Peter L. Berger

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Berger in 2010
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Peter Ludwig Berger (1929–2017) was a sociologist who focused primarily on phenomenology. He derived his work off of Alfred Schütz's, expanding on his core ideas for intersubjectivity in individual understandings of social scenarios. He was born in Vienna, Austria, and developed sociological studies based on intersubjective perspective and, in particular, the relevance of God in modern society. Because of his theological roots, he had major emphases of knowledge from within the study of Christianity, giving him an advantage, in a way, by being able to analyze it from 'the inside'. He focused on 'the social construction of reality', with co-author Thomas Luckmann, who both wrote works about the topic.[1]

Sociology and religion[edit]

Society is a dialectic phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts back upon its producer: Society is a product of man. It has no other being except that which is bestowed upon it by human activity and consciousness. There can be no social reality apart from man. Yet it may also be stated that man is a product of society. Every individual biography is an episode within the history of society, which both precedes and survives it. Society was there before the individual was born and it will be there after he has died. What is more, it is within society, and as a result of social processes, that the individual becomes a person, that he attains and holds onto an identity, and that he carries out the various projects that constitute his life. Man cannot exist apart from society. The two statements, that society is the product of man and that man is the product of society, are not contradictory. They rather reflect the inherently dialectic character of the societal phenomenon. Only if this character is recognized will society be understood in terms that are adequate to its empirical reality.
—Peter Berger[2]

Peter Berger discusses in his work about religion in terms of societal culture. He posits a dialectic of culture: that while it is socially constructed and made by society's members, that it is also 'objective', in a sense, in that it is there, that it exists as an objective structure that can be analyzed and studied. Essentially, meaning is constructed where there is one, yet the meaning that is constructed becomes the new meaning at which social life is compared to and is enacted by. This is the same for formalized institutions, in that they exist fundamentally separate from any individual that contributes to it, yet is necessarily constructed by individuals at prior circumstance.

This mode of world-construction applies to religion, as well. Berger calls religion a "human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established", suggesting that not just meaning is attributed to objects and rituals, but also that value judgments are attributed to things as well. In essence, the value judgment could be inscribed in the meaning given in a said religion. However, just like institutions or culture, said value judgments on religious fervors and tendencies can also be easily measured by the determinations made by those within said religion. The sacred, special parts of everyday life pointed out by religion are dialectical to the mundane world. However, there is another form of dialectic: Not only are value judgments made from sacred objects, but also necessary structural claims. The dialectic between religious fundamentals and the chaotic world are also ones important to study, as they provide an additional reason to accept a religion: living in a chaotic life is harder to navigate than one that has character, one that has rigid understandings and rules to go with it. "Every human society is an edifice of externalized and objectivated meanings, always intending a meaningful totality."[3]

The social construction of reality[edit]

Berger worked with Thomas Luckmann on his work about social constructs of reality. In a sense, a social construction of reality was akin to a mass-scope phenomenology of human societies, reflecting the individual phenomenologies of actors and agents. Their primary emphasis of social constructs consisted fundamentally within the form of language and meanings, and how they are inter-shared between members of a society and acted upon. In particular, a 'sociology of knowledge' is referenced in their studies, under the pretense that the collective understanding of the world around them shaped their view of A) the world, B) humanity, and C) therefore, social life. "Knowledge is socially distributed and the mechanism of this distribution can be made the subject matter of a sociological discipline."

The typifications that are made under the basis of knowledge sharing and language development are the main focus of the work. Specifically, objects designed to realize the linguistic and meaningful goals of a society are reflections of and reinforcements of this type of social life. Consider a tool, like a knife or a whisk. These objects were made with the intention of a certain job, made easier by the existence of the tool. However, the existence of the tool would not have existed without a preconception of the job that needed to be done in the first place, and the process at which that job would be sufficiently resolved. In essence, an object created can be considered, in this way, entirely a reflection of societal knowledge, desire, and fundamental meaning.

While the environment itself is objectively existing and, on the large scale, doesn't fundamentally change, humanity's relationship with it certainly does. Also reflecting on the definitions of existing reality and human-made social life, our definitions of what reality consists of improves over time with the development of our understanding of it. To assume that we are not limited in our understanding of external reality is a fallacious one, as our knowledge has been steadily improving over time. Nonetheless, it is this presumption of knowing the true nature of society and reality that we operate as actors within a social life. "The period during which the human organism develops towards its completion in interrelationship with its environment is also the period during which the human self is formed."

The ultimate point of this type of study is to understand what happens with an institutionalization of an idea or system of meaning: a topic pertaining especially towards religion. When a set of ideas and actions are habitualized to a large extent, usually an institution will be developed in response as an attempt to formalize and streamline the given ideology and action. In this context, 'institutionalization' is not necessarily pertaining to a structure or building built with the express purpose of formalizing and sanctioning this action or idea, but rather the existence of rules that are en masse generalized and typified by its members. The words of Jesus Christ in the bible, for instance, would be an example of an 'institution' of these typifications, regardless of its content or possible contradiction. Rather, the focus is entirely on the objective observation of said measurable happenings.[4]