notes / kortina.nyc

Berger + Luckmann // The Social Construction of Reality

The Social Construction of Reality.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been reading different works that try to explain how we collectively make sense of the world, given that we are a social species — stuff like Public Opinion and Propaganda.

I just finished another classic on this topic, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.

Here are some of my favorite bits.


How do institutions arise?

Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution.21 What must be stressed is the reciprocity of institutional typifications and the typicality of not only the actions but also the actors in institutions. The typifications of habitualized actions that constitute institutions are always shared ones. They are available to all members of the particular social group in question, and the institution itself typifies individual actors as well as individual actions. The institution posits that actions of type X will be performed by actors of type X. For example, the institution of the law posits that heads shall be chopped off in specific ways under specific circumstances, and that specific types of individuals shall do the chopping (executioners, say, or members of an impure caste, or virgins under a certain age, or those who have been designated by an oracle).

Institutions further imply historicity and control. Reciprocal typifications of actions are built up in the course of a shared history. They cannot be created instantaneously. Institutions always have a history, of which they are the products. It is impossible to understand an institution adequately without an understanding of the historical process in which it was produced. Institutions also, by the very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction as against the many other directions that would theoretically be possible. It is important to stress that this controlling character is inherent in institutionalization as such, prior to or apart from any mechanisms of sanctions specifically set up to support an institution. These mechanisms (the sum of which constitute what is generally called a system of social control) do, of course, exist in many institutions and in all the agglomerations of institutions that we call societies. Their controlling efficacy, however, is of a secondary or supplementary kind. As we shall see again later, the primary social control is given in the existence of an institution as such. To say that a segment of human activity has been institutionalized is already to say that this segment of human activity has been subsumed under social control. Additional control mechanisms are required only in so far as the processes of institutionalization are less than completely successful. Thus, for instance, the law may provide that anyone who breaks the incest taboo will have his head chopped off. This provision may be necessary because there have been cases when individuals offended against the taboo. It is unlikely that this sanction will have to be invoked continuously (unless the institution delineated by the incest taboo is itself in the course of disintegration, a special case that we need not elaborate here). It makes little sense, therefore, to say that human sexuality is socially controlled by beheading certain individuals. Rather, human sexuality is socially controlled by its institutionalization in the course of the particular history in question. One may add, of course, that the incest taboo itself is nothing but the negative side of an assemblage of typifications, which define in the first place which sexual conduct is incestuous and which is not.

In actual experience institutions generally manifest themselves in collectivities containing considerable numbers of people. It is theoretically important, however, to emphasize that the institutionalizing process of reciprocal typification would occur even if two individuals began to interact de novo. Institutionalization is incipient in every social situation continuing in time. Let us assume that two persons from entirely different social worlds begin to interact. By saying ‘persons’ we presuppose that the two individuals have formed selves, something that could, of course, have occurred only in a social process. We are thus for the moment excluding the cases of Adam and Eve, or of two ‘feral’ children meeting in a clearing of a primeval jungle. But we are assuming that the two individuals arrive at their meeting place from social worlds that have been historically produced in segregation from each other, and that the interaction therefore takes place in a situation that has not been institutionally defined for either of the participants. It may be possible to imagine a Man Friday joining our matchstick-canoe builder on his desert island, and to imagine the former as a Papuan and the latter as an American. In that case, however, it is likely that the American will have read or at least have heard about the story of Robinson Crusoe, which will introduce a measure of predefinition of the situation at least for him. Let us, then, simply call our two persons A and B.

As A and B interact, in whatever manner, typifications will be produced quite quickly. A watches B perform. He attributes motives to B’s actions and, seeing the actions recur, typifies the motives as recurrent. As B goes on performing, A is soon able to say to himself, ‘Aha, there he goes again.’ At the same time, A may assume that B is doing the same thing with regard to him. From the beginning, both A and B assume this reciprocity of typification. In the course of their interaction these typifications will be expressed in specific patterns of conduct. That is, A and B will begin to play roles vis-à-vis each other. This will occur even if each continues to perform actions different from those of the other. The possibility of taking the role of the other will appear with regard to the same actions performed by both. That is, A will inwardly appropriate B’s reiterated roles and make them the models for his own role-playing. For example, B’s role in the activity of preparing food is not only typified as such by A, but enters as a constitutive element into A’s own food-preparation role. Thus a collection of reciprocally typified actions will emerge, habitualized for each in roles, some of which will be performed separately and some in common.22 While this reciprocal typification is not yet institutionalization (since, there only being two individuals, there is no possibility of a typology of actors), it is clear that institutionalization is already present in nucleo.

At this stage one may ask what gains accrue to the two individuals from this development. The most important gain is that each will be able to predict the other’s actions. Concomitantly, the interaction of both becomes predictable. The ‘There he goes again’ becomes a ‘There we go again’. This relieves both individuals of a considerable amount of tension. They save time and effort, not only in whatever external tasks they might be engaged in separately or jointly, but in terms of their respective psychological economies. Their life together is now defined by a widening sphere of taken-for-granted routines. Many actions are possible on a low level of attention. Each action of one is no longer a source of astonishment and potential danger to the other. Instead, much of what goes on takes on the triviality of what, to both, will be everyday life. This means that the two individuals are constructing a background, in the sense discussed before, which will serve to stabilize both their separate actions and their interaction. The construction of this background of routine in turn makes possible a division of labour between them, opening the way for innovations, which demand a higher level of attention. The division of labour and the innovations will lead to new habitualizations, further widening the background common to both individuals. In other words, a social world will be in process of construction, containing within it the roots of an expanding institutional order.

Generally, all actions repeated once or more tend to be habitualized to some degree, just as all actions observed by another necessarily involve some typification on his part. However, for the kind of reciprocal typification just described to occur there must be a continuing social situation in which the habitualized actions of two or more individuals interlock. Which actions are likely to be reciprocally typified in this manner?

The general answer is, those actions that are relevant to both A and B within their common situation. The areas likely to be relevant in this way will, of course, vary in different situations. Some will be those facing A and B in terms of their previous biographies, others may be the result of the natural, pre-social circumstances of the situation. What will in all cases have to be habitualized is the communication process between A and B. Labour, sexuality and territoriality are other likely foci of typification and habitualization. In these various areas the situation of A and B is paradigmatic of the institutionalization occurring in larger societies.


How the subjective / socially constructed roles that individuals have of one another become objective reality for children born into a world where they do not derive ‘roles’ based on firsthand experience.

Let us push our paradigm one step further and imagine that A and B have children. At this point the situation changes qualitatively. The appearance of a third party changes the character of the ongoing social interaction between A and B, and it will change even further as additional individuals continue to be added.23 The institutional world, which existed in statu nascendi in the original situation of A and B, is now passed on to others. In this process institutionalization perfects itself. The habitualization and typifications undertaken in the common life of A and B, formations that until this point still had the quality of ad hoc conceptions of two individuals, now become historical institutions. With the acquisition of historicity, these formations also acquire another crucial quality, or, more accurately, perfect a quality that was incipient as soon as A and B began the reciprocal typification of their conduct: this quality is objectivity. This means that the institutions that have now been crystallized (for instance, the institution of paternity as it is encountered by the children) are experienced as existing over and beyond the individuals who ‘happen to’ embody them at the moment. In other words, the institutions are now experienced as possessing a reality of their own, a reality that confronts the individual as an external and coercive fact.24

As long as the nascent institutions are constructed and maintained only in the interaction of A and B, their objectivity remains tenuous, easily changeable, almost playful, even while they attain a measure of objectivity by the mere fact of their formation. To put this a little differently, the routinized background of A’s and B’s activity remains fairly accessible to deliberate intervention by A and B. Although the routines, once established, carry within them a tendency to persist, the possibility of changing them or even abolishing them remains at hand in consciousness. A and B alone are responsible for having constructed this world. A and B remain capable of changing or abolishing it. What is more, since they themselves have shaped this world in the course of a shared biography which they can remember, the world thus shaped appears fully transparent to them. They understand the world that they themselves have made. All this changes in the process of transmission to the new generation. The objectivity of the institutional world ‘thickens’ and ‘hardens’, not only for the children, 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 becomes real in an ever more massive way and it can no longer be changed so readily. For the children, especially in the early phase of their socialization 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 they had 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 social world at all, in the sense of a comprehensive and given reality confronting the individual in a manner analogous to the reality of the natural world. Only in this way, as an objective world, can the social formations be transmitted to a new generation. In the early phases of socialization the child is quite incapable of distinguishing between the objectivity of natural phenomena and the objectivity of the social formations.25 To take the most important item of socialization, language appears to the child as inherent in the nature of things, and he cannot grasp the notion of its conventionality. A thing is what it is called, and it could not be called anything else. All institutions appear in the same way, as given, unalterable and self-evident. Even in our empirically unlikely example of parents having constructed an institutional world de novo, the objectivity of this world would be increased for them by the socialization of their children, because the objectivity experienced by the children would reflect back upon their own experience of this world. Empirically, of course, the institutional world transmitted by most parents already has the character of historical and objective reality. The process of transmission simply strengthens the parents’ sense of reality, if only because, to put it crudely, if one says, ‘This is how these things are done’, often enough one believes it oneself.26

An institutional world, then, is experienced as an objective reality. It has a history that antedates the individual’s birth and is not accessible to his biographical recollection. It was there before he was born, and it will be there after his death. This history itself, as the tradition of the existing institutions, has the character of objectivity. The individual’s biography is apprehended as an episode located within the objective history of the society. The institutions, as historical and objective facticities, confront the individual as undeniable facts. The institutions are there, external to him, persistent in their reality, whether he likes it or not. He cannot wish them away. They resist his attempts to change or evade them. They have coercive power over him, both in themselves, by the sheer force of their facticity, and through the control mechanisms that are usually attached to the most important of them. The objective reality of institutions is not diminished if the individual does not understand their purpose or their mode of operation. He may experience large sectors of the social world as incomprehensible, perhaps oppressive in their opaqueness, but real none the less. Since institutions exist as external reality, the individual cannot understand them by introspection. He must ‘go out’ and learn about them, just as he must to learn about nature. This remains true even though the social world, as a humanly produced reality, is potentially understandable in a way not possible in the case of the natural world.27

It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity. The process by which the externalized products of human activity attain the character of objectivity is objectivation.28 The institutional world is objectivated human activity, and so is every single institution. In other words, despite the objectivity that marks the social world in human experience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it. The paradox that man is capable of producing a world that he then experiences as something other than a human product will concern us later on. At the moment, it is important to emphasize that the relationship between man, the producer, and the social world, his product, is and remains a dialectical one. That is, man (not, of course, in isolation but in his collectivities) and his social world interact with each other. The product acts back upon the producer. Externalization and objectivation are moments in a continuing dialectical process. The third moment in this process, which is internalization (by which the objectivated social world is retrojected into consciousness in the course of socialization), will occupy us in considerable detail later on. It is already possible, however, to see the fundamental relationship of these three dialectical moments in social reality. Each of them corresponds to an essential characterization of the social world. Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product. It may also already be evident that an analysis of the social world that leaves out any one of these three moments will be distortive.29 One may further add that only with the transmission of the social world to a new generation (that is, internalization as effectuated in socialization) does the fundamental social dialectic appear in its totality. To repeat, only with the appearance of a new generation can one properly speak of a social world.


The need for legitmation of institutions:

At the same point, the institutional world requires legitimation, that is, ways by which it can be ‘explained’ and justified. This is not because it appears less real. As we have seen, the reality of the social world gains in massivity in the course of its transmission. This reality, however, is a historical one, which comes to the new generation as a tradition rather than as a biographical memory. In our paradigmatic example, A and B, the original creators of the social world, can always reconstruct the circumstances under which their world and any part of it was established. That is, they can arrive at the meaning of an institution by exercising their powers of recollection. A’s and B’s children are in an altogether different situation. Their knowledge of the institutional history is by way of ‘hearsay’. The original meaning of the institutions is inaccessible to them in terms of memory. It, therefore, becomes necessary to interpret this meaning to them in various legitimating formulas. These will have to be consistent and comprehensive in terms of the institutional order, if they are to carry conviction to the new generation. The same story, so to speak, must be told to all the children. It follows that the expanding institutional order develops a corresponding canopy of legitimations, stretching over it a protective cover of both cognitive and normative interpretation. These legitimations are learned by the new generation during the same process that socializes them into the institutional order. This, again, will occupy us in greater detail further on.

The development of specific mechanisms of social controls also becomes necessary with the historicization and objectivation of institutions. Deviance from the institutionally ‘programmed’ courses of action becomes likely once the institutions have become realities divorced from their original relevance in the concrete social processes from which they arose. To put this more simply, it is more likely that one will deviate from programmes set up for one by others than from programmes that one has helped establish oneself. The new generation posits a problem of compliance, and its socialization into the institutional order requires the establishment of sanctions. The institutions must and do claim authority over the individual, independently of the subjective meanings he may attach to any particular situation. The priority of the institutional definitions of situations must be consistently maintained over individual temptations at redefinition. The children must be ‘taught to behave’ and, once taught, must be ‘kept in line’. So, of course, must the adults. The more conduct is institutionalized, the more predictable and thus the more controlled it becomes. If socialization into the institutions has been effective, outright coercive measures can be applied economically and selectively. Most of the time, conduct will occur ‘spontaneously’ within the institutionally set channels. The more, on the level of meaning, conduct is taken for granted, the more possible alternatives to the institutional ‘programmes’ will recede, and the more predictable and controlled conduct will be.


The reification of human constructions into objective reality…

A final question of great theoretical interest arising from the historical variability of institutionalization has to do with the manner in which the institutional order is objectified: To what extent is an institutional order, or any part of it, apprehended as a non-human facticity? This is the question of the reification of social reality.58

Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something other 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. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity.

It will be clear from our previous discussion of objectivation that, as soon as an objective social world is established, the possibility of reification is never far away.59 The objectivity of the social world means that it confronts man as something outside of himself. The decisive question is whether he still retains the awareness that, however objectivated, the social world was made by men — and, therefore, can be remade by them. In other words, reification can be described as an extreme step in the process of objectivation, whereby the objectivated world loses its comprehensibility as a human enterprise and becomes fixated as a non-human non-humanizable, inert facticity.60 Typically, the real relationship between man and his world is reversed in consciousness. Man, the producer of a world, is apprehended as its product, and human activity as an epiphenomenon of non-human processes. Human meanings are no longer understood as world-producing but as being, in their turn, products of the ‘nature of things’. It must be emphasized that reification is a modality of consciousness, more precisely, a modality of man’s objectification of the human world. Even while apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it. That is, man is capable paradoxically of producing a reality that denies him.61

Reification is possible on both the pre-theoretical and theoretical levels of consciousness. Complex theoretical systems can be described as reifications, though presumably they have their roots in pre-theoretical reifications established in this or that social situation. Thus it would be an error to limit the concept of reification to the mental constructions of intellectuals. Reification exists in the consciousness of the man in the street and, indeed, the latter presence is more practically significant. It would also be a mistake to look at reification as a perversion of an originally non-reified apprehension of the social world, a sort of cognitive fall from grace. On the contrary, the available ethnological and psychological evidence seems to indicate the opposite, namely, that the original apprehension of the social world is highly reified both phylogenetically and ontogenetically.62 This implies that an apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon an at least relative de-reification of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography.

Both the institutional order as a whole and segments of it may be apprehended in reified terms. For example, the entire order of society may be conceived of as of a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm of the total universe as made by the gods. Whatever happens ‘here below’ is but a pale reflection of what takes place ‘up above’.63 Particular institutions may be apprehended in similar ways. The basic ‘recipe’ for the reification of institutions is to bestow on them an ontological status independent of human activity and signification. Specific reifications are variations on this general theme. Marriage, for instance, may be reified as an imitation of divine acts of creativity, as a universal mandate of natural laws, as the necessary consequence of biological or psychological forces, or, for that matter, as a functional imperative of the social system. What all these reifications have in common is their obfuscation of marriage as an ongoing human production. As can be readily seen in this example, the reification may occur both theoretically and pre-theoretically. Thus the mystagogue can concoct a highly sophisticated theory reaching out from the concrete human event to the farthest corners of the divine cosmos, but an illiterate peasant couple being married may apprehend the event with a similarly reifying shudder of metaphysical dread. Through reification, the world of institutions appears to merge with the world of nature. It becomes necessity and fate, and is lived through as such, happily or un-happily as the case may be.

Roles may be reified in the same manner as institutions. The sector of self-consciousness that has been objectified in the role is then also apprehended as an inevitable fate, for which the individual may disclaim responsibility. The paradigmatic formula for this kind of reification is the statement ‘I have no choice in the matter, I have to act this way because of my position’ — as husband, father, general, archbishop, chairman of the board, gangster or hangman, as the case may be. This means that the reification of roles narrows the subjective distance that the individual may establish between himself and his role-playing. The distance implied in all objectification remains, of course, but the distance brought about by disidentification shrinks to the vanishing point. Finally, identity itself (the total self, if one prefers) may be reified, both one’s own and that of others. There is then a total identification of the individual with his socially assigned typifications. He is apprehended as nothing but that type. This apprehension may be positively or negatively accented in terms of values or emotions. The identification of ‘Jew’ may be equally reifying for the anti-Semite and the Jew himself, except that the latter will accent the identification positively and the former negatively. Both reifications bestow an ontological and total status on a typification that is humanly produced and that, even as it is internalized, objectifies but a segment of the self.64 Once more, such reifications may range from the pre-theoretical level of ‘what everybody knows about Jews’ to the most complex theories of Jewishness as a manifestation of biology (‘Jewish blood‘), psychology (‘the Jewish soul’) or metaphysics (‘the mystery of Israel’).

The analysis of reification is important because it serves as a standing corrective to the reifying propensities of theoretical thought in general and sociological thought in particular. It is particularly important for the sociology of knowledge, because it prevents it from falling into an undialectical conception of the relationship between what men do and what they think. The historical and empirical application of the sociology of knowledge must take special note of the social circumstances that favour de-reification — such as the overall collapse of institutional orders, the contact between previously segregated societies, and the important phenomenon of social marginality.65 These problems, however, exceed the framework of our present considerations.


Thoughts of madness and terror result from a recognition of the illusion …

The symbolic universe provides order for the subjective apprehension of biographical experience. Experiences belonging to different spheres of reality are integrated by incorporation in the same, overarching universe of meaning. For example, the symbolic universe determines the significance of dreams within the reality of everyday life, re-establishing in each instance the paramount status of the latter and mitigating the shock that accompanies the passage from one reality to another.72 The provinces of meaning that would otherwise remain unintelligible enclaves within the reality of everyday life are thus ordered in terms of a hierarchy of realities, ipso facto becoming intelligible and less terrifying. This integration of the realities of marginal situations within the paramount reality of everyday life is of great importance, because these situations constitute the most acute threat to taken-for-granted, routinized existence in society. If one conceives of the latter as the ‘daylight side’ of human life, then the marginal situations constitute a ‘night side’ that keeps lurking ominously on the periphery of everyday consciousness. Just because the ‘night side’ has its own reality, often enough of a sinister kind, it is a constant threat to the taken-for-granted, matter-of-fact, ‘sane’ reality of life in society. The thought keeps suggesting itself (the ‘insane’ thought par excellence) that, perhaps, the bright reality of everyday life is but an illusion, to be swallowed up at any moment by the howling nightmares of the other, the night-side reality. Such thoughts of madness and terror are contained by ordering all conceivable realities within the same symbolic universe that encompasses the reality of everyday life — to wit, ordering them in such a way that the latter reality retains its paramount, definitive (if one wishes, its ‘most real’) quality.

…. The symbolic universe also orders history. It locates all collective events in a cohesive unity that includes past, present and future. With regard to the past, it establishes a ‘memory’ that is shared by all the individuals socialized within the collectivity.77 With regard to the future, it establishes a common frame of reference for the projection of individual actions. Thus the symbolic universe links men with their predecessors and their successors in a meaningful totality,78 serving to transcend the finitude of individual existence and bestowing meaning upon the individual’s death. All the members of a society can now conceive of themselves as belonging to a meaningful universe, which was there before they were born and will be there after they die. The empirical community is transposed on to a cosmic plane and made majestically independent of the vicissitudes of individual existence.79

As we have already observed, the symbolic universe provides a comprehensive integration of all discrete institutional processes. The entire society now makes sense. Particular institutions and roles are legitimated by locating them in a comprehensively meaningful world. For example, the political order is legitimated by reference to a cosmic order of power and justice, and political roles are legitimated as representations of these cosmic principles. The institution of divine kingship in archaic civilizations is an excellent illustration of the manner in which this kind of ultimate legitimation operates. It is important, however, to understand that the institutional order, like the order of individual biography, is continually threatened by the presence of realities that are meaningless in its terms. 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 the legitimations that obscure the precariousness are threatened or collapse. The dread that accompanies the death of a king, especially if it occurs with sudden violence, expresses this terror. Over and beyond emotions of sympathy or pragmatic political concerns, the death of a king under such circumstances brings the terror of chaos to conscious proximity. The popular reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy is a potent illustration. It may readily be understood why such events have to be followed at once with the most solemn reaffirmations of the continuing reality of the sheltering symbols.


The possibility of alternative universes opens up…

A major occasion for the development of universe-maintaining conceptualization arises when a society is confronted with another society having a greatly different history.82 The problem posed by such a confrontation is typically sharper than that posed by intra-societal heresies because here there is an alternative symbolic universe with an ‘official’ tradition whose taken-for-granted objectivity is equal to one’s own. It is much less shocking to the reality status of one’s own universe to have to deal with minority groups of deviants, whose contrariness is ipso facto defined as folly or wickedness, than to confront another society that views one’s own definitions of reality as ignorant, mad or downright evil.83 It is one thing to have some individuals around, even if they band together as a minority group, who cannot or will not abide by the institutional rules of cousinhood. It is quite another thing to meet an entire society that has never heard of these rules, perhaps does not even have a word for ‘cousin’, and that nevertheless seems to get along very well as a going concern. The alternative universe presented by the other society must be met with the best possible reasons for the superiority of one’s own. This necessity requires a conceptual machinery of considerable sophistication.

The appearance of an alternative symbolic universe poses a threat because its very existence demonstrates empirically that one’s own universe is less than inevitable. As anyone can see now, it is possible to live in this world without the institution of cousinhood after all. And it is possible to deny or even mock the gods of cousinhood without at once causing the downfall of the heavens. This shocking fact must be accounted for theoretically, if nothing more. Of course it may also happen that the alternative universe has a missionary appeal. Individuals or groups within one’s own society might be tempted to ‘emigrate’ from the traditional universe or, even more serious a danger, to change the old order in the image of the new. It is easy to imagine, for example, how the advent of the patriarchal Greeks must have upset the universe of the matriarchal societies then existing along the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek universe must have had considerable appeal for the henpecked males of these societies, and we know that the Great Mother made quite an impression on the Greeks themselves. Greek mythology is full of the conceptual elaborations that proved necessary to take care of this problem.


Power — whoever has the bigger stick — dictates which universe is objective reality…

It is important to stress that the conceptual machineries of universe-maintenance are themselves products of social activity, as are all forms of legitimation, and can only rarely be understood apart from the other activities of the collectivity in question. Specifically, the success of particular conceptual machineries is related to the power possessed by those who operate them.84 The confrontation of alternative symbolic universes implies a problem of power — which of the conflicting definitions of reality will be ‘made to stick’ in the society. Two societies confronting each other with conflicting universes will both develop conceptual machineries designed to maintain their respective universes. From the point of view of intrinsic plausibility the two forms of conceptualization may seem to the outside observer to offer little choice. Which of the two will win, however, will depend more on the power than on the theoretical ingenuity of the respective legitimators. It is possible to imagine that equally sophisticated Olympian and Chthonic mystagogues met together in ecumenical consultations, discussing the merits of their respective universes sine ira et studio, but it is more likely that the issue was decided on the less rarefied level of military might. The historical outcome of each clash of gods was determined by those who wielded the better weapons rather than those who had the better arguments. The same, of course, may be said of intrasocietal conflicts of this kind. He who has the bigger stick has the better chance of imposing his definitions of reality. This is a safe assumption to make with regard to any larger collectivity, although there is always the possibility of politically disinterested theoreticians convincing each other without recourse to the cruder means of persuasion.

The conceptual machineries that maintain symbolic universes always entail the systematization of cognitive and normative legitimations, which were already present in the society in a more naïve mode, and which crystallized in the symbolic universe in question. In other words, the material out of which universe-maintaining legitimations are constructed is mostly a further elaboration, on a higher level of theoretical integration, of the legitimations of the several institutions. Thus there is usually a continuity between the explanatory and exhortatory schemes, which serve as legitimations on the lowest theoretical level, and the imposing intellectual constructions that expound the cosmos. The relationship between cognitive and normative conceptualizations, here as elsewhere, is empirically fluid; normative conceptualizations always imply certain cognitive presuppositions. The analytic distinction is useful, however, especially because it draws attention to varying degrees of differentiation between these two conceptual spheres.


Primitive societies appear as alternate (and false) universes…

There is first of all, perhaps paradigmatically, the possibility of the universal experts holding an effective monopoly over all ultimate definitions of reality in a society. Such a situation may be regarded as paradigmatic because there is good reason for thinking that it is typical of the earlier phases of human history. Such a monopoly means that a single symbolic tradition maintains the universe in question. To be in the society then implies acceptance of this tradition. The experts in the tradition are recognized as such by virtually all members of the society and have no effective competitors to deal with. All primitive societies empirically open to our inspection seem to fall under this type, and, with some modifications, most archaic civilizations do too.96 This does not imply that such societies have no sceptics, that everyone has without exception fully internalized the tradition, but rather that what scepticism there is has not been socially organized to offer a challenge to the upholders of the ‘official’ tradition.97


The trick society plays on the individual to make a bundle of contingencies appear as a fact…

In primary socialization there is no problem of identification. There is no choice of significant others. Society presents the candidate for socialization with a predefined set of significant others, whom he must accept as such with no possibility of opting for another arrangement. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. One must make do with the parents that fate has regaled one with. This unfair disadvantage inherent in the situation of being a child has the obvious consequence that, although the child is not simply passive in the process of his socialization, it is the adults who set the rules of the game. The child can play the game with enthusiasm or with sullen resistance. But, alas, there is no other game around. This has an important corollary. Since the child has no choice in the selection of his significant others, his identification with them is quasi-automatic. For the same reason, his internalization of their particular reality is quasi-inevitable. The child does not internalize the world of his significant others as one of many possible worlds. He internalizes it as the world, the only existent and only conceivable world, the world tout court. It is for this reason that the world internalized in primary socialization is so much more firmly entrenched in consciousness than worlds internalized in secondary socializations. However much the original sense of inevitability may be weakened in subsequent disenchantments, the recollection of a never-to-be-repeated certainty — the certainty of the first dawn of reality — still adheres to the first world of childhood. Primary socialization thus accomplishes what (in hindsight, of course) may be seen as the most important confidence trick that society plays on the individual — to make appear as necessity what is in fact a bundle of contingencies, and thus to make meaningful the accident of his birth.


Read it: