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Politics and Culture

Epistemology, U.S. Politics,

and the Social Construction of Reality

By Steve Rensberry
Opinion/Analysis
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BergerLuckmann / Wikimedia Commons
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - 7/28/2020 -
In the late 1980s, I was a fired up, eager-to-learn sociology major at Greenville University, eager enough to never miss a class with either of my two main sociology instructors, professors Rick Stephens and James DeLong. I respected both as knowledgeable experts in their field, though each later went on to teach elsewhere while I decided to make a switch and transfer to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to study journalism.
   Sociology is a field of study I admire for a lot of reasons, but one concept I found particularly intriguing was called “the social construction of reality.” If you've ever had even an entry-level sociology class, you may recall the phrase because it's a major sociological theory, introduced in 1966 through a book written by Thomas Luckmann and Peter L. Berger, entitled: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. (Penguin Books, New York, 1966)
   Thinking about this theory the other day, it suddenly dawned on me just how much of a living example today's tumultuous situation is. Are we witnessing “the social construction of reality” in action, in all its messy, dirty and chaotic glory? Maybe so.
   It's not a simple concept, but in short, “the social construction of reality” refers to the idea that:
  •    People are shaped by their life experiences, backgrounds and interactions with others, including their perceptions of reality.
  •    An inter-personal and social process of repetition and “habitualization” leads to the creation and institutionalization of various social structures, reciprocal roles, and moral codes. See: Introduction to Sociology
  •   What people understand as “reality” is really the product of a complicated interpersonal social-interaction and negotiation process that societies go through in determining what is socially acceptable. See: Identity and Reality
   According to the Thomas Theorem, “successive definitions of the situation” play a key part in establishing such norms of social acceptability. Other sociologists have described the process, on the individual level, as a type of self-fulfilling prophecy -- such as when a false idea or rumor, if actually believed to be real by the person who holds it, can end up having real-world consequences. In other words, the individual's reality, though false, was essentially “constructed by an idea."
   Well what I see happening is just that -- one big mammoth struggle to “define the situation,” to define who we are as a country, as a culture, and as human beings, to establish meaning and values and our shared “social reality,” and ultimately to see whose definition will stick.
   Add to that the influence of an epistemological divide that has existed in Western Civilization since its inception, and the current state of U.S. politics and the cultural divide becomes more understandable yet.
   What type of evidence is sufficient on which to pin a belief, especially one that would rise to the level of foundational?
   Does subjective, emotional evidence suffice? What about empirically-based evidence? Or evidence that you can only touch, see and verify with the senses? What about revelation-based or supernatural evidence? Does evidence only qualify as valid if based on group identity? These are straight up epistemological questions about the validity of knowledge and how to attain it -- and how you answer them is every bit related to our current state of affairs, I'd say.
   Do you believe that truth, values, and knowledge are easily discernible through intuitive means, emotive reasoning, common sense or are simply innate to human nature? Or do you believe they are only really trustworthy when they correspond with hard facts, experience, science, and logic? You can see where I'm going with this.
   I should also say that I'm not the first to point out the “epistemic crisis” we're experiencing.
   “The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know -- what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening,” writes David Roberts in a Nov. 2, 2017 Vox piece entitled, America is facing an epistemic crisis.
   Roberts blames “the US conservative movement” for much of the crisis, through its attacks and rejection of the mainstream media and other institutions, such as science and academia, which “society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.”
   I would agree that what we're seeing today has been exacerbated by partisan attacks on key social institutions -- institutions of the kind you might even expect to play a roll in the theorized “social construction of reality,” but Roberts should know that progressive interests have attacked the credibility of various institutions that conservatives respect as well, religious organizations being one of them, and from the view of conservatives have been doing it for a long time. I'm not taking sides, but I know how they feel.
   Roberts does make a good point though, by pointing out some fundamental differences.
   “The pretense for the conservative revolution was that mainstream institutions had failed in their role as neutral arbiters — that they had been taken over by the left, become agents of the left in referee’s clothing, as it were,” Roberts writes. “But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right.”
   I don't disagree with him.
   My opinion: Today's glaring ideological polarization seems to me to be just more of the same old “way-of-thinking” drama that has been playing out on the world's stage for centuries, interspersed with relative periods of peace before the next crisis in truth, trust and knowledge flares up, as it has now, like a bad virus. Complete prevention may be impossible, but not letting it get out of control by selecting leaders with level heads and the ability to speak truthfully and with love for all of humanity, rather than put up walls, would seem to me a good idea. I believe that this goes for all leaders, whether in government, ecclesiastical institutions, academia, private organizations, or in the world of business.
   One more suggestion: pay attention to your teachers and professors, because you never know when some of the wisdom they impart -- while appearing irrelevant at the time -- just might be of value years down the road! I'm sure glad I did.

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