Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Peter Berger on Constructivism

Peter Berger's "Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist", an autobiographical sketch of his sociological career, is a mix of light anecdotal stories and brief reflections on important topics such as the sociology of religion, secularization, race relations in the U.S. and the cultural movement of the 60's among other things. I personally enjoyed his 1-2 page comments on the Postmodern movement associated intellectually with Derrida and Foucault and popularly with the mantras of "relativism and tolerance". His important work with Thomas Luckman, "the Social Construction of Reality", is viewed as some to be influential in this postmodernist/constructivist school; and so he spends some time addressing misconception of his work on the sociology of knowledge as a green light for absolute relativism and absence of facts. Below is quotes from pg.94-95 of his book where he defines the constructivist/postmodernist philosophy and gives his criticism of it and describes where he is in relation to it. The basic jist of what he has to say is "yes everything is interpretation, but not all interpretation are equal".

"The [constructivist] argument goes something like this: Since all reality is socially constructed, there is no objective truth or at least none that can be accessed. Indeed, there are no facts, only 'narratives.' There is no objective way to make epistemological judgments as between the 'narratives.' But what one can do is to 'deconstruct' them - that is, to unmask the interests that they invariably express. These interests are always expressions of the will to power - of class, or race, or gender. And here, of course, postmodernism links up with various ideologies of the Left - Marxism, 'post-colonialism', 'Third Worldism,' and all the various strands of identity politics (notably radical feminism and 'queer theory').
This amalgam of theoretical trends has become enormously influential in American academia over the last few decades, and in many places it has become an oppressive orthodoxy. But these trends have been popularized far beyond academia. They have a pronounced affinity with a widespread relativism... It is a widely diffused worldview, in which the only real virtue is 'tolerance' and the only real vice is 'being judgmental."
The disastrous intellectual and indeed political implications of this type of nihilism cannot be followed up here. But it should be clear why Luckmann and I have felt constrained to say repeatedly, 'We are not constructivists' (perhaps imitating marx's statement 'I am not a Marxist'). Our concept of the social construction of reality in no way implies that there are no facts. Of course there are physical facts to be determined empirically, from the fact that a particular massacre took place to the fact that someone stole my car.... Reality indeed is always socially interpreted, and power interests are sometimes involved in some interpretation. But not all interpretations are equal. If they were, any scientific enterprise, not to mention any medical diagnosis or police investigation, would be impossible. As to the most radical formulation of this 'postmodernism' - that nothing really exists but the various 'narratives' - this corresponds very neatly with a definition of schizophrenia, when one can no longer distinguish between reality and one's fantasies. 
Luchamn and I would place ourselves in a tradition of sociology rooted in the Enlightenment project of seeking to understand the world by exercises of reason. Many 'postmodernists' have proudly described their purpose as the end of the Enlightenment project. We understand our sociology as a defense of that project."