The Social Construction of Reality

By Charlotte Nickerson, published October 31, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


The social construction of reality is a theory that suggests that humans create their own understanding of reality, through their interactions and communications with others. This includes the way we see and interpret the world around us, as well as how we interact with others.

Social constructionism holds that the meaning of acts, behaviors, and events is not an objective quality of those phenomena but is assigned to them through social interactions. In this view, meaning is socially defined and organized and thus subject to social change.

The theory was first proposed by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their 1967 book The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they argued that society is created by humans and human interaction, which they call habitualization.

According to the concept of habitualization, “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).

The social construction of reality is a helpful way to understand how humans create meaning in their lives. It can help to explain why people see the world differently, and why they behave in certain ways.

For example, social constructionism can influence whether or not something is seen as a crime, its severity, and the extent to which it is feared. How societies define and remedy crime is the outcome of numerous complex factors between different groups of actors.

In terms of identity, social constructionism is used to illustrate the view that an individual's character is not totally given, but is built up by the individual in terms of different conceptions of gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc., which are influenced by personal preference and the reactions of others.

Key Takeaways

  • The Social Construction of Reality is a book about the sociology of knowledge written by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. It was published in 1966 and it quickly became a classic work in the sociology of knowledge.
  • In the book, Berger and Luckmann argue that all knowledge is socially constructed, and that human beings are social animals who create their own reality through their interactions with others.
  • The book has been highly influential in the field of sociology, and the idea of the social construction of reality can be examined through the lenses of other movements, such as the Thomas Theorem and Symbolic Interactionism.
  • The use of the term social construction has become popular as sociologists have focused increasingly on identity as an organising principle of postmodern life.
  • The term was originally used to describe the ways in which, for example, statistics did not always represent the real rate of what they were supposed to describe, but were the product of social processes involving many decisions by many individuals.
  • Interpretivists assume that access to reality happens through social constructions such as language, consciousness, shared meanings, and instruments (Myers, 2008).

The Construction of Reality

There are three main steps involved in constructing reality: Externalization, Society as Objective Reality, and Society as Subjective Reality.

Externalization, Objectivation and Internalization are seen by Berger and Luckmann as fundamentally related in their role in the production of social reality. Continuously, each person externalized social reality.

They are involved in creating or maintaining particular institutions. Simultaneously, they construct a sense of objective reality. Finally, in the process of externalization and objectivation, the individual is being constructed as a social product (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).

Externalization is the process of making something external, or putting it outside of oneself. This can be done in a number of ways, such as through language, art, or even just by thinking about something.

Externalization is necessary in order to share one's thoughts and ideas with others, and to create a shared understanding of the world.

Society as Objective Reality is the second stage of constructing reality. In this stage, people come to see their society as an objective reality that exists independently of them.

They begin to see the rules and institutions that make up their society as natural and inevitable. At this stage, people also come to believe that their own personal experiences are not as important as the collective experience of society (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).

Society as Subjective reality deals with the process of internalization. Berger and Luckmann (1967) argue that the internalization of reality involves primary socialization, secondary socialization and maintenance and the transformation of one's subjective reality.

In more concrete terms, in society every individual is born with a predisposition to be social, but he must become a member of society through a specific process.

In order to join society, newcomers — such as toddlers -- observe the subjective behavior of others literally, and  they gradually learn the objective rules that define and shape social interaction in their culture (this is called foregoing, or primary socialization).

In this process, children  move from being egocentric to being able to take the role of others into account. They internalize the rules as "means to ends'' (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).

Through secondary socialization, which happens after someone is socialized enough to join a society, individuals learn the particular way their society functions, such as its political system or economic structure.

And finally, maintenance refers to the ways in which individuals preserve and defend their worldview against threats from the outside world.

This includes things like confirmation bias, where people seek out information that supports their existing beliefs, and ostracism, where people exclude those who don't conform to the prevailing worldview.

Theoretical Lenses

Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that focuses on the ways in which people interact with each other. It is based on the idea that human beings are symbols, and that they use these symbols to create meaning in their lives. Symbolic interactionism has its roots in the work of Max Weber, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Horton Cooley.

Weber believed that humans were rational beings who acted in their own self-interest. He saw society as a system of rules and regulations that helped people to achieve their goals.

Mead believed that humans were social animals who communicate through symbols. He saw society as a system of interactions between people. Cooley, finally, believed that humans were social creatures who developed their own identities through their interactions with others (Leeds-Hurwitz, Braithwaite, & Baxter, 2006).

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the symbols that people use to interact with each other — these include language, gestures, and artifacts — as well as how people interpret those symbols in daily interactions.

For example,  two people may have different interpretations of the same gesture, such as a head nod. In some cultures, a head nod may indicate agreement, while in others it may be interpreted as a sign of respect. The meaning of a head nod is not inherent in the gesture itself, but is instead created through the interaction between the two people.

Similarly, even within languages, the meaning of words is not inherent in the words themselves, but is instead created through the interaction between the speaker and the listener.

For example, the word "cat" can mean different things to different people. To a child, a cat may be a pet that they love. To a scientist, a cat may be an animal that they are studying.

The meaning of the word "cat" is not fixed, but is instead created through the interaction between the listener and the listener's experiences (Leeds-Hurwitz, Braithwaite, & Baxter, 2006).

Thomas Theorem

The Thomas Theorem states that what people believe to be true, affects their behaviors and actions — “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas 1928). People's perceptions of reality influence how they act within that reality.

In other words, one's social construction of reality can have a powerful influence on their lives. For example, someone who believes that the world is a dangerous place may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors than someone who does not share that belief.

Similarly, if a teenager is labeled as an outcast or high-achiever, they may learn to behave this way - even if it was not initially part of their identity.

Like the creators of habitualization, Thomas believed that moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation," or what Merton calls a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe that a situation will happen, they can take actions that lead to the situation happening.

For example, in 2020, a large group of speculative investors began to buy up stocks that they believed would increase in value despite having a historically declining one. These stocks became known as “meme stocks.” This caused the prices of these stocks to increase, and more people began buying them, driving the prices many times higher than their initial valuations.

While there was no guarantee that these stocks would continue to rise in value, the collective belief of the investors led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the prices did indeed increase, for a time (Thomas & Thomas 1928). 

The Thomas Theorem can be used to explain why certain social groups are marginalized or disadvantaged. For example, if a community believes that women are not capable of leadership roles, they are less likely to elect women into office or give them positions of power. This, naturally, is another instance of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a final example of how the Thomas Theorem can relate to social problems, if sociologists believe that social problems are caused by individual choices, then they are likely to focus on changing individual behavior.

However, if sociologists believe that social problems are caused by the way society is structured, then they are more likely to focus on changing social institutions. This can ultimately cause those outside sociology to focus on one avenue or the other in distributing blame (Thomas & Thomas 1928).

Merton

According to Robert K. Merton, people's perceptions of reality are shaped by the cultural context in which they live. This theory can help sociologists to understand how individuals' beliefs and values are formed, and how they can change over time.

Merton's perspective on the social construction of reality is related to both the lenses of symbolic interactionism and the Thomas theorem. He argued that there are three main components to the social construction of reality: symbols, language, and institutions.

Symbols are things like gestures, words, or objects that stand for something else. Language is the system of symbols that we use to communicate with each other. Institutions are the structures that shape our lives, such as family, government, or religion.

Merton, as mentioned earlier, also created the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1947).

Implications

Role and status

Status is the position that an individual occupies in a social hierarchy.  Status has two subtypes, according to Merton (1957): achieved and ascribed. Achieved status is a position that is gained through an individual's own efforts and accomplishments, while ascribed status is one that is assigned to an individual at birth or assumed involuntarily later in life.

Role, meanwhile, is the set of expectations and norms — as well as expected behaviors —associated with that position. For example, in most "nuclear families," the father is the head of the household and the primary breadwinner, while the mother is responsible for taking care of the home and raising the children.

This is an example of how social roles are connected to status. These roles culminate in role-sets, which are the various number of roles associated with some, or multiple, statuses.

Together, the concepts of role and status help to define an individual's place in society.

The ways in which institutional actors of all roles and statuses respond to practical issues are influenced by the sociological construction of institutionality. Studies of institutionality evaluate how and to what extent definitions of reality are adapted to the varied preconceptions and practices of social organizations.

For example, past studies have examined questions like how police officers, social workers, and other institutional actors construct seemingly unrelated aspects of persons’ lives as evidence of their status as juvenile delinquents or refugees.

The sociologists who conduct these studies frequently portray reality construction as work; by constructing institutional realities, officials are able to meet their professional responsibilities (Miller & Nowacek, 2018).

Presentation of self

The presentation of oneself is the image that people project in order to be seen in a certain light. This image may or may not be accurate, but it is the one that the presenter wants others to see.

The presentation of self is an important part of the social construction of reality in that how people present themselves to others influences how they are seen and how they are interacted with. 

For example, if someone wants to be seen as friendly, they may smile and make eye contact. If someone wants to be seen as intimidating, they may stand up straight and look people in the eye. These are all examples of role performance (Goffman, 2004).

It is important to note that the presentation of self is not always intentional; sometimes people give off certain cues without meaning to. For example, if someone is nervous, they may sweat or fidget, even if they don't want to appear nervous. Or if someone is tired, they may yawn or have dark circles under their eyes, even if they are trying to appear awake and alert.

One of the first sociologists to investigate one's presentation of oneself was Erving Goffman. According to him, a person is like an actor on a stage.

Goffman believed that people use “impression management” to present themselves in the way they desire. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present (Goffman, 2004).

Wht is the difference between the social construction of reality vs. looking glass self?

The looking glass self is a sociological theory that states that an individual's self-image is based on how they think others perceive them.

The social construction of reality, on the other hand, is the theory that an individual's perceptions of reality are shaped by their interactions with others. These theories are similar because they both suggest that an individual's self-image is based on how they think others perceive them.

However, the social construction of reality theory goes a step further to say that an individual's perceptions of reality are shaped by their interactions with others.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, October 31). The Social Construction of Reality. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/social-construction-of-reality.html

References

Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (2016). The social construction of reality. In Social Theory Re-Wired (pp. 110-122). Routledge.

Goffman, E. (2004). Belief in part one is playing (pp. 59-63). Routledge.

Leeds-Hurwitz, W., Braithwaite, D. O., & Baxter, L. A. (2006). Social theories: Social constructionism and symbolic interactionism. Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives, 229-242.

Miller, G. and Nowacek, D. (2022). Social Construction of Reality. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, G. Ritzer (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405165518.wbeos1232

Merton, R. (1947). MERTON, ROBERT. Wright Mills, August, 1, 1947.

Merton, R. K. (1957). The role-set: Problems in sociological theory. The British Journal of Sociology, 8(2), 106-120.

Miller, G., & Nowacek, D. (2018). The Social Construction of Reality.

Myers, M. D. (2008). Qualitative Research in Business & Management. SAGE Publications.

Thomas, W. I., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The methodology of behavior study. The child in America: Behavior problems and programs, 553-576.