Constructed Social Phenomena: The Right Metaphor?

Recently I had the privilege to finally pick up a classic text in the social scientific study of religion, Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967).  Berger was an early leader in the development of sociological thought which took seriously the ways in which social phenomena are not “given” or “natural” but instead “constructed.”  His views have influenced sociologists and non-sociologists alike, and it is now common to refer to phenomena long regarded as immutable and natural (such as gender) as cultural constructs.  This theoretical move usefully highlights the contingency of phenomena widely, and perhaps necessarily, taken for granted.

Without diminishing Berger’s accomplishment, I found myself wondering whether construction was the right metaphor.  It was an obvious choice: in common English parlance the opposite of “natural” is frequently “artificial” (as in sweeteners), and the lack of a useful English verb corresponding to “artificial” might lead to considering related activities of making or building.  And constructions have the advantage of not also appearing in nature, so the opposition is immediate and readily intelligible.  On the other hand, there are four ways where I think the metaphor of construction can (and probably has) misled scholars when thinking about societies and cultures: deliberation, individuality, stability, and questions of origins.

Just as buildings do not occur naturally, so they do not occur by accident.  While some buildings are more elaborate than others, all require a degree of planning, consideration, and deliberate action.  “I was just walking down the street, with my mind wandering, and the next thing I knew I had constructed a gazebo” would strike most of us as radically implausible.  And yet the vast majority of social phenomena, certainly before the advent of modern sociology, were not the result of deliberate action or reflection on the part of a society’s participants.  No one sat down to create a gender system, and indeed very few individuals have consciously set out to create a new religion.  (Even Mani and Muhammad understood their respective messages to be the fulfillment and revitalization of earlier religion.)  But the lack of deliberation does not mean that human agency was not involved; people often do things unreflectively that have significant consequences.  Berger was aware of this, and his account of the dynamics of cultural externalization (Sacred Canopy pp. 4-5) does not presume self-reflection, as indeed elsewhere he pokes fun at the reflective minority of any society (42), but these caveats are necessary if our metaphor is construction.

Berger also avoided the individualist interpretation of this metaphor.  While the largest construction projects have been communal (one thinks of the large number of builders, and years, required to construct any major pre-modern edifice, such as the Samarra minaret), Berger’s own description of how human meanings are projected onto the environment uses a singular “man” throughout (4-6), although he subsequently insists on the collectivity of the enterprise (7).  Perhaps the singularity is merely the relic of mid-20th century abstract (and male) singulars before they were challenged by the feminist movement, but Western individualism extends to the solitary master architect designing the edifice in splendid isolation.  Yet all social phenomena are collective endeavors, and must be understood as such.  The individual who tries to strike off in a new direction is more likely to be cast out of society rather than followed.

Physical construction also differs from social construction in its stability.  Sufficiently old buildings require renovation after they fall into disrepair, and some (such as the Aya Sofya in Istanbul) experience multiple layers of adaptation and re-construction, such changes tend to be episodic, demarcating periods of relative stability.  Social constructions may share the time scale of the fifteen-hundred-year history of the Aya Sofya, but their stability is always illusory as they continually require renegotiation and reinscription.  Berger himself recognized this, and described all social constructions as “inherently precarious” (6, 29), dedicating a whole chapter to “world maintenance.”  This is an important point.  A stone building, left alone for a few centuries, may suffer for it but will not cease to be a building.  A cultural element abandoned for that long may only be reinvented; it cannot be simply re-inhabited.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, construction is often considered an inceptive activity.  Builders take raw materials, which are not themselves buildings (though in the common pre-modern practice of spolia they may once have been part of a building), and build something new.  Repairs and remodels are common enough, but do not come to my mind upon hearing about construction.  Berger’s description of the dynamics of externalization, and naturalization, of human meanings seems to begin with projection into the meaningless void (4-5), when in fact we all first find ourselves projecting meanings onto a landscape already saturated with the meanings of others.  Social constructions are never ex nihilo creations, but are constantly reusing cultural materials and shifting around other social values.  What we need to study are not origins, but transformations.

My point with this post, as stated above, is not to detract from Berger’s significant advance in highlighting the contingency of social structures and cultural practices.  My intent is very nearly to quibble, to call attention to what strike me as infelicitous connotations of what has become a ubiquitous metaphor (and, lest we forget, therefore nearly a dead metaphor).  I do not have any better metaphor to suggest instead of construction.  Foucault’s notion of “discourse” recognizes instability and collectivity while also dangerously suggesting that linguistic representations are necessarily primary.  Labeling something a “discourse” also focuses attention on the process rather than the results, structured products which – while not final or even stable – are often regarded as objective and external.  In other words, Foucault’s discourses are never in danger of needing a Peter Berger to point out that they are not “natural” or “given.”  Berger’s insight is the main point, though I wonder whether we might yet find a metaphor which expresses it more precisely.

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