Reality as a Social Construct

What you’ll learn to do: explain the social construction of reality

A photo of students looking at the teacher standing in the front of the classroom.

Society is based on the social construction of reality. What does this mean? Consider something that we consider “obvious” like Grade Point Average (GPA). Remember, the sociological perspective is about making the familiar strange, right? For college acceptance, scholarships, and many other important events that occur in one’s life, GPA is a factor. We define academic excellence, in part, with a high GPA. A student with two A’s (4.0) and two D’s (2.0) has a GPA of 3.0. A student with four B’s (3.0) also has a GPA of 3.0. Does this average accurately represent student performance? What if one student is taking college classes in high school and the other student is taking all electives?

If a student has a high GPA, they might be given accolades such as a place on the “honor roll” or “dean’s list,” and as we will see, social constructions like this have very real implications for college admissions, scholarships, one’s identity, as well as on the way that others see us. We might eventually perform the role of a high-achieving student once that expression aligns with our sense of self.

Sociologists examine the social constructions of reality as they relate to gender, race and ethnicity, age, economic class, religion, and other factors that make up our social location. We all take on various roles throughout our lives, and our social interactions depend on what types of roles we assume, who we assume them with, and the scene where these interactions takes place.

In this section, you will learn to explain the social construction of reality, define roles, and examine how individuals perceive themselves within a social context.

Learning outcomes

  • Explain the social construction of reality, including habitualization
  • Describe how individuals present themselves and perceive themselves in a social context

The Social Construction of Reality

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 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 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 fright at 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?

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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?

Roles and the Presentation of Self

Long before the Internet, sociologists were examining how individuals interact with society and how they present themselves to others and are in turn perceived. In our digital age, we can contemplate the kinds of photos posted online, how others react to those photos (“hearts,” “thumbs up,” emojis, comments, etc.), and then how we interpret those reactions. This threefold process correlates with Cooley’s 1902 concept of the looking-glass self, in which we develop our sense of self as we: 1) see how others react to us, 2) interpret that reaction (typically as positive or negative) and 3) develop a sense of self based on those interpretations. 

Status and Roles

Sociologists use the term status to describe the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to their rank and role in society. Some statuses are ascribed—those you do not select, such as son, elderly person, or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by choice, such as high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse. As a daughter or son, you occupy a different status than as a neighbor or employee.

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviors in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behavior that we recognize in each other, and that are representative of a person’s social status. Currently, while reading this text, you are playing the role of a student. However, you also play other roles in your life, such as “daughter,” “neighbor,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, driving, problem-solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office but a sick child needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When you are working toward a promotion but your children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life powerfully affect our decisions and help to shape our identities.

One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it (Merton 1957).

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Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All we can observe is outward behavior, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role. Sociologist Erving Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on a stage. Calling his theory dramaturgy, Goffman believed that we use impression management to present ourselves to others as we hope to be perceived. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present (Goffman 1959). Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents or with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you.

Watch It

Watch the following video to learn more about Erving Goffmann’s concept of dramaturgical analysis and consider the various roles you play on the different “stages” of your life. What is your front-stage self and your back-stage self?

As in a play, the setting matters as well. If you have a group of friends over to your house for dinner, you are playing the role of a host. It is agreed upon that you will provide food and seating and probably be stuck with a lot of the cleanup at the end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are expected to respect your property and any rules you may set forth (“Don’t leave the door open or the cat will get out.”). In any scene, there needs to be a shared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a guest and others view you as a host, there are likely to be problems.

Impression management is a critical component of symbolic interactionism. For example, a judge in a courtroom has many “props” to create an impression of fairness, gravity, and control—like her robe and gavel. Those entering the courtroom are expected to adhere to the scene being set. Just imagine the “impression” that can be made by how a person dresses. This is the reason that attorneys frequently select the hairstyle and apparel for witnesses and defendants in courtroom proceedings.

A photo of a statue of Janus. The statue is of two heads facing outwards with the backs of their heads molded together.

Figure 3. Janus, another possible “prop”, depicted with two heads, exemplifies war and peace. (Photo courtesy of Fubar Obfusco/Wikimedia Commons)

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Again, Goffman’s dramaturgical approach expands on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. We imagine how we must appear to others, then react to this speculation. We put on certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear makeup, use cologne, and the like—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how others perceive us. We expect a certain reaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it. But more than that, Cooley believed that our sense of self is based upon this idea: we imagine how we look to others, draw conclusions based upon their reactions to us, and then we develop our personal sense of self. In other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we are reflected.

Watch It

Watch this Khan Academy video to learn more about Charles Cooley’s looking-glass self.

Think It Over

  • Describe a situation in which you have tried to influence others’ perception of you? How does Goffman’s impression management apply to this situation? 
  • Draw a large circle, and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labeling each piece with a role or status that you occupy. Add as many statuses, ascribed and achieved, that you have. Don’t forget things like dog owner, gardener, traveler, student, runner, employee. How many statuses do you have? In which ones are there role conflicts?

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Glossary

achieved status:
the status a person chooses, such as a level of education or income
ascribed status:
the status outside of an individual’s control, such as sex or race
dramaturgical approach:
a technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of theatrical performance
habitualization:
the idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit
impression management:
the effort to control or influence other peoples’ opinion
looking-glass self:
our reflection of how we think we appear to others
roles:
patterns of behavior that are representative of a person’s social status
role-set:
an array of roles attached to a particular status
role conflict:
a situation when one or more of an individual’s roles clash
role performance:
the expression of a role
role strain:
stress that occurs when too much is required of a single role
self-fulfilling prophecy:
an idea that becomes true when acted upon
society:
a group of people who live in a defined geographical area who interact with one another and share a common culture
status:
the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in society
Thomas theorem:
how a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality, despite being originally unsupported by objective reality

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