Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 3

August 27, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Now that I am sitting down to write my third blog on my reactions to this book, it is pretty clear that the book engaged me at a fairly deep level. Although I didn’t plan it this way, part 1 dealt with why I like Peter L. Berger’s work so much, and how much I have learned from him. Part 2 dealt with why I was so disappointed in seeing him join forces with the liberal-turned-conservative crowd of academics, just in time to reap the generous professional and financial rewards for doing so (I am not impugning his internal motives, only pointing out the obvious corollaries). In parts 3 and 4, I expect it is time I finally get around to reviewing the book itself.

The origin of this book is in a lecture Berger was invited to deliver by a faculty of sociology which would examine his intellectual development and career. This is a book-length expansion on that lecture. It follows an essentially chronological sequence, beginning with his decision to study sociology in graduate school, the turn in his career goal from becoming a Lutheran minister to becoming a professional sociologist, and the quite intriguing discussion of the peculiar types of sociology and social theory being taught at The New School in New York, where Berger completed both the MA and PhD degrees. Born in 1929, he has 25 when he received the doctorate. Berger’s professors at The New School by no means taught from a single, unified perspective, but it is plain to see that each one of them left his special stamp on Berger. It was at The New School where Berger also formed deep personal and academic relationships that shaped his life and career ever since. Not least of these are Thomas Luckmann, Hansfried Kellner, and through Kellner, his sister Brigitte Kellner, who eventually became Brigitte Berger. Each of these has coauthored significant works with Berger.

Berger worked as a low-level academic during the immediate years following his graduate studies, but throughout the decade of his 30s, he began to publish prodigiously, with a fervor Berger refers to with characteristically self-deprecating wit, as “bibliorrhea.” It was during this time that Berger completed the works in the sociology of religion by which he is best known even to this day, as well as the classic collaboration with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966). All of these works, read in context, clearly show Berger was building a paradigm for sociology that was far out of step with the mainstream of American academic sociology at the time (and still is, really.) His group of collaborators was aware of this and there was some discussion of creating an institutionally-based center for the propagation of this counter-vision. However, for reasons Berger somewhat skirts, this did not happen. One cannot help but wonder if Berger has presented events very selectively here, since this group certainly was not lacking in vision, ambition, talent and resources for the task. But at least as Berger presents it here, the years just sort of rolled by and momentum for the project waned. Thomas Luckmann returned to a professorship in Germany and there did create something approaching this vision, although Luckmann’s center has had almost no discernible influence on American sociology, as would have certainly been the case had the institutional center been located in America with Berger as a leading spokesperson.

At least part of the problem, it seems (if I may read between some of the lines of this text) is that Berger reacted very negatively to the rise of the student movement and the New Left in this country. Berger himself was liberal in his political views (and claims, legitimately, to have remained a liberal to this day.) But his liberalism was built on a firm foundation of his Lutheran Austrian upbringing and the European Gymnasium education. In that system, the highest respect for order and propriety is instilled. People can have diametrically opposing views on almost any issue, but they can never let their views become the source of disorderly conduct or disrespect for position and authority. Berger, I believe, has carried this vein of abhorrence for disorder and disrespect as an undercurrent throughout his entire life.

He has come close at times to acknowledging this undercurrent explicitly; for example in his oft-repeated assertion that the sociological vision he represents is radical in its criticism of the social order, but very conservative in its sense of what should or could be done to change that social order. Tinker around the edges in pursuit of social justice, to be sure. Berger strongly supported civil rights policies, the decriminalization of homosexual relationships, he was an early public critic of American involvement in Vietnam. But exactly because “reality” (actually, social reality; Berger never proposed that ALL of reality is a social construction) is a social construction, that is, based on ongoing social consensus, even the very basic pillar social institutions that characterize and contour our society (marriage, family, religion, democracy, education, morals and ethics) are inherently fragile. We would not want to live in the kind of anarchy and chaos that would ensue were these social institutions to significantly weaken or disappear. Therefore, you proceed very, very cautiously in instituting any reform policies that strike too quickly at the heart of any of these social institutions. Radical in its criticism (social analysis), conservative in its application (political reform.) Sociological wisdom is exactly the ability to keep these two perspectives alive and not allow either to collapse into the other. Marx meets Weber, we might say.

Berger became increasingly horrified to find that the young campus radicals, both in America and beyond, had clearly digested the radical social criticism inherent in the widely-read and much discussed Berger/Luckmann text, but simply did not share or even begin to understand the “conservative” side of the formulation. Berger found his work being touted in support of wildly anarchist politics, and his young readers apparently even expected that Berger himself would side with them in undermining the structures of academy and society.

There are other more minor streams in Berger’s alienation from the counterculture that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of that counterculture took on an anti-modernist cloak, envisioning a return to organic farming, intentional communities and a vaguely rural/pastoral sensitivity toward life. Despite the fact that Berger wrote some of the most pungent analysis of the cognitive/emotional costs of modernity, it has to be well understood that Berger himself always loved modernity. To Berger, the vision of rural/pastoral intentional community was at best stifling, and in its more extreme forms clearly echoed the “back to nature” themes present in the youth education material of extreme nationalistic rightwing, pan-Germanic propaganda Berger was exposed to in Europe as an adolescent.

Likewise, while his classic text was titled The Social Construction of Reality, what Berger and Luckmann really meant was the social construction of social reality. As said above, it was never Berger’s view that ALL of reality is socially constructed. He was simply appalled, as the 70s fed into the 80s, to see the new crop of “tenured radicals” glopping onto postmodernist, poststructuralist and perspectival views, which would claim that even established scientific facts and natural laws are mere “social constructions,” as if they would disappear as facts if only people believed otherwise. One can only imagine Berger biting right through his ubiquitous cigar in seeing his name appear in the footnotes as support of an argument like that!

Another seed in his craw as these years proceeded was the rise of ‘radical feminists,’ who publically, loudly and eventually disruptively protested Berger’s studied use of male pronouns in his lecturing and general conversation. Berger presents a classic scene in which he has agreed to dialogue with these young Harvard women about their concerns. But der Herr Professor’s idea of dialogue was to ‘explain’ to them the fine points of Indo-European languages in general and of English grammar in particular. These women were there to express how much they have felt marginalized, hurt and excluded by the exclusive use of male pronouns in reference to generic humanity. They were certainly not there to be further lectured to. You can imagine that that scene did not end well Although Berger seems to have always enjoyed basic respect and appreciation in the academic institutions that employed him, with increasing regularity, his invited lectures on other campuses were met with disruptive and unruly signals of disrespect and protest.

Throughout all of this, Berger could see little else than that a strong current of fascism lurked just under the surface of “lefty” activism. In retrospect, and speaking at least as one of the generation of the protestors, I think Berger’s view of the situation was really off base. These were mostly just young people with a legitimate sense that something is wrong in society, feeling out their own sense of newly acquired independence and social power, but without the maturity of years to help them channel that energy. They were raised in the American public schools, not the European Gymnasium, after all.

Teaching public school in in Vienna, I was mostly pleasantly amazed to watch how easily school teachers could line up even their high school students and walk them in orderly single file as directed. I knew instinctively that American teachers could never do this (an hypothesis fully confirmed when, some years later, I struggle mightily to function as a public school teacher back in the USA.) There is much to be said for a deeply instilled sense of order and high respect for authority figures. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that it was the regimented Gymnasiums that produced a generation of raging Brownshirts, something which the chaotic American system has never done, at least so far.

At least one result of this tragic clash with these disruptive young people is that Berger was driven to spend way too much energy in the subsequent years of his long career (and he is still active, even as an octogenarian) joisting with the windmills of a Left that is largely a figment of his own mental construction. This has detracted from the really solid and valuable work he has continued to produce. He writes about all of this in his memoir, and that is where we will pick up in Part 4.

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One comment

  1. Your posts have been a very insightful biographical look at an academic who I respect greatly, though with s few qualms.
    Thank you for taking the time.

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