Making Peter Berger

Peter Berger declared himself a humanistic sociologist throughout much of his career, including in his important book with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. This isn’t exactly a common identification for an American sociologist in the 1950s. So how did he get there?

This is an interesting question in its own right, since Berger has had significant influence at various points in the nearly fifty years since the publication of Social Construction. But it is also interesting in the context of the theorizing offered by Neil Gross about intellectual itineraries and the situation of the intellectual within a social and personal context.  Gross’s case study of the development of Richard Rorty’s career as a philosopher is a brilliant case study within this approach (link).  So it is interesting to consider how this perspective might play out in a treatment of Berger.

An important source for considering this question is Berger’s intellectual autobiography, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore, published at the latter end of his career in 2011. 

A major part of Berger’s intellectual development was his training in the PhD program in sociology at the New School for Social Research in the early 1950s. He describes this experience in a fair amount of detail.  The New School in the 1950s was a central locus for European sociology in the United States, and Berger absorbed much of the frameworks of thought associated with Weber, Durkheim, and phenomenology.  One important influence on him there was Alfred Schutz:

I suppose that the central concept I learned from Schutz was that of “multiple realities,” including the manner in which a sense of reality is kept going in the consciousness of individuals. (19)

One sociological constant throughout Berger’s self concept as an academic is his adherence and dedication to the ideas of Weber: “The only orthodoxy to which I continued to adhere was a Weberian understanding of the vocation of social science” (76).  Here is his thumbnail description of what Weber meant to him:

Thus I early on identified with the core elements of a Weberian approach: society as constituted by actions inspired by human meanings; sociology as the attempt to understand these meanings (Verstehen); the use of “ideal types”–theoretical constructs that only approximate social reality; the relation among meanings, motives, and actions; the institutionalization of the state, the economy, and class; and sociology as “value-free.” (23)

By this feature perhaps we can say that Berger’s thinking proceeded within one of the dominant paradigms or intellectual frameworks of European sociology; so not “counter-hegemonic”.  But it is also the case that his early influences at the New School were not “mainstream” sociology in America.  Berger describes his own allergy to quantitative sociological research (“Years later I took a summer course in statistical analysis at the University of Michigan. It was a disaster;” 26), and he didn’t fit neatly into the emerging contours of cutting-edge sociology in America in any of its versions.

Another aspect of his formation as a sociologist was his experience in the US Army as a draftee immediately following the completion of his PhD in 1954.  He asserts that the experience of living and training with men from a broad cross-section of American society gave him a sensibility to the variations of experience, values, and aspirations that exist in our society.  And the accidental experience he had of serving as a clinical social worker in the Army gave him an understanding of the power of extensive interviews in furthering sociological understanding of ordinary life.

What I had not anticipated was that my new assignment would turn out to be a unique learning experience — not about the actual business of the clinic (though that too was quite interesting), but about America. Thanks to the US Army, I received precisely the education that I had sought in studying sociology and that the New School was unable to provide. (47)

A key part of Berger’s originality in the field is the idea of a “humanistic” sociology.  What does he mean by this?  He consistently offers two ideas: debunking illusions and lies, and linking sociological research to the modes of reasoning in the humanities. Here is how he characterizes the “humanistic” version of sociology:

The term humanistic in the subtitle of Invitation to Sociology had two meanings. It suggested that the methodology of sociology should place the discipline close to the humanities — specifically literature, history, and philosophy.  Of course that is the sort of methodology I obtained at the New School. But the term also suggested that the discipline could serve a liberating purpose — to free individuals from illusions and to help make society more humane. …

Sociology derives its moral justification from its debunking of the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression.  Significantly, I singled out racial persecution, the persecution of homosexuals, and capital punishment, the ultimate cruelty.  Sociology liberates by facilitating a standing outside one’s social roles … and thereby a realization of one’s freedom. At the end of the book I use a metaphor that has become widely known: Sociology suggests that we are puppets of society, but unlike puppets we can look up and discover the strings to which we are attached, and this discovery is a first step toward freedom. (75)

Sociology is akin to comedy because it debunks the social fictions. By the same token it is potentially liberating. It shows up the “bad faith” by which individuals hide behind their roles and forces them to confront the reality of their own freedom. (72)

Berger attributes at least a part of his conviction about these two aspects of sociology to his experience of teaching as a young instructor in the segregated South:

These experiences help to explain why, a few years later, I wrote about sociology as having a “humanistic” purpose in unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals. (64)

His sociological research originated in the sociology of religion, and he continued to write on this topic throughout his life. Why so?  And how does this interest intersect with his frequent self-ascription of “theologian”?

The sociology of religion is certainly a core Weberian topic for historical sociology, so the fact that Berger identifies strongly with Weber may partially explain his choice of the topic.  But this doesn’t seem right, given Berger’s narrative in Adventures.  Berger’s interest in the topic seems more religiously inspired; he refers frequently to his own “theological” approach.  He writes repeatedly about his own movement across the landscape of Christian belief:

I was writing [my first novel] at a time when my emancipation from my youthful neo-orthodoxy had made me consider seriously whether I would now have to define myself as an agnostic if not an atheist. (86)

It was the question of theodicy that had brought me close to abandoning my Christian faith. (86)

So it seems likely that his own religious needs were an important part of his desire to write about religious experience.

Here is how he describes the intellectual framework that he and Luckmann conceived of in preparation for writing a book on the sociology of knowledge — which eventually became Social Construction:

Specifically, we came to undertake a synthesis of several strands of theory that have often been understood as contradictory: the so-called voluntaristic approach commonly attributed to Max Weber, which emphasized that society is created by the meaningful acts of individuals; the approach, strongly represented by the Durkheimian school of French sociology, that emphasized social institutions as facets that resist the acts of individuals; and, finally, the tradition of American social psychology, mostly deriving from George Herbert Mead, which studied the way in which individuals are socialized into their roles. (81)

This gives something of an idea of Berger’s core ideas as a sociological theorist and researcher — his intellectual agenda.  But how did Berger relate to the discipline, and the status structure, of American sociology itself?  Berger writes frequently inAdventures about his distance from the mainstream:

I had realized by now how marginal I was to the mainstream of American sociology, and after all, I was nursing dreams of building an empire with our new approach to sociological theory. (85)

His marginality took various forms: a PhD in a decidedly heterodox and non-elite graduate program, teaching appointments in a series of non-elite institutions, and none of the early indicators of “star” status that the discipline of sociology had to offer (elite grants and fellowships, book prizes, etc.).  He notes that a book that he is especially proud of, Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, was ignored by the professional world of sociology when it appeared in 1963; and with evident satisfaction, he notes as well that it went on to sell well over a million copies.  And he is also frank about his aspirations:

I wanted out of Hartford, not because I was unhappy there but because (perhaps misguidedly) I wanted to be in a proper Sociology Department, with graduate students in sociology.  Thus Invitation to Sociology had a subtext, a plea to fellow sociologists: Please invite me! (76)

He is equally frank in describing the striking success and influence of Social Construction: “Someone suggested that it was the most read sociology book written in the twentieth century. That is doubtful. But the book was widely noticed right after publication in America and elsewhere as foreign translations appeared” (89).  The book had wide appeal, and Berger was gratified that this was so.  But it did not result in his becoming one of the leading stars of the sociology world.

Here is how he characterizes his intellectual location, within the field of American sociology in the 1960s. in a reflection on the possible influence of Social Construction:

For just a few years after 1966 there was a narrow window of opportunity for our approach to sociology, since especially younger colleagues were disillusioned by the double dominance of so-called structural-functional theory and quantitative methodology; hence the initially favorable reception of the book. But then, almost immediately afterward, there occurred “an orgy of ideology and utopianism” with which neither Luckmann nor I could identify. (91)

(Essentially he is referring here to the sweeping appeal of the New Left and Post Modernism in the academic world and among students.  These were movements to which he was strongly opposed.)

In other words, the intellectual framework which Berger and Luckmann hoped to create in the 1960s did in fact come into coherent focus in Social Construction; but the opportunity to genuinely shift the focus of the field came and went.  He disparages two offshoots that might be thought to be intellectual descendants or cousins — ethnomethodology (Garfinkel) and constructivism (Foucault and Derrida) (93 ff.).

And he concludes that he never did become a part of the elite leadership group of American sociology:

As the years went by, I was even assigned the role of a grand (even if definitely out-of-style) old man. But I became an exile, not only from my parochial alma mater [the New School] but from the wider elite culture. Given the nature of the latter, this has not been such a bad thing. (108)

So there seem to be several important strands to this intellectual autobiography. First, Berger gives a strong impression of the importance of what Gross refers to as “self-concept” in the development of his ideas and theories in sociology.  His religious beliefs and questions, his personal rejection of racism and homophobia, and his original and guiding thought about “multiple realities” seem to have guided many of the choices that he made in his academic life.

Second, there is the strand of “academic field” and the constraints and incentives which the field creates for the young scholar — the insight that drives Bourdieu’s understanding of the development of an academic field.  These ambitions and aspirations are plainly important to Berger at various points in the narrative, and they led to some significant choices in his academic life.  But the opportunism that is associated with the Bourdieuian concept seems largely absent in the development of Berger’s academic career through middle age.  Even the “exile” that he describes, from the New School to Rutgers, stemmed from choices he made that arose from his self concept in attempting to redirect the Department of Sociology when he became chair.

And finally, Berger never did reach the pinnacle of elite status that Rorty did in philosophy or Kenneth Arrow did in economics.  In his own assessment, the intellectual tides of the field passed him and his insights by.

In other words, Berger’s intellectual trajectory seems to follow largely from his self concept, and the ideas and movements of thought that were personally important to him, and very little from his calculating assessment of how best to move upward in the status structure of the discipline.  He was fully aware of that structure; but he seems not to have deviated from the course his own values and convictions set him upon.

(Here’s a very critical and worthwhile review of Adventures in The Global Sociology Blog. The review opens with these words: “Well, it is not often that I dislike a book as much as I did Peter Berger’s Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist.”  SocProf is highly critical of the conservative trend that Berger’s thought and affinities took in the 1970s and later, and he argues that this turn leads Berger to eliminate the most crucial parts of the sociological challenge: race, class, gender, and power.  A lot of the Global Sociology review has to do with the later parts of Berger’s intellectual course, which I haven’t addressed here. I’ve been primarily interested in where Berger’s foundational ideas came from in his own early development.  But I admit that the narrative I’ve provided here doesn’t yet offer a basis for explaining Berger’s turn to the right and away from moral and political engagement with the injustices that exist around us.)

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