The Social Construction of Reality

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the social construction of reality, including habitualization
Two mimes are shown making faces and performing on a street.

Figure 1. Who are we? What role do we play in society? According to sociologists, we construct reality through our interactions with others. In a way, our day-to-day interactions are like those of actors on a stage. (Photo courtesy of Jan Lewandowski/flickr)

Just as socialization is mostly determined by the world and culture around us, our perception of the world is also influenced by external forces. Consider your own society, for example. A society describes a group of people who live in a defined geographical area, interact with one another, and share a common culture. How do you think your society was “constructed”? Who decided upon the appropriate social norms and behaviors that shape your reality and experience? Sociologists understand that reality is socially constructed, meaning that people shape their experiences through social interaction.

In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book called The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they argued that society is created by humans and human interaction, which they call habitualization. Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do we construct our own society but we also accept it as it is because others have created it before us. Society is, in fact, a matter of “habit.”

For example, your school exists as a school and not just as another building because you and others agree that it is a school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others who came before you. In a sense, it exists by consensus, both prior and ongoing. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act of implanting a convention or norm into society. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is still quite real.

Another way of looking at this concept is through William I. and Dorothy Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behavior can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality. The Thomases used a case study of a mentally ill prisoner who believed his fellow inmates were talking about him and physically attacked them every time he saw their lips move. Although the other prisoners were not talking about him, it did not matter, because the situation (i.e., gossip, verbal abuse) was real to the mentally ill prisoner and the consequences (i.e., physical attacks) were very real.

Painting depicting Oedipus and three other ancient Greek figures.

Figure 2. The story line of a self-fulfilling prophecy appears in many literary works, perhaps most famously in the story of Oedipus. Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In going out of his way to avoid his fate, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills it. Oedipus’s story illustrates one way in which members of society contribute to the social construction of reality. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia Commons)

Like Berger and Luckmann in their description of habitualization, the Thomases state that our moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.” Racism, or the belief that one race is superior to another, is a social construction. In the United States, racism has been defined over time through laws and repeatedly interpreted by the courts. In Scott v. Sanford (1857), the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Dred Scott, a former slave, was not a citizen (or person under the law), and therefore could not sue and be recognized in federal court. Forty years later (1896), the Court upheld segregation laws in the trial of Plessy v. Fergusonand infamously decided that “separate but equal” was okay. Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth Black, had purchased a first class ticket for a train in Louisiana, but was arrested and jailed for sitting in the “White’s Only” car. The Plessy v. Ferguson ruling would not be reversed until the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (1954).

Sociologist Robert K. Merton used the phrase self-fulfilling prophecy to describe how even a false idea can become true if it is acted upon. One example Merton gives is of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a number of people falsely fear that their bank is soon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to their bank and demand all of their cash at once. As banks rarely, if ever, have that much money on hand, the bank does indeed run out of money, fulfilling the customers’ prophecy. Here, reality is constructed by an idea. Examples of Merton’s bank run self-fulfilling prophecy took place at two major international airports on opposite sides of the country (JFK in New York City and LAX in Los Angeles) within two weeks of each other in 2016, as people tweeted and posted pictures of an active shooter situation. Although there were no gunshots or active shooters in either airport, the reactions by law enforcement and security and the thousands of frightened travelers were very real in their consequences.

Symbolic interactionists offer another lens through which to analyze the social construction of reality. With a theoretical perspective focused on the symbols (like words, gestures, and artifacts) that people use to interact, this approach is interested in how people interpret those symbols in daily interactions. For example, we might feel frightened seeing a person carrying a gun, unless, of course, it turns out to be a police officer. Interactionists also recognize that language and body language reflect our values. One has only to learn a foreign tongue to know that not every English word can be easily translated into another language. The same is true for gestures. While Americans might recognize a “thumbs up” as meaning “great,” in Germany it would mean “one” and in Japan it would mean “five.” Thus, our construction of reality is influenced by our symbolic interactions and culturally specific knowledge.

A Year Without the Internet–by choice?

The Internet provides fertile new ground in terms of understanding how meaning is created, or constructed, and how those realities become our social world. Americans are increasingly spending their waking hours on the Internet; according to “Surveying the Digital Future,” an annual report conducted by researchers at USC Annenberg, Americans are spend 23.6 hours online each week, up from 9.4 hours per week in 2000, and home use has risen from 3.3 hours per week to 17.6 hours per week over the same period.[1] What are the implications for family life, friendships, consumer habits, and how we receive news? How does this change the way we see ourselves as well as those around us?

Listen to Paul Miller’s TEDx talk about his journey of going offline for one year. What things changed for him? How does he strive to find balance?

Try It

Think It Over

  • Think of a self-fulfilling prophecy that you’ve experienced or observed. Based on this example, do you agree with the Thomas theorem? Are there any current events that we might better understand by applying the Thomas theorem?
  • Imagine a year offline. In what ways do you think your reality would change or shift?

Glossary

habitualization:
the idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit
society:
a group of people who live in a defined geographical area who interact with one another and share a common culture
self-fulfilling prophecy:
an idea that becomes true when acted upon; the way that a person’s beliefs can affect their behavior
Thomas theorem:
how a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality, despite being originally unsupported by objective reality

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  1. Cole, J. and Suman M. 2017. "Surveying the digital future." USC Annenberg Annual Report.