From Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The SocialConstruction of Reality: A Treatise its the Sociology ofKnowledge (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1966), pp. 51-55,59-61.


Society as a Human Product

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann


It should be clear from the foregoing that the statement that manproduces himself in no way implies some sort of Promethean vision ofthe solitary individual. Man's self-production is always, and ofnecessity, a social enterprise. Men together produce a humanenvironment, with the totality of its socio-cultural andpsychological formations. None of these formations may be understoodas products of man's biological constitution, which, as indicated,provides only the outer limits for human productive activity. Just asit is impossible for man to develop as man in isolation, so it isimpossible for man in isolation to produce a human environment.Solitary human being is being on the animal level (which, of course,man shares with other animals). As soon as one deserves phenomenathat are specifically human, one enters the realm of the social.Man's specific humanity and his sociality are inextricablyintertwined. Homo sapiens is always, and in the same measure,homo socius.

The human organism lacks the necessary biological means to providestability for human conduct. Human existence, if it were thrown backon its organismic resources by themselves, would be existence in somesort of chaos. Such chaos is, however, empirically unavailable, eventhough one may theoretically conceive of it. Empirically, humanexistence takes place in a context of order, direction, stability.The question then arises: From what does the empirically existingstability of human order derive? An answer may be given on twolevels. One may first point to the obvious fact that a given socialorder precedes any individual organismic development. That is,world-openness, while intrinsic to man's biological make-up, isalways preempted by social order. One may say that the biologicallyintrinsic world-openness of human existence is always, and indeedmust be, transformed by social order into a relativeworld-closedness. While this reclosure can never approximate theclosedness of animal existence, if only because of its humanlyproduced and thus "artificial" character, it is nevertheless capable,most of the time, of providing direction and stability for thegreater part of human conduct. The question may then be pushed toanother level. One may ask in what manner social order itself arises.

The most general answer to this question is that social order is ahuman product. Or, more precisely, an ongoing human production. It isproduced by man in the course of his ongoing externalization. Socialorder is not biologically given or derived from any biologicaldata in its empirical manifestations. Social order, needlessto add, is also not given in man's natural environment, thoughparticular features of this may be factors in determining certainfeatures of a social order (for example, its economic ortechnological arrangements). Social order is not part of the "natureof things," and it cannot be derived from the "laws of nature."Social order exists only as a product of human activity. Noother ontological status may be ascribed to it without hopelesslyobfuscating its empirical manifestations. Both in its genesis (socialorder is the result of past human activity) and its existence in anyinstant of time (social order exists only and insofar as humanactivity continues to produce it) it is a human product.

While the social products of human externalization have acharacter sui generis as against both their organismic andtheir environmental context, it is important to stress thatexternalization as such is an anthropological necessity. Human beingis impossible in a closed sphere of quiescent interiority. Humanbeing must ongoingly externalize itself in activity. Thisanthropological necessity is grounded in man's biological equipment.The inherent instability of the human organism makes it imperativethat man himself provide a stable environment for his conduct. Manhimself must specialize and direct his drives. These biological factsserve as a necessary presupposition for the production of socialorder. In other words, although no existing social order can bederived from biological data, the necessity for social orderas such stems from man's biological equipment.

To understand the causes, other than those posited by thebiological constants for the emergence, maintenance and transmissionof a social order one must under take an analysis that eventuates ina theory of institutionalization.


Origins of Institutionalization


All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action thatis repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then bereproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, isapprehended by its performer as that pattern. Habitualizationfurther implies that the action in question may be performed again inthe future in the same manner and with the same economical effort.This is true of non-social as well as of social activity. Even thesolitary individual on the proverbial desert island habitualizes hisactivity. When he wakes up in the morning and resumes his attempts toconstruct a canoe out of matchsticks, he may mumble to himself,"There I go again," as he starts on step one of an operatingprocedure consisting of, say, ten steps. In other words, evensolitary man has at least the company of his operating procedures.

Habitualized actions, of course, retain their meaningful characterfor the individual although the meanings involved become embedded asroutines in his general stock of knowledge, taken for granted by himand at hand for his projects into the future. Habitualization carrieswith it the important psychological gain that choices are narrowed.While in theory there may be a hundred ways to go about the projectof building a canoe out of matchsticks, habitualization narrows thesedown to one. This frees the individual from the burden of "all thosedecisions," providing a psychological relief that has its basis inman's undirected instinctual structure. Habitualization provides thedirection and the specialization of activity that is lacking in man'sbiological equipment, thus relieving the accumulation of tensionsthat result from undirected drives. And by providing a stablebackground in which human activity may proceed with a minimum ofdecision-making most of the time, it frees energy for such decisionsas may be necessary on certain occasions. In other words, thebackground of habitualized activity opens up a foreground fordeliberation and innovation.

In terms of the meanings bestowed by man upon his activity,habitualization makes it unnecessary for each situation to be definedanew, step by step. A large variety of situations may be subsumedunder its predefinitions. The activity to be undertaken in thesesituations can then be anticipated. Even alternatives of conduct canbe assigned standard weights.

These processes of habitualization precede anyinstitutionalization, indeed can he made to apply to a hypotheticalsolitary individual detached from any social interaction. The factthat even such a solitary individual, assuming that he has beenformed as a self (as we would have to assume in the case of ourmatchstick-canoe builder), will habitualize his activity inaccordance with biographical experience of a world of socialinstitutions preceding his solitude need not concern us at themoment. Empirically, the more important part of the habitualizationof human activity is coextensive with the latter'sinstitutionalization. The question then becomes how do institutionsarise.

Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocaltypification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Putdifferently, any such typification is an institution. What must bestressed is the reciprocity of institutional typifications and thetypicality of not only the actions but also the actors ininstitutions. The typifications of habitualized actions thatconstitute institutions are always shared ones. They areavailable to all the members of the particular social group inquestion, and the institution itself typifies individual actors aswell as individual actions. The institution posits that actions oftype X will be performed by actors of type X. For example, theinstitution of the law posits that heads shall be chopped off inspecific ways under specific circumstances, and that specific typesof individuals shall do the chopping (executioners, say, or membersof an impure caste, or virgins under a certain age, or those who havebeen designated by an oracle).

Institutions further imply historicity and control. Reciprocaltypifications of actions are built up in the course of a sharedhistory. They cannot be created instantaneously. Institutions alwayshave a history, of which they are the products. It is impossible tounderstand an institution adequately without an understanding of thehistorical process in which it was produced. Institutions also, bythe very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting uppredefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction asagainst the many other directions that would theoretically bepossible. It is important to stress that this controlling characteris inherent in institutionalization as such, prior to or apart fromany mechanisms of sanctions specifically set up to support aninstitution. These mechanisms (the sum of which constitute what isgenerally called a system of social control) do, of course, exist inmany institutions and in all the agglomerations of institutions thatwe call societies. Their controlling efficacy, however, is of asecondary or supplementary kind. As we shall see again later, theprimary social control is given in the existence of an institution assuch. To say that a segment of human activity has beeninstitutionalized is already to say that this segment of humanactivity has been subsumed under social control. Additional controlmechanisms are required only insofar as the processes ofinstitutionalization are less than completely successful. Thus, forinstance, the law may provide that anyone who breaks the incest taboowill have his head chopped off. This provision may be necessarybecause there have been cases when individuals offended against thetaboo. It is unlikely that this sanction will have to be invokedcontinuously (unless the institution delineated by the incest taboois itself in the course of disintegration, a special case that weneed not elaborate here). It makes little sense, therefore, to saythat human sexuality is socially controlled by beheading certainindividuals. Rather, human sexuality is socially controlled by itsinstitutionalization in the course of the particular history inquestion. One may add, of course, that the incest taboo itself isnothing but the negative side of an assemblage of typifications,which define in the first place which sexual conduct is incestuousand which is not.

In actual experience institutions generally manifest themselves incollectivities containing considerable numbers of people. It istheoretically important, however, to emphasize that theinstitutionalizing process of reciprocal typification would occureven if two individuals began to interact de novo. . . .A and B alone are responsible for having constructedthis world. A and B remain capable of changing orabolishing it. What is more, since they themselves have shaped thisworld in the course of a shared biography which they can remember,the world thus shaped appears fully transparent to them. Theyunderstand the world that they themselves have made. All this changesin the process of transmission to the new generation. The objectivityof the institutional world "thickens" and "hardens," not only for thechildren, but (by a mirror effect) for the parents as well. The"There we go again" now becomes "This is how these things are done."A world so regarded attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomesreal in an ever more massive way and it can no longer be changed soreadily. For the children, especially in the early phase of theirsocialization into it, it becomes the world. For the parents,it loses its playful quality and becomes "serious." For the children,the parentally transmitted world is not fully transparent. Since theyhad no part in shaping it, it confronts them as a given reality that,like nature, is opaque in places at least.

Only at this point does it become possible to speak of a socialworld at all, in the sense of a comprehensive and given realityconfronting the individual in a manner analogous to the reality ofthe natural world. Only in this way, as an objective world,can the social formations be transmitted to a new generation. In theearly phases of socialization the child is quite incapable ofdistinguishing between the objectivity of natural phenomena and theobjectivity of the social formations. To take the most important itemof socialization, language appears to the child as inherent in thenature of things, and he cannot grasp the notion of itsconventionality. A thing is what it is called, and it couldnot be called anything else. All institutions appear in the same way,as given, unalterable and self-evident. Even in our empiricallyunlikely example of parents having constructed an institutional worldde novo, the objectivity of this world would be increased forthem by the socialization of their children, because the objectivityexperienced by the children would reflect back upon their ownexperience of this world. Empirically, of course, the institutionalworld transmitted by most parents already has the character ofhistorical and objective reality. The process of transmission simplystrengthens the parents' sense of reality, if only because, to put itcrudely, if one says, "This is how these things are done," oftenenough one believes it oneself.

An institutional world, then, is experienced as an objectivereality. It has a history that antedates the individual's birth andis not accessible to his biographical recollection. It was therebefore he was born, and it will be there after his death. Thishistory itself, as the tradition of the existing institutions, hasthe character of objectivity. The individual's biography isapprehended as an episode located within the objective history of thesociety. The institutions, as historical and objective facticities,confront the individual as undeniable facts. The institutions arethere, external to him, persistent in their reality, whetherhe likes it or not. He cannot wish them away. They resist hisattempts to change or evade them. They have coercive power over him,both in themselves, by the sheer force of their facticity, andthrough the control mechanisms that are usually attached to the mostimportant of them. The objective reality of institutions is notdiminished if the individual does not understand their purpose ortheir mode of operation. He may experience large sectors of thesocial world as incomprehensible, perhaps oppressive in theiropaqueness, but real nonetheless. Since institutions exist asexternal reality, the individual cannot understand them byintrospections. He must "go out" and learn about them, just as hemust to learn about nature. This remains true even though the socialworld, as a humanly produced reality, is potentially understandablein a way not possible in the case of the natural world.

It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of theinstitutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual,is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity. The process by whichthe externalized products of human activity attain the character ofobjectivity is objectivation. The institutional world is objectivatedhuman activity, and so is every single institution. In other wordsdespite the objectivity that marks the social world in humanexperience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apartfrom the human activity that produced it. The paradox that man iscapable of producing a world that he then experiences as somethingother than a human product will concern us later on. At the moment,it is important to emphasize that the relationship between man, theproducer, and the social world, his product, is and remains adialectical one. That is, man (not of course, in isolation but in hiscollectivities) and his social world interact with each other. Theproduct acts back upon the producer. Externalization andobjectivation are moments in a continuing dialectical process, whichis internalization (by which the objectivated social world isretrojected into consciousness in the course of socialization), willoccupy us in considerable detail later on. It is already possible,however, to see the fundamental relationship of these threedialectical moments in social reality. Each of them corresponds to anessential characterization of the social world. Society is a humanproduct. Society is an objective reality. Man is a socialproduct. It may also already be evident that an analysis of thesocial world that leaves out any one of these three moments will bedistortive. One may further add that only with the transmission ofthe social world to a new generation (that is, internalization aseffectuated in socialization) does the fundamental social dialecticappear in its totality. To repeat, only with the appearance of a newgeneration can one properly speak of a social world.

 


Back to the Syllabus