure or convention, and these meanings are often, within the struggle for cultural dominance, oppositional.

  • In their theorising, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann outline a structure and methodology for a deeper understanding and investigation of the field of the Sociology of Knowledge. Their approach draws much from the methodological style of the Institute for Social Research (known as the Frankfurt School), and particularly of the Critical Theory for which that School was and is justly famous. Although their work has been extremely influential since it was first published in 1966, it has in many ways been superseded by that later critical analysis which it stimulated, not least of which has been the body of writing and theorising which has come to be called Postmodernism.  

  • To download a more detailed and extended description and analysis of Berger and Luckmann's theories click here.

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