On the Sociology of Knowledge Written by: Shawn Monaghan (critical on scribd.

com) March 10, 1997 The sociology of knowledge understands human reality as socially constructed reality. Since the constitution of reality has traditionally been a central problem of philosophy, this understanding has certain philosophical implications. Insofar as there has been a strong tendency for this problem, with all the questions, it involves, to become trivialized in contemporary philosophy, the sociologist may find himself, to his surprise perhaps, the inheritor of philosophical questions that the professional philosophers are no longer interested in considering. In various sections of this treatise, especially in the analysis of the foundations of knowledge in everyday life and in the discussion of objectivation and institutionalization in relation to the biological presuppositions of human existence, we have given some indication of the contributions sociologically oriented thought may make to philosophical anthropology (189). Berger & Luckmann’s ‘sociology of knowledge’ is distinctly interdisciplinary. They recognize that the philosophical and historical elements of knowledge in the study of humans and human society are utterly inescapable, that is, if an accurate rendition of the object of ‘sociology of knowledge’ is considered, as they contend, of primary importance. This is the core of the Berger & Luckmann thesis; that sociology must adhere to the above conceptualization of its object of study or entirely lose sight of that object. The reality within which all of us exist is a socially constructed reality, this is the broader and thesis and is seemingly a very commonly accepted idea today. Perhaps it was entirely novel when the book was first published in the sixties. Unfortunately the book was apprehended with this broader thesis in mind, causing many to lose sight of the much more specific and powerful thesis that found its place in the conclusion of The Social Construction of Reality. This thesis of which I speak is the object-oriented discussion of sociology that made up the first paragraph to this essay. A perhaps more interesting comment (because more novel) on the specialization of fields of inquiry, Berger & Luckmann contend that the current field of philosophy has little or no interest in the elements of philosophical investigation that would be raised by a sociologist. Thus it does not become a matter of sociologists speaking to philosophers (as they say on p 189) so much as sociologists engaging in philosophy for want of interest among the ‘experts’ in that area. The same contention is no doubt, at least, implicit to their thesis with regard to history. An important consequence of this conception is that sociology must be carried on in a continuous conversation with both history and philosophy or lose its proper object of inquiry. This object is society as part of a human world, made by men, inhabited by men, and, in turn, making men, in an ongoing historical process. It is not the least fruit of a humanistic sociology that it reawakens our wonder at this astonishing phenomenon (189). Perhaps this is astonishing because of its complexity. This complexity stems from the dynamic growth and development of this very living, and alive, object of study -- “society as a part of a human world, made by men, inhabited by men, and, in turn, making men, in an ongoing historical process”. What is further evoked in this description of the proper object of sociological study is Berger & Luckmann’s inherently dialectic approach. Such an approach is “the

systematic accounting of the dialectical relation between the structural realities and the human enterprise of constructing reality” (186). To simply describe this object of study as ‘society’ would only be adequate if a complex view of what ‘society’ entails (i.e., interrelationships and complex entities) becomes subsumed under the term ‘society’. Berger & Luckmann chose this wordy definition to distinguish themselves from the bulk of contemporary sociology. What this careful definition, which I have dubbed ‘wordy’, shows is the unsophisticated manner in which many contemporary streams of sociology deal with their subject manner. Berger & Luckmann characterize these streams of sociology as treating their object (society) as if it is collapsible into a concrete abstraction, viewed as a series of parts that can be enumerated into a whole, which is not much different from the sum of its parts. This brings us to a discussion of reification and the role this concept plays in the Berger & Luckmann thesis. The final sentence in the above paragraph is a good exemplar of what Berger & Luckmann consider to be reification. Reification is primarily a critique leveled at contemporary sociology as viewing their theoretical objects and constructions as concrete reality. We should keep in mind here that the answer to the question of what precisely is the sociologist’s object of study, is itself a theoretical construct. Although reification is arguably inescapable in any highly theoretical study of very complex phenomena there are different degrees and levels of consciousness as demonstrated by the Berger & Luckmann approach as contrasted with the approach of ‘structural sociology’. . . . a purely structural sociology is endemically in danger of reifying social phenomena. Even if it begins by modestly assigning to its constructs merely heuristic status, it all too frequently ends by confusing its own conceptualizations with the laws of the universe . . . the ideas we have tried to develop posit neither an ahistorical “social system” nor an ahistorical “human nature” (their emphasis in italics; mine in bold 187). Later on in the same page, Berger & Luckmann refer to the ‘double danger’ which sets the context for all sociological study including their own. Only by remaining on constant vigil against the dangers of ‘distortive reification’ can the sociologist be allowed a psuedo-respite 1 from the critical cry: reification . The above however is only half of what Berger & Luckmann refer to as reification so perhaps I have been overly hard on them.

Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in nonhuman or possibly suprahuman terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products--such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness. The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world (89). Thus, reification has an accentuated role within the Berger & Luckmann thesis. That is, a good understanding and analysis of reification serves as a diagnostic tool to help prevent the

‘sociology of knowledge’ (as well as theory in general) from falling into ‘undialectical’ conceptualizations of the relation between human thought and human action or practice (91). Terms like objectivation and legitimation are integral elements of the Berger & Luckmann argument, I raise them here as necessary and central concepts in the web of their overall argument. Objectivation is ‘human expressivity’ made objectively available (34). Objectivation thus, allows for the expression of normally face-to-face encounters of everyday life among members of society in a displaced, non face-to-face manner. Berger & Luckmann use the example of anger which in itself cannot be expressed beyond face-to-face encounters, yet as it becomes objectivated in an artifact such as a knife, the subjective expressions of another’s anger can thus be presented to me via the knife (34-5). Objectivation is an important and integral part of social existence, in fact, of everyday life itself. Berger & Luckmann describe language as the most important and crucial (from the standpoint of the scientist and the everyday person) form of objectivation. Objectivation as embodied in language allows for the storage and accumulation of meanings and experience well beyond the sum-total of experiences that would normally be available to any single individual (37). Clearly without this particular form of objectivation, reality as we know it would not exist. Objectivation, especially as language, allows for transcendence of the ‘here and now’, contributing immensely to the complexity of thought and social organization (39). Through the action of typification, signification, and objectivation our reality becomes heavily laden with stock meanings and knowledge. Typification is a sort of routinization of given characteristics, for example a Canadian can become a typified set of characteristics and mannerisms. The same goes for categories like poor, rich, moral, and gay. These categories take on meanings that are constructed differently by different social groups. In this way different objectivations (as meaning) become legitimized quite differently within disparate groups. Legitimation in its various forms is essentially purposeful (though not necessarily a conscious goal) integration of “disparate institutional processes” (92). Legitimation as described in this text is used to refer to the specific phenomena of the transference of the institutions (as established custom) of society to the ‘next generation’. This next generation has no ‘biographical memory’ of the practice being transferred and thus society requires a mode of transference that allows for passing on these customs as tradition. This tradition is itself a sort of legitimation in the sense of ‘explaining’ or justifying (93). Berger & Luckmann make the process of legitimation sound very purposeful and consciously constructed but this is of course a product of the need to describe something that is a part of everyday language without appealing to the everydayness of those 2 phenomena. This evokes my final point of elaboration of the Berger & Luckmann thesis -- everyday life. Ours is thus an enterprise that, although theoretical in character, is geared to the understanding of a reality that forms the subject matter of the empirical science of sociology, that is the world of everyday life . . .The method we consider best suited clarify the foundations of knowledge in everyday life is that of phenomenological analysis, a purely descriptive method . . . [this] analysis of everyday life, or rather of the subjective experience of everyday life, refrains from any causal or genetic hypotheses, as well as from assertions about the ontological status of the phenomena analyzed (19-20).

Thus clearly the foundations of this thesis are “theoretical in character” but, stated only implicitly, non-theoretical in content. Somehow Berger & Luckmann are attempting to appeal to a theoryfree sort of knowledge of reality. They contend that they can somehow have access to a good foundation for their thesis that is free from: causal, genetic and intentional hypotheses. The whole project is in this sense problematic, yet they make no claims to a “scientific” approach (20).

The legitimation of the institutional order is also faced with the ongoing necessity of keeping chaos at bay. All social reality is precarious. All societies are constructions in the face of chaos. The constant possibility of anomic terror is actualized whenever legitimations that obscure the precariousness are threatened or collapse (103). This, it would seem, is a bit of an overstatement on the part of the authors. True all social reality is precarious in that it orders our world in a way that is not found in nature. Yet, the contention that our social reality is a constant construction in the face of chaos requires a bit more support than Berger & Luckmann provide. Anomic terror is not nearly so ever present as this section of the text contends. There are many different levels that make up the web of social reality. Biographical memory allows for near-perfect order of institutions and roles in society. In this 3 case the person’s own life experience is the only source of legitimation required for the current social order. As such, the structure of reality appears natural and does not seem in the least constructed or on the verge of anomic terror. The process of legitimation involving the transference of order onto the next generation is likewise a relatively stable process. In the event of discordance, whereby legitimation becomes threatened or collapses there is always a very broad net of social reality that readily takes up the slack and prevents a fall into lawlessness. The above quotation from Berger & Luckmann is very evocative of the Kuhnian monotheoretical model. A much more felicitous rendition of the social construction of reality would adopt a Lakatosian multiple-theory system. The Berger & Luckmann conceptualization of the symbolic universe appears very monolithic especially in the light of the above quotation. Picture to yourself a view of legitimation that is very much like a theory competing for precedence in constructing and ordering a paradigm. In the event that one form of legitimation is threatened, or its precariousness becomes evident to the members of a given social reality, what is left is not chaos. The social construction of reality should not be viewed as a flimsy static sheet of construction paper that obscures the chaos of nature. It should much more properly be viewed as

a three-dimensional object with skeins as its building blocks, a dynamic sphere a living symbolic framework. In the event that a section of the webbing is torn or even disintegrated the webbing draws tight it does not admit the vacuum, for there is no room in the symbolic universe for ‘the nothing’. Certainly a sort of revolution might ensue and terror might be the motivating factor for the ‘tightening’ of the web but society will not see the chaos that Berger & Luckmann speak of, chaos is not a prevalent social construction of reality. Legitimation should properly be described as a skein or scaffold that interconnects with the web of reality, not a single thread or stick as Berger & Luckmann appear to picture. An institution or social reality should properly be pictured as an intricate interweaving of legitimations. Consider, the example of the legitmation of death on page 101. In the event that one sort of legitimation of death is threatened there are always many more and different forms that are available to take its place. For the following discussion read ‘legitimation’ where you see ‘theory’, likewise, in the place of ‘paradigm’ place the concept ‘social reality’. For Lakatos, choice between theories in time of crisis is more a matter of a competition between two higher level theories within a multipletheory system. In the following quotation, Lakatos describes crisis within a given paradigm: It is not that we propose a theory and Nature may shout NO; rather, we propose a maze of theories, and Nature may shout INCONSISTENT. . . . The problem is then shifted from the old problem of replacing a theory refuted by ‘facts’ to the new problem of how to resolve inconsistencies between closely associated theories. Which of the mutually inconsistent theories should be eliminated (Lak. long essay p. 130)? Picture the “imminent collapse of legitimations” as an uncovering of the inconsistencies which a particular legitmation tried to integrate. The function of the legitimation has failed. Integration has not effectively taken place. These inconsistencies could readily evoke some sort of puzzlement or distress, but the social web would immediately reintegrate these inconsistencies with another skein of legitimation once the first legitimation failed its (instrumental) function. Berger & Luckmann have the process backwards. We do not fear lawlessness so much as fail to 4 recognize it. The ordering of reality is not motivated by fear of chaos, it is a natural component of our existence that we categorize and order the world in order to interact with it. Thus, that which fails to fit into one mode of legitimation does not fall through the web of reality into chaos it is immediately legitimated in a different way or completely ignored until it can be legitimated. In a sense the everyday life approach of Berger & Luckmann allows them to get around the Habermasian critique of the social sciences. The scientist within Habermas’ framework must recognize their inability to get outside of the society as they attempt to study it. Thus the social sciences must recognize that they attempt to study an object that it is not possible to grasp as a totality. The normal scientific standpoint is one of domination (as in the study of nature), this interest oriented approach is, according to Habermas, inescapable. The scientific approach is relatively unhampered in the study of nature but when the object of study is humanity and society “the object takes its revenge”, because this approach is one of manipulation and domination, it readily becomes translated into a distortion of the object (when that object is society itself). Berger & Luckmann however may have avoided at least one element of Habermas’ critique by studying society as ‘everyday life’. In this way Berger & Luckmann have ensured that their preliminary categories are indeed appropriate, and not indifferent, to the object of their study.

The social sciences must, in advance, ensure the appropriateness of their categories for the object because ordering schemata, which co-variant quantities only accommodate by chance, fail to meet our interest in society . . . But as soon as cognitive interest is directed beyond the domination of nature--and here this means beyond the manipulation of natural domains--the indifference of the system in the face of its area of application suddenly changes into a distortion of the object. The structure of the object, which has been neglected in favour of a general methodology, condemns to irrelevance the theory which it cannot penetrate (Hab. p.133-4). In attempting a descriptive and phenomenological foundation for their work, they have chosen a path that leads away from but does not entirely exclude Habermas’ critique of separating themselves from the society to which they are inextricably bound. Nowhere within their thesis do they make mention of their omniscient approach to telling the story of the social construction of reality. This approach (omniscience) is only appropriate within ventures that do not involve a conscious and self-reflective object of study. I am sure that Habermas would agree that this approach is entirely inappropriate in all sectors of the life-sciences in fact it should be considered inappropriate in all fields save perhaps that of literature and art where it can be enlightening without the harmful effects of domination. By the same token Berger & Luckmann’s phenomenological approach appears to lay claim to a sort of theory and value free approach which Habermas argues cannot exist. In reviewing the various ‘moments’ of the dialectic that they narrate as integral to a real understanding of society Berger & Luckmann have not once mentioned the subject-object dialectic that is of central importance to Habbermas’ critique of the social sciences. Hans Albert would likely have a decidedly different perspective on the Berger & Luckmann foundation in ‘everyday life’. I am not aware of any objection which one could make against recourse to everyday knowledge unless it is linked with any false claims. Even the natural sciences have distanced themselves from the experiential knowledge of everyday life, but this was only possible with the help of methods which rendered this knowledge problematic and subjected it to criticism--partially under the influence of ideas which radically contradicted this ‘knowledge’ and were corroborated in the face of ‘common sense’. . . Why should one not here too be able to draw upon ideas which contradict everyday knowledge? . . . Does Habermas wish to exclude this? Does he wish to declare common sense--or somewhat more sublimely expressed, ‘the natural hermeneutics of the social life-world’--to be sacrosanct (Albert 173-4)? Unfortunately Albert is mixing up a few levels of thought within his critique and is not especially clear on the interrelationships. If, we approach the ‘appropriateness of categories’ from the Berger & Luckmann text, it seems clear that any false claims endemic to everyday knowledge will indeed be dealt with at the appropriate time. The appropriateness of categories does not entail wholesale buying into the vast mixture of fact and myth of common sense merely adopting a character that does not do pedantic violence to the sector of knowledge known as ‘everyday life’. From another side of the issue it should be noted that the purpose of social science from a Habermasian perspective is the betterment of society, by society, for society; whereas Hans Albert’s perspective appears somewhat uninterested in ‘betterment’ and perhaps more on the side of ‘knowing’ what is ‘best’ for society.

1That Berger & Luckmann refer here only to psychologism and sociologism and attribute the avoidance of these quagmires to the mere
understanding of Mauss’s ‘total social fact’ is an understatement of what should properly be their position on reification, as an unavoidable though ameliorable fact (187).

2And so, making our task all the more complex as their thesis is now also a part of everyday understanding for us. 3Please note that Berger & Luckmann use legitimation in a much more specific context only as referring to the transference of order on to the
next generation.

4For an example of this sort of discussion see Kuhn’s discussion of paradigms, especially his discussion of the long unnoticed repulsive
phenomenon of static electricity. Evidence that fails to fit into the given paradigm is often overlooked not ignored. Nor are the scientists necessarily terrified at the task of keeping chaos at bay.

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