Consider this definition of “socially constructed reality” which I found in Tamara Green’s City of the Moon God (and she herself is describing the work of sociologist Peter Berger). The basic idea is that we build the reality we live in through conscious choices, but once it is built it becomes the ONLY reality we have in common in a society—all our behaviors are conditioned to it, and what comes from outside it no longer seems real.
This is why it must have seemed perfectly natural to a lot of people in 1950s America for blacks and whites to live apart, or why people who lived in the Middle Ages never questioned the absolute power of the nobility and the church. It also explains the danger in a complex society like ours, where there is no longer one socially constructed reality we all share, but separate realities for Millennials vs. Boomers, evangelicals vs. religious skeptics, or people from rural America which is 90% white vs. people living on either coast where immigrant cultures are the majority.
If the claim made in the quote is true, that a society however diverse must find a way to fit its separate realities into “a coherent view that the entire culture can comprehend,” then we can see that we are in danger of losing that coherence in America today. We have groups who speak completely different languages (even when we are all speaking English) and who live in different socially constructed realities. We no longer have a reassuring figure like Walter Cronkite whom everyone trusts. On issues like global warming or the root causes of terrorism we can’t even agree on the same facts. In my reality, Donald Trump is a raving lunatic, but in the reality of his followers, America is coming apart because of people like me, who love immigrants more than our flag, or gays more than God.
In fact, the socially constructed reality I prefer is one that’s always in motion, always questioning and reinventing itself—but I understand that there are people who feel deeply threatened by this because they want a reality with fixed principles that endure. Which is fine, as long as they can get it through their thick little skulls that they are only part of a much larger social fabric, which means they don’t have the right to keep the rest of us from evolving just so they can stay in their comfort zone.
On our side, we progressives need to understand that a common view of reality is important for social health, so that even if we win this battle in November 2016, we still need to work overtime to make all Americans feel like they belong here, even those who don’t want to share their space with the emerging Black/Latino/Asian/LGBT/progressive majority. Because the new socially constructed reality we are shifting to is one where white Christian traditionalists no longer dictate how the rest of us must live, but they still have a protected role in our diverse society just like the Amish, Hassidic Jews, the Navajo or any other minority group.
Anyway, here is the quote from Tamara Green’s City of the Moon God that set off the above thoughts.
- “The socially constructed world…is the reality to which all members of the group will then subscribe, and they will measure and define all their experience by it. It is only within the terms of the knowledge of this institutional order that reality becomes ‘real,’ as it were. It is, within any particular group, the sum and total of ‘what everybody knows.’ And once these institutions which define reality are operational, any deviation from them is seen as a departure from reality; thus, this knowledge provides the definition of what is knowable, or at least, the framework into which anything not yet known must fit. It is the way we make sense of our world. Of course, not everyone within the group may know the same things; and in a more complex society, the number of groups who have specialized knowledge…proliferates. Nevertheless, the sum total of what all these groups know must in some way be made to fit, at least minimally, a coherent view that the entire culture can comprehend.”