Defining Your Terms:

Berger on the Sociological Consciousness

From Ch.2 of Berger's Invitation to Sociology: the writer explores possible uses of 4 key terms in the field of Sociology: society, social, problem and ideology. They form the basis for this task on definitions.
[Note: expressions of definition are given in bold for "social" and "society"]


If the previous chapter has been successful in its presentation, it will be possible to accept sociology as an intellectual preoccupation of interest to certain individuals. To stop at this point, however, would in itself be very unsociological indeed. The very fact that sociology appeared as a discipline at a certain stage of Western history should compel us to ask further how it is possible for certain individuals to occupy themselves with it and what the preconditions are for this occupation.........(Sociology) presents itself rather as a peculiarly modern and Western cogitation. And, as we shall try to argue in this chapter, it is constituted by a peculiarly modern form of consciousness.

society: The peculiarity of sociological perspective becomes clear with some reflection concerning the meaning of the term
society, a term that refers to the object par excellence of the discipline. Like most terms used by sociologists, this one is derived from common usage, where its meaning is imprecise. Sometimes it means a particular band of people (as in Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), sometimes only those people endowed with great prestige or privilege (as in Boston society ladies), and on other occasions it is simply used to denote company of any sort (for example, he greatly suffered in those years for lack of society). There are other, less frequent meanings as well. The sociologist uses the term in a more precise sense, though, of course, there are differences in usage within the discipline itself. The sociologist thinks of society as denoting a large complex of human relationships, or to put it in more technical language, as referring to a system of interaction. The word large is difficult to specify quantitatively in this context. The sociologist may speak of a society including millions of human beings (say, American society), but he may also use the term to refer to a numerically much smaller collectivity (say, `the society of second year students here'). Two people chatting on a street corner will hardly constitute a society, but three people stranded on an island certainly will. The applicability of the concept, then, cannot be decided on quantitative grounds alone. It rather applies when a complex of relationships is sufficiently succinct to be analysed by itself, understood as an autonomous entity, set against others of the same kind.

social: The adjective social must be similarly sharpened for sociological use. In common speech it may denote, once more, a number of different things - the informal quality of a certain gathering (this is a social meeting - let's not discuss business), an altruistic attitude on somebody's part (he had a strong social concern in his job), or, more generally, anything derived from contact with other people (a social disease). The sociologist will use the term more narrowly and more precisely to refer to the quality of interaction, inter-relationship, mutuality. Thus two men chatting on a street corner do not constitute a society, but what transpires between them is certainly social. Society consists of a complex of such social events. As to the exact definition of the social, it is difficult to improve on Max Weber's definition of a social situation as one in which people orient their actions towards one another. The web of meanings, expectations and conduct resulting from such mutual orientation is the stuff of sociological analysis.

problem: It may have become clear at this point that the problems that will interest the sociologist are not necessarily what other people may call problems. The way in which public officials and newspapers (and, alas, some college textbooks in sociology) speak about social problems serves to obscure this fact. People commonly speak of a social problem when something in society does not work the way it is supposed to according to the official interpretations. They then expect the sociologist to study the problem as they have defined it and perhaps even to come up with a solution that will take care of the matter to their own satisfaction. It is important, against this sort of expectation, to understand that a sociological problem is something quite different from a social problem in this sense. For example, it is naive to concentrate on crime as a problem because law-enforcement agencies so define it, or on divorce because that is a problem to the moralists of marriage. Even more clearly, the problem of the foreman to get his men to work more efficiently or of the line officer to get his troops to charge the enemy more enthusiastically need not be problematic at all to the sociologist (leaving out of consideration for the moment the probable fact that the sociologist asked to study such problems is employed by the corporation or the army). The sociological problem is always the understanding of what goes on here in terms of social interaction. Thus the sociological problem is not so much why some things go wrong from the viewpoint of the authorities and the management of the social scene, but how the whole system works in the first place, what are its presuppositions and by what means it is held together. The fundamental sociological problem is not crime but the law, not divorce but marriage, not racial discrimination but racially defined stratification, not revolution but government.

This point can be explicated further by an example. Take a settlement house in a lower-class slum district trying to wean away teenagers from the publicly disapproved activities of a juvenile gang. The frame of reference within which social workers and police officers define the
problems of this situation is constituted by the world of middle-class, respectable, publicly approved values. It is a problem if teenagers drive around in stolen automobiles, and it is a solution if instead they will play group games in the settlement house. But if one changes the frame of reference and looks at the situation from the viewpoint of the leaders of the juvenile gang, the problems are defined in reverse order. It is a problem for the solidarity of the gang if its members are seduced away from those activities that lend prestige to the gang within its own social world, and it would be a solution if the social workers went way the hell back uptown where they came from. What is a problem to one social system is the normal routine of things to the other system, and vice versa. Loyalty and disloyalty, solidarity and deviance, are defined in contradictory terms by the representatives of the two systems. Now, the sociologist may, in terms of his own values, regard the world of middle-class respectability as more desirable

and therefore want to come to the assistance of the settlement house, which is its missionary outpost in partibus infidelium. This, however, does not justify the identification of the director's headaches with what are problems sociologically. The problems that the sociologist will want to solve concern an understanding of the entire social situation, the values and modes of action in both systems, and the way in which the two systems coexist in space and time. Indeed, this very ability to look at a situation from the vantage points of competing systems of interpretation is, as we shall see more clearly later on, one of the hallmarks of sociological consciousness.

ideology: The concept of ideology, a central one in some sociological theories, could serve as another illustration of the debunking tendency discussed. Sociologists speak of ideology in discussing views that serve to rationalize the vested interests of some group. Very frequently such views systematically distort social reality in much the same way that an individual may neurotically deny, deform or reinterpret aspects of his life that are inconvenient to him. The important approach of the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto has a central place for this perspective and, as we shall see in a later chapter, the concept of ideology is essential for the approach called the sociology of knowledge. In such analyses the ideas by which men explain their actions are unmasked as self-deception, sales talk, the kind of sincerity that David Riesman has aptly described as the state of mind of a man who habitually believes his own propaganda. In this way, we can speak of ideology when we analyze the belief of many American physicians that standards of health will decline if the fee-for-service method of payment is abolished, or the conviction of many undertakers that inexpensive funerals show lack of affection for the departed, or the definition of their activity by quizmasters on television as education. The self-image of the insurance salesman as a fatherly adviser to young families, of the burlesque stripper as an artist, of the propagandist as a communications expert, of the hangman as a public servant - all these notions are not only individual assuagements of guilt or status anxiety, but constitute the official self-interpretations of entire social groups, obligatory for their members on pain of excommunication. In uncovering the social functionality of ideological pretensions the sociologist will try not to resemble those historians of whom Marx said that every corner grocer is superior to them in knowing the difference between what a man is and what he claims to be. The debunking motif of sociology lies in this penetration of verbal smoke screens to the unadmitted and often unpleasant mainsprings of action.

P. Berger (1966) Invitation to Sociology.(pp. 38-40, 49, 54)

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