The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge is one of the most significant books of social science ever written - ranking with and beyond Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Emile Durkheim's Suicide, and more recently Walter Truett Anderson's more popularized take off of it entitled Reality Isn't What It Use To Be (1990). It has spawned a whole new cross-disciplinary school of social science - social constructionism. Originally written in 1967, the book was way ahead of its time with what now is called "postmodernism;" although neither of the author's views necessarily fit this term. In the arts and humanities, it resonates with the philosophy of 17th century Italian philosopher Giambatista Vico's book New Science ("the true and the made are convertible"), with the plays of Italian Luigi Pirandello (Right You Are If You Say You Are and Six Stories in Search of an Author), and with novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Divine Inquisitor) and Robert Musil (A Man Without Qualities).
The sociology of knowledge a la Berger and Luckmann is not about the history of ideas, the economic origin of ideologies, the social process of education, the study of intellectuals, religious Gnostics, or secret societies, or social theories per se. Rather, the intriguing concern of the authors is what they call everyday knowledge or common sense knowledge that is constructed at different levels of society all the way from language, to family history and memories, to children's folk tales, proverbs, and legends, to workplace and professional ideologies, to formal theories and paradigms, and finally to what they call symbolic universes or over-arching world views. Again, this is reminiscent of Vico who wrote: "common sense is judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire nation, or the entire human race." To Berger and Luckmann reality (that which we can't wish away) is unknowable except through the prism of experience as interpreted through social enclaves or what they call plausibility structures.
Berger and Luckmann base their work on a set of fundamental propositions: (1) Man's consciousness is determined by his social being or by his "seat in life." (2) Knowledge must always be from a certain position or social location. (3) "What is truth on one side of the Pyrenees (mountains) is error on the other" (Blaise Pascal). (4) Consider social facts or institutions as things (Emile Durkheim). And (5) the sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for knowledge in society.
Berger and Luckmann proceed from these propositions to discuss society as objective reality and society as subjective reality. They discuss three self-validating "moments" that construct our knowledge of reality: (1) externalization or projection (society as a human product); (2) objectivation or reification (society as objective reality); and (3) internalization and role alternation (man is a social product). The authors maintain that social institutions are perpetually precarious because they are humanly constructed, not biologically given. Human culture, produced by institutions, replaces instincts so well that culture is taken for granted as the same as our physical nature. As Berger and Luckmann put it: "man's relationship to his environment is characterized by world-openness." The authors don't mean that man is plastic, but that he is moldable within unspecific biological constraints.
Berger and Luckmann synthesize the views of a wide range of philosophers and social thinkers into an original product, in true constructionist fashion. But their systematic "theory" is not totalistic or totalitarian as is the theoretical systems of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, revolutionary thinker Karl Marx, the theory of evolution of Charles Darwin, or any other "know it all" system. Their approach reminds one of the classic parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Each blind man finds that they are touching or experiencing different parts of the body of the elephant and thus are led to think that the elephant is thin like a tail, or flexible like the trunk, or round and solid like its leg, or immovable like its torso. Only with Berger and Luckmann's approach the blind men may find that the elephant is hollow or man-made as in the fictional character of the wizard in the children's story of the Wizard of Oz. To Berger and Luckmann the world is a Hollywood stage front, a Russian Potemkin Village, but not a delusion. The authors explain that the next generation forgets, or is led to believe, that the social world is given when it was produced or manufactured. But it isn't manufactured mechanistically but is dialectically or interactively produced. The social order can be maintained by various techniques including intimidation, propaganda, mystification, or the manipulation of symbols (symbolic action). However, man is not a passive, but a reactionary creature that will not merely swallow social reality whole but will also often try and alter it. As the authors state man produces society, society becomes an objective, coercive, and reified (as in deified) reality, and, in turn, man becomes a social product of his own creation. Man experiences alienation when he forgets he created society or when he is powerless to control what he created. Man experiences what is called anomie when social worldviews no longer reflect reality.
Berger and Luckmann's book is highly readable but the terminology may be foreign at first and thus intimidating for some. If one wants to read a popularized version, Walter Truett Anderson's Reality Isn't What It Used to Be may leave one thirsting to read Berger and Luckmann's seminal book as well. Other books to explore might be Jodi O'Brien and Peter Kollock, The Production of Reality; William G. Roy, Making Societies; Walter Truett Anderson's sequel The Truth About the Truth; and Peter Berger's book on the social construction of sacred religious knowledge entitled The Sacred Canopy. And for a "light" introduction one might read Peter Berger's other classic entitled An Invitation to Sociology. But if you like reading a book that has depth of thought and classic understandings, don't miss reading Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality first hand.