Peter Berger’s Sociology: An Unvarnished Introduction

Prose and Presentation

Berger’s prose style is neither elegant not convoluted. For the most part it is a model of plain-spoken clarity, though one must remember that he is an intellectual and a professional sociologist, typically writing for those who fit in the same or similar categories. Moreover, from time to time and source to source he may resort to the use of gratuitous neologisms, something that, in my experience, often leaves an author and his readers poorly served.

Nevertheless, neologisms are consistent with Berger’s judgment that sociologists have an obligation to create concepts to serve the research purpose at and. Berger is unconvinced by claims that the established conceptual apparatus known to most sociologists is sufficiently flexible and exhaustive in coverage to be of universal value.

In The Homeless Mind, for example, Berger invoked concepts of his own making, or that he had borrowed from relatively obscure sources, in an effort to more effectively capture the complexities and difficult substantive concerns of modernization and modernity. His use of adventitious concepts such as mechanisticity and compenentiality was prompted by his judgment that understanding the institutions and styles of consciousness in a modernized world is sufficiently difficult to require application of new and different ideas. Unfortunately, however, the result was a collection of unnecessary, awkward, and not particularly attractive or illuminating terms that occur much less frequently than one might expect throughout the rest of the book.

On the oddly infrequent occasions in which I encountered one or more of these clumsily mystifying locutions, I paused, translated it into everyday language or established social scientific concepts, and wondered why Berger had made this sort of translation necessary. This kind of misguided linguistic inventiveness represents the repository of terminological pretentiousness and confusion that makes outsiders suspicious of sociology as an intellectually constructive discipline. This is exactly the sort of ill-conceived conceptual apparatus that Berger himself has referred to as “the technical dialect for which sociologists have earned a dubious notoriety.”

Perhaps this is an unduly harsh judgment, and certainly, in principle, development of new concepts tailored to specific tasks may be a good idea. It does seem, however, to diminish the value of sociological concepts already in wide use. It also makes one wonder if Berger fails to appreciate his estimable facility in dealing with complex and difficult social phenomena using everyday language devoid of extraneous, quasi-technical terminology. After all, Berger himself has held that most sociology can be effectively presented in ordinary English.

In addition, in other contexts Berger has shown that he is perfectly capable of parsimoniously producing suggestively useful and linguistically new concepts well suited to a particular project. For example, when working in South Africa as part of a group charged with anticipating what the post-apartheid nation might look like, he was asked to provide a conceptual framework that would guide the efforts of the disparate collection of bright and accomplished policy analysts with whom he was working.

Wisely, Berger used “The Social Construction of Reality” as his point of departure. In addition, he invoked the term “cognitive maps” to refer to the interests of the various politically active groups with a stake in developments in their nation.

“Cognitive maps” strikes me as just the right concept to capture the conflicting, over-lapping, and independent interests involved. There’s nothing awkward or mystifying about it, and it serves Berger’s purpose quite well. It seems that Berger’s talent for inventing new concepts and suitably readable neologisms varies enormously from one project to another, with the fewer the better being a very good guideline.

As a contemporary sociologist of knowledge, Berger is primarily interested in what ordinary people know — commonsense or recipe knowledge — rather than arcane philosophical accounts of the ideas of highly specialized scholars. Finding truth according to some presumably infallible absolute and fundamental standard is not part of Berger’s project. Instead, his first concern is the reality of everyday life, or commonsense knowledge. Since we live in an inter-subjective world, commonsense knowledge is the knowledge we share with others in our everyday activities and mundane interactions.

Berger insightfully grasps the fact that this is the kind of knowledge without which society could not exist. The shared, all-purpose, commonsense nature of commonsense knowledge provides an answer to a question of first importance to Durkheim and numerous other sociologists, namely “how is society possible.” The answer for Berger is that commonsense knowledge provides the building blocks that make it so.

I think that an important implication of Berger’s perspective is that it is a waste of time for the sociologist, rather than the philosophical anthropologist, to struggle with a definition of human nature. If sociologists are interested in human nature as a foundation for their theorizing and substantive work, I think it’s best to construe it as contingent and context specific. We are products of the circumstances in which we live, and our nature is contextually mutable and historically distinctive. In effect, we produce ourselves and are produced as part of the dialectical process of living with others in sets of circumstances that assure that our natures will be variable. Berger puts this exceptionally well in The Sacred Canopy, where he holds that “society is a dialectical phenomenon in that it is a human product and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts back on its producer.”

Berger’s emphasis on the sociology of everyday life as people actually live it is an important reason why his work, with occasional exceptions, has been consistently accessible. It also attunes us to the pervasively available meanings without which no society could exist. It focuses on the character of the social context in which we live and what we take to be factual and real.

Those who would take the foregoing, in sum, to mean that sociological knowledge is transitory and contingent have a point. Berger, however, offers a determined effort to make the case that sociology is in an advantageous position with regard to producing objective knowledge that cannot be dismissed a just relativistic speculation dressed up in methodologically and theoretically elaborate social scientific garb. When he trumpets his discovery of the unparalleled virtues of capitalism, however, he steps away from this position, making a fatal error of his own. For the most part, however, Berger’s position with regard to objectivity is perfectly tenable and devoid of special pleading for sociology.

Eventually, a book titled “Peter Berger’s Sociology: An Unvarnished Overview,” may appear in print, a thorough and critical discussion of the material we have just introduced. For now, those who would like to read an account of much of the material that provides the basis for Berger’s work can turn to “Classical Social Theory in Use: Interpretation and Application for Educators and other Non-Specialists,” published by Information Age.