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Socialization and the Self

The problems inherent in theories which present
human selves as nothing but the products of social
conditioning have long been recognised. Marx, for
example, wrote:

The materialist doct.rine that men are products
of circumstances and upbringing, and that,
therefore, changed men are products of other
circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets
that it is men who change circumstances, and
that it is· essential to educate the educator
himself. Hence this doctrine necessarily arrives
at dividing society into two parts, one of which is
superior to society (1).

A succession of modern critics (such as Dennis
Wrong) have pointed out that social determinism can
offer no adequate or consistent account of social
change at the macro-level, or of conflict, development or identity crisis in individuals. Theories
which are overtly and crudely deterministic (such
as Skinnerian behaviourism, for example) are, I
think, no longer generally regarded as acceptable.

Theories which are thrown out of the front door
may however enter by the back. In this paper I want
to look at the work of two writers in particular,
Peter Berger and Erving Goffman, who have both
espoused a view of social processes and a theory
of the self which appears to reject social determinism outright. It stresses the precariousness of
social structures; it sees the self as an actor or
performer who may choose or decline to play roles,
and may play them in a spirit of detachment, recognising their relativity to a particular socio-historical situation. I shall argue the following however:

1 that the escape from social determinism is more
apparent than real;
2 that Berger’s theory presents the reification of
social institutions as a necessary precondition
of the existence of any society; and the assumption of their inevitability or permanence as a
necessary precondition of social stability;
3 that the theory is conformist in tone, and necessarily suspicious of any form of deviance or
social criticism;
4 that for all the stress on acting, performing,
choosing parts and roles, and so on, the image
of the ‘self as performer’ as presented by Berger
and Goffman allows no space for the notion of
committed personal action that is not based on
self -deception or illusion.

In general, the theory denies the possibility of a
genuinely critical social theory, or of personal
action that is both committed and seriously and
honestly reflective.

I shall look at three books by Peter Berger: The
Social Reality of Religion(2), The Social Construction of Reality(3) (written with Thomas Luckmann);
and Invitation to Sociology(4). The latter in particular has achieved wide popularity, and bears’

striking similarities to the fourth book with which
I shall be concerned, also extremely well known

and much imitated, The Presentation of Self in
Everyday Life(5) by Erving Goffman.

Socialization and
Berger is constantly at pains to stress that he is
not a determinist, and that there is constant interaction between society and the individual. Thus he

Society is a dialectic phenomenon in that it is a
human product and nothing but a human product,
that yet continuously acts back upon its
producer (SRR, p3).


The individual is not molded as passive, inert
thing. Rather, he is formed in the course of a
protracted conversation in which he is a participant. (SRR, p18)
So far, so good, apparently. But if we now turn to
the substance of Berger’s account of socialization
and of the emergence of self, we begin to find a
rather different picture emerging.

Human beings, Berger argues, being ‘unfinished’

at birth, and with a relatively unspecialized instinct·
ual structure, have to make a world for themselves-.

If we ask about the nature of man, apart from
certain biological constraints, all we can say is
that it is the nature of maI to produce a world. Man
acts in and on the wor-ld to create what is not
provided by genetic inheritance. ‘Human beings
have a craving for meaning that appears to have
the force of an instinct'(SRR, p22). In the process
of creating a social world, however, Berger claims
that men inevitably come to conceive of its institutions and processes as independent of themselves.

The products of man’s activity become ‘objectivated’; that is to say, they attain a reality which con.fronts its producers as an external facticity.

Institutions, roles and identities confront us as
‘objectively real’ phenomena, even though they are
nothing but human productions.

Now Berger’s use of words like ‘reality’ and
‘objective’ is extremely liberal and rarely immediately clear. What exactly does he mean by the
claim that roles and identities confront us as
‘objectively real’? (Or what would it be for a role
or an identity not to be real ?). The answer to this
emerges if one looks at Berger’s account of



Socialization, Berger says, is the process by
which an individual ‘becomes a member of society’;
and its key feature is that of internalization.

Whereas the process of objectivation is the attainment by the products of human activity of the status
of objective reality, internalization is ‘ … the reappropriation by men of ti s same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the
objective world into structures of the subjective
consciousness'(SRR, p4). Putting it at its simplest,
men do not merely experience social roles, rules
and institutions as coercive; their own subjective
motivation and identities are formed by this proc es s of internalization. Man is not merely in
society; society is in man. People normally want to
do, or feel that they need to do, what society would
in any case constrain them to do.

But it is not merely that they want to do it; it is
that they may not conceive of alternatives. And
here we begin to see what Berger really means
when he talks of the ‘objective reality’ of the social
world. He writes: ‘The social world intends, as far
as possible, to be taken for granted’ (SRR, p24).

Socialization, he argues,
achieves success in so far as this taken-forgranted quality is internalised. It is not enough
that the individual look upon the key meanings of
the social order as useful, desirable or right.

It is much better (better, that is, in terms of
social stability) if he looks upon them as inevitable, as part and parcel of the universal nature
of things (SRR, p24).

In other words, roles and institutions possess
‘objective reality’ for an individual in so far as
they appear to be inevitable; if they are so taken
for granted that the possibility of alternatives is
either literally unthinkable, or perhaps only conceived of as the most abstract and remote sort of
intellectual, magical or supernatural possibility.

In fact, Berger suggests that it is only when the
social world has this ‘opaque’ quality, when it
confronts the individual in a manner analogous to
the reality of the natural world, that it is really
possible to speak of a social world at all.

The social process is thus, according to Berger,
intrinsically one in which what is contingent and
precarj.ous appears as inevitable. Man makes
society; yet a condition of this enterprise is that
he must see it as independent of human action, as
given, as massively ‘there’, and perhaps as

‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’

I come now to look in more detail at Berger’s
account of socialization.

There is from the beginning a crucial ambiguity
in Berger’s use of the slippery term ‘socialization’.

In The Social Construction of Reality’, Part 2,
Berger and Luckmann ask how one becomes a
member of a society, and how one comes to per14

ceive the social world as a reality (in their
sense of reality). And they perceive these
questions as identical. In so doing, they
make a crucial slide. Ultimately, the consequence
of their view is that being socialized, in the sense
of becoming distinctively human, is seen as meaning the same thing as ‘seeing the social world as a
reality’, i. e. taking it for granted. I shall return
to this point later.

Berger and Luckmann distinguish between what
they call primary and secondary socialization. In
primary socialization, which happens in infancy
and childhood, the child, through a process of
learning and emotional identification, internalizes
and makes his own the roles and attitudes of the
significant others in his life. He then learns to
abstract from the roles and attitudes of specific
others to roles and attitudes in general (the
‘generalized other'(6)), and he learns to identify
himself as within a stable social reality. He acquires
a subjectively coherent and plausible identity.

In other wordG, the self is a reflected entity,
reflecting the attitudes first taken by significant
others towards it; the individual becomes what
he is addressed as by his significant others.

(SCR, p152)
In primary socialization, then, Berger says, the
individual becomes a member of a society. And
there is, he argues, no problem of identification;
the social world of the first significant others is
accepted as the world, ‘tout court’, without awareness of alternatives.

A symmetrical relationship is established
between objective and subjective reality. What
is ‘real’ outside corresponds to what is ‘real’

within (SCR, pI53).

Primary socialization thus acco~plishes what
(in hindsight of course) may be seen as the most
important confidence trick that society plays on
the individual – to make appear as necessary
what is in fact a bundle of contingencies
(SCR, pI55).

Secondary socialization, Berger and Luckmann
go on to say, is the process, sequential to primary
socialization, of internalization of the institutionbased ‘sub-worlds’ or ‘partial realities’. It is
‘ … the acquisition of role-specific knowledge, the
roles being directly or indirectly rooted in the
division of labour’ (SCR, pI58). These realities,
they say, though partial, are more or less cohesive, and they require a legitimating apparatus
(often involving ritual or material sy.mbols). The
function of this legitimating apparatus is to assist
the process of subjective identification with the
roles and reality concerned. In secondary socialization there is never quite the same degree of
subjective identification, since the reality as
internalized can never be perceived to quite the
same extent as reality ‘tout court’. The individual
may, in fact, be able to establish a distance
between his total self on the one hand, and his
role-specific’ or partial self on the other.

Socialization, Berger argues, can never in fact
be ‘complete’ or ‘fully successful’. Here is his
definition of ‘successful socialization’:

By successful socialization we mean the establishment of a high degree of symmetry between
objective and subjective reality (and identity of
course) . Conversely, unsuccessful socialization
is to be understood in terms of asymmetry
between objective and subjective reality.

(SCR, pl8a)

In societies with simple division of labour and
minimal distribution of knowledge, socialization is
at its most successful, since for most people there
are no alternative realities or identities available.

Once society becomes more complex, however,
unsuccessful socialization may result from:

1 the inconsistent mediation of objective reality;
2 the mediation of discrepant worlds by significant
3 discrepancies between primary and secondary
4 the presentation of discrepant worlds in secondary socialization.

Because of this ‘incompleteness’ of socialization,
society needs processes of ‘reality-maintenance’

to defend itself. These depend on what are called
‘plausibility-structures’; social processes, from
the confirmation Qf significant others to ritual.

which prevent ‘reality-disintegration’, and preserve
the suspension of doubt and the taken-for-granted
nature of social routines. In the transformation of
subjective reality, in an experience of radical
conversion, there needs to be a particularly strong
and intensive plausibility structure, such that all
other world!’ are displaced.

Problems in Berger’s
Account of Socialization
I now want to focus on what seem to me to be
three of the most important questions that can be
asked about this account. Firstly, what is wrong
with Berger’s account of socialization? Secondly,
why does Berger see ‘unsuccessful socialization’

as such a threat, and society as necessarily on the
defensive against it; and why does he see it as
necessary for the very existence of a society that
its institutions should be ‘opaque’ and taken for
granted by most of its members? Thirdly, I shall
raise some questions about his account of the
‘unsuccessfully socialized’ individual.

Berger and Luckmann mean by ‘so~ialization’

the process by which an individual ‘becomes a
member of a society’. But there is a crucial ambiguity or unclarity concealed in the phrase, as I
noted briefly earlier on. If we ask about the processes by which an individual ‘becomes a member
of a society’, we might interpret this as being about
the preconditions of becoming recognizably human
at all. Now these preconditions must include social
relationships, the learning of language, and so on;
a new born baby cannot become human or become a
member of society in isolation from other human
beings. It may also be the case that in early childhood there is (to use Berger’s phrase) ‘a high
degree of symmetry between objective and subjective reality’ (though I shall later want to criticise
Berger’s whole account of ‘internalization’, and I
am not at all sure that this ‘symmetry’ is as massive as he makes out).

But – and here is the crucial slide – by ‘becoming
a member of a society’, Berger and Luckmann
mean not merely becoming distinctively human, but

taking for granted the specific set of norms and
social institutions within which one lives. Humanness and social conformity become conflated. Being
fully human is equivalent to being successfully
socialized, which is equivalent to perceiving the
social world as ‘objective reality’ (in Berger’s

Now if we accept this equivalence, we would
logically be forced to conclude that deviants of any
form who are ‘unsuccessfully socialized’ are also
somehow less than fully human. (And it is of course
precisely this manoeuvre that has frequently been
made in order to justify many forms of soc ial
oppression. ‘X does not conform; X is therefore
less than human; X can therefore be manipulated or
oppressed or disposed of at will.) Berger likes to
see sociology as potentially an instrument of enlightenment and goodwill; but the logic behind the
conflation of his argument leads in precisely the
opposite direction, and a dangerous logic it is. The
very terminology of ‘unsuccessful socialization’,
with its pejorative implications, suggests that something has failed; that there is necessarily some
defect in the person who does not take the social
world in which he lives for granted. And this defect
of course needs to be cured or mitigated by ‘plausibility structures’ or processes of ‘reality-maintenance’, so that we can defend ourselves against the
ever-present threat of social criticism, by employing coercive sanctions against those who criticise,
or, even better, by ‘re-socializing’ them, by a
process of indoctrination as effective as we can
make it.

In fact, of course, it does not follow from the
fact that human-ness cannot be developed in isolation that being human or fully human involves this
total acceptance of the social world. And I come on
now to ask why it is that Berger seems to perceive
any form of social criticism as such a threat. To
answer this question, we have, I think, to try and
see what sort of account of human nature and the
self Berger is offering. There is, I believe, an
implicit appeal to such an account running through
his work, though it is not easy to pin down precisely. But as.. far as I can see, the main elements in it
are as follows.

In Invitation to Sociology, Berger quotes (apparently with agreement) the work of the German social
scientist Arnold Gehlen (IS, pl04). Gehlen compare~
soc ial institutions to instincts; institutions channel
behaviour in human beings as instincts channel
behaviour in animals. Human beings are not guided
by instincts, and so, says Berger, institutions
protect us from the quandary involved in not knowing how to act. The ‘institutional imperative’ shuts
out all other options, often even from consciousness, and presents us with formulae which we can
use to relieve us of the responsibility of chOOSing.

Similarly, Berger writes in ‘Reification and the
Sociological Critique of Consciousness’,
Indeed it is possible to argue that social structure
must provide these taken for granted regulative
channels unless it is to collapse into chaos; with
social instincts in their unreflected automaticity
serving as a substitute for the biologically given
instincts in which man is relatively underprivileged (7).

Now one could subj’ect the analogy between institutions and instincts to a plethora of criticisms that I
will not go into here. But I want to ask why Berger
thinks we need this protection from having to
choose. Clearly choice doesn’t happen in a vacuum,


and choices are necessarily made in a social context, but Berger seems to regard all choices as of
themselves threatening, both to the individual and
to society.

Again, in The Social Reality of Religion l Berger
argues that man has no nature, except that of being
a world-producer, and that this involves ‘a human
craving for meaning that appears to have the force
of an instinct’ (SRR, p22). Without using the contentious word ‘instinct’, it might be difficult to disagree that human beings in some sense need their
lives to have a meaning. But Berger writes as if
life can only ‘make sense’ or have a meaning if
social institutions possess this ‘objective reality’

i. e: if they have this taken-for-granted quality,
or if alternatives are unthinkable. But ‘why should
this be so? Why should we be faced with ‘meaninglessness’ the minute we recognize that things could
be otherwise, or that all is not for the best in the
best of all possible worlds?There seem to be two things that lead Berger
into this sort of view:

1 a quite unargued and highly eclectic reliance on
some of the more picturesque Existentialist
forms of description of the human situation;
2 a particular sort of relativism.

The Existentialist themes run throughout all the
books I have mentioned. In The Social Construction
of Reality, Berger and Luckmann claim that the
craving for meaning and the need to make sense of
our lives operate against a background of fear and
terror, or marginal situations when we no longer
know who or where we are, and of dreams and
fan~asy. But it is in Invitation to Sociology that the
rehance on Existentialism really runs riot; and it
results in passages such as the following:

Names, addresses, occupations and wives have
a way of disappearing. All plans end in extinction.

All Houses eventually become empty. And even if
we live all our lives without having to face the
agonizing contingency of all we are and do, in the
end we must return to that nightmare moment
when we feel ourselves stripped of all names and
all identities …. Society gives us names to
shield us from nothingness. It builds a world for
us to live in, and thus protects us from the
chaos that surrounds us on all sides.

(IS, p170)
Society provides us with warm, reasonably
comfortable caves, in which we can huddle with
our fellows, beating on the drums that drown out
the howling hyenas of the surrounding darkness.

(IS, p171)
Now such forms of description may perhaps capture
certain sorts of moods in which some people find
themselves some of the time, But why should it be
assumed that they show what human life is ‘really
like’; that this sort of description captures what is
most truly fundamental about the human condition?

Why should we suppose that if we are overwhelmed
by ‘nightmare moments’ or by feelings of ‘agonizing
contingency’, that this sort of mood is authentic in
a way that normal social engagement isn’t?

Here we come up against Berger’s highly questionable use of the words ‘real’ and ‘reality’ – and
a eertain sort of implicit relativism that goes along
with it. There are two main uses of these words in
Berger’s work. One I have identified already: he
talks about the social world as possessing ‘objective reality’ when it appears as massive, opaque
and taken for granted. But in a different sense of


‘real’, he also denies that the social world is real.

In other words, ‘objective reality’ (in the first sense
of ‘real ‘) is unreal (in the second sense of ‘real ‘).

What is this second sense? In fact it reC!lly
amounts to little more than a highly inflated and
exaggeratedly portentous way of saying things such
as the following.

1 Social institutions change.

2 Social institutions vary from society to society.

3 Things might have been otherwise than they are.

The emotional force of saying that, because these
things are true, therefore social reality is unreal
(with all the implications that carries of illusion,
deception, inauthenticity and so forth) depends on
two things:

(a) (as I have already argued) the use of these
Existentialist forms of description. It is just
assumed, as in Sartre, that we will accept these as
obviously illuminating.

(b) An equally unargued assumption of relativism.

Berger’s use of the notion of the ‘unreality’ and
contingency of society can only be made to carry
the load he wants it to if it is assumed that because
things could have been otherwise, nothing really
has any value, and there can be no compelling
reasons either for wishing them to stay as they are
or wishing them to change.

So the (necessary) truth that all particular forms
of social institutions are contingent is made to
carry this heavy implicit burden of nihilism and
relativism. And we are presented with a picture of
human ?eings which sees them, for the most part,
as nothIng but terrified anxious creatives, eager to
scuttle behind the walls of social reality to hide
from the fact that no facts about any society are
necessarily true, and that not everybody’s lives are
the same as theirs; and propping ea~h other up with
a process of mutual creation of illusions which deny
that these are facts. Why the recognition of them
should be regarded as so terrifying is, as I have
said, never explained or argued; and without the
appeal to fear and terror much of the plausibility of
Berger’s argument collapses.

But of course Berger believes that a few heroic
souls (in particular sociologists, not surprisingly)
can escape from the illusions that society is ‘real’.

And they inevitably pose problems for society; they
are potentially a threat, since they are ‘unsuccessfully socialized’. So what are the ‘unsuccessfully
socialized’ among us really like?

Berger claims, as we have seen, that totally
su.ccessful socialization is impossible. (He is, I
thInk, very unclear about the status of this claim;
is it supposed to be merely empirically true that it
is impossible, or is it rather conceptually absurd
to suppose that there could be an individual who is
totally socialised in Berger’s sense?) Berger in
any case sees successful socialization as a matter
of degrees (note here again the conflation between
‘being fully human’, and ‘conforming to social
norms ‘). Some of us, according to Berger, must
be more human than others, and they will be those
who conform most closely to society’s rules!

But why are some people less successfully socialized than others? Berger is, as I have shown at’

pains to stress that he isn’t a social determinist ,
and that there is a ‘dialectic’ between the individual
and society which is reflected in a dialogue within
the individual himself. But if one looks again at his
account of socialization, it’s very difficult to see
what room he can make for this dialectic or

Berger argues that’ … the self is a reflected
entity, reflecting the attitudes first taken by significant others towards it; the individual becomes
what he is addressed as by his significant others’

(SCR, p152). He is here talking about primary
socialization. And the most s~nificant feature r:I
this he regards as ‘internalization’ of roles and
identities which at first we see as the only possible
ones. But I believe that his whole account of primary socialization is fundamentally inadequate.

‘Internalization’ presented as if it were rather
like swallowing and digesting; it is presented as a
passively assimilative process whereby we, as it
were, incorporate ‘chunks’ of social reality fed us
by other people. But this sort of picture surely
travesties the processes of becoming a social
being in infancy and early childhood. Intrinsic to
these processes as well is the developing of capacities, albeit at first in a very embryonic form; the
capacity to think, to evaluate and give reasons, to
choose and reject in a considered way, to plan and
think ahead and so on. Now all of this happens of
course in particular social contexts, but the conception of socialization as largely a process of ‘reflection’ (a passive metaphor again) or internalization
ignores the extent to which these active abilities
are also crucially part of becoming human. It may
well be true that some environments are less favourable to the development of these capacities than
others; but no distinctively human development can
take place completely without them.

But of course, ..!!.. one is wedded h) these passive
and assimilative metaphors to describe early social
learning, then one is faced with a problem in
explaining how or why the individual does become
able to raise questions, experience identity conflict
or crisis and so on. How is this ‘dialectic’ between
society and the individual or within the individual

There are two ways in which Berger tries to
cope with this difficulty. The first is simply to
appeal to things like the presentation of discrepant
worlds in secondary socialization, or discrepancies
between primary and secondary socialization. But
on the assimilative model of socialization, it is
difficult to see why this should be a problem. Why
should we not be quite happy to live with the situation, to present different faces to different people,
be different things at different times and so on? It
is only if one presents an account of social learning
which brings out its active aspects, the development
of critical capacities of evaluation and self-awareness, that problems of identity crisis or conflict
can be explained.

In a sense, the individual self almost vanishes
in Berger’s work. He is attenuated to a mere contentless abstraction, who has to choose between
‘institutions’, as if choosing between hou’ses in
which to live, and try on ‘identities’ as if trying on
suits of armour; and whose reasons for needing to
choose at all remain inexplicable. And in fact the
whole problem of ‘the relation of the individual to
s oc iety’, as it is often posed, is really a problem
which arises only if, owing to an inadequate model
of sociallzation, a reified society is opposed to an
abstracted individual; and then of course the
problem is insoluble.

Berger’s other proposed solution to his difficulty
is even more curious. Part 3, Chapter 3 of The
Social Construction of Reality is called ‘Organism
and Identity’. Berger writes as follows:

There is an ongoing dialectic … between each

human animal and its socio-historical situation.

Externally it is a dialectic between the individual
animal and its socio-historical situation. Internally it is a dialectic between the individual’s
biological substratum and his socially produced

(SCR, p201, my underlining)
Biological constraints, Berger argues, set limits
to what is socially possible. And the ‘biological
substratum’ may resist social moulding (he gives
an example of the baby who may ‘resist’ sleeping
at set times or eating only three meals a day). And:

The individual continues to experience himself
as an organism, apart from, and sometimes set
against the socially derived objectifications of

(SCR, p203)
What is this ‘biological substratum’? Since
Berger opposes it to socialization, he presumably
intends us to understand that it is the residue left
when we have abstracted all the socialized elements
in man. But, quite apart from the question of
whether it makes any sense at all to carve up
human motivation into what derives from society
and what derives from biology, and abstract one
from the other, the abstraction could not in any
case perform the work which Berger requires.

For problems of identity, of crisis and conflict, are
human problems; they can only exist when the
human being is no longer just an organism. If I
conceive of myself as having a ‘higher’ and ‘lower’

self, as Berger thinks I may, it makes no sense at
all to say that the higher self derives from society
and the lower from biology. If I am going to talk
about my ‘animal nature’ in a pejorative sense
(which I would not), I can only conceive of this as
a problem if I have a conception of ‘.animal nature’

which cannot derive p.trely from my biological

In fact this appeal to a biological substratum is
little more than a last ditch manoeuvre to save an
untenable theory. If we can’t explain something
satisfactorily, then as a last resort we argue that
it must be biological. Biology is dragged in from
the wings (just as God has been) to r,escue us.

The ‘Unsuccessfully
Socialized Individual’

In Invitation to Sociology Berger recognises the
deterministic implications of much of his theory,
and in the chapter entitled ‘Society as Drama’, he
discusses his route out of determinism. It is in
this ehapter that we get the most exPlicit picture
that Berger gives us of the unsuccessfully socialized individual, and I want now to look at that

This individual has, presumably because of the
contingencies of his secondary socialization, become fully aware that there are alternative ‘realities’ with which he is confronted and that what
appears to most people ‘objectively real’ is in fact


‘unreal’ – i. e. it is contingent and could have been
otherwise. Along with this recognition, he will
experience, according to Berger, if he is honest
enough to admit it, authentically ‘Existentialist’

feelings of anguish and nightmare. He will have
heard the hyenas howling in the darkness and he
will recognise that he cannot any longer say to himself ‘I have to do what I am doing; I have no choice’.

And, as a good relativist, he will have recognised
that nothing ultimately, in the face of the abyss,
has more value than anything else. In the long run
everything ends in death and the void.

In the case of this, what is his response? To
bring out what he sees as the essential element in
this, Berger relies heavily on dramatic metaphors,
and on comparisons with swindlers and imposters.

Normally, Berger says, ‘ … roles are played
without reflection; in immediate and almost
automatic response to the expectations of the
situation'(IS, p156). Those, however, who are
fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to be able to see
the ‘unreality’ of all roles and the deception involved in all social structures and processes can
‘assume as a disguise what others assume to be an
identity ‘(IS, p157). They have options ‘of playing
(their) parts enthusiastically or sullenly, or playing
with inner conviction or with “distance”; and sometimes refusing to play at all ‘(IS, p159). We can,
Berger says, withhold confirmation from social
routines and roles, either outwardly or inwardly.

We may simply withdraw and refuse to play the part
at all; or we may act contrary to the expectations
of others. We can sabotage, by a sort of cynical
and detached mockery, or we can adopt an attitude
of role distance, and play a role tongue in cheek.

We can manipulate, play the system, and make use
of social routine for unorthodox ends.

Now if these sorts of pursuits and attitudes are
the only alternatives that Berger envisages to seeing social routines as ‘given’ and taking them for
granted, one can see why he wants to hold that
‘unsuccessful soc ialization , is a threat to society,
and why he believes that the deception inherent in
social structures is a functional imperative. We
either accept the social world as given; or we are
cynical saboteurs, blessed with intimations of
relativity, who recognise that nothing is what it
seems to be (the arch-cynic is, of course, the

Why does Berger see these as the only alternatives? There are a number of reasons, and I’ve
identified two of them already, namely the unargued use of Existentialist forms of description,
and the relativistic assumptions that underpin his

But there is I think another important one, and
it’s related closely to Berger’s reliance on dramatic metaphors, such as ‘Parts’, ‘the script’ etc.

‘Society provides the script, we play the parts’, he
says. And if one looks at his work, he constantly
talks of roles, institutions, identities, realities,
partial realities etc which are or are not cohesive,
discrepant with each other, and so forth. But by the
term ‘institution’ he does not mean merely things
like schools, or the legal reqJlirements of marriage,
which might colloquially be called institutions. In
his work, almost any definition, any set of social
practices with a ‘typified’ set of expectations and
responses for the participants is an ‘institution’.

And he tends to conceive of social life as if it
entirely consisted of relatively discrete and conceptually distinguishable realities or institutions,

each with its set of appropriate roles and identities
(which are the ‘chunks’ of reality that we internalize and which may then prove incompatible and
give us indigestion!).

Now if one is working with such a picture, then
of cour se metaphors of scripts and parts seem
rather handy. But I think that this is in fact a
highly misleading sort of picture of social life. If
one slides into using terms like ‘institution’ and
‘role’ indiscriminately, then one simply misses
the fluidity and flexibility of much social life.

Much of our behaviour, even if relatively habitualised, cannot be at all adequately described by
analogies based on reading scripts or following sets
of stage directions. {n fact, precisely what differentiates human communication and human activity
from that of animals with less flexible and instinctually based patterns of behaviour is that human
communication can end up in quite unforeseen
directions, and that novelty and innovation is
possible without communication breaking down.

The analogy of reading a script would be much more
aptly applicable to things like courtship rituals in
animals, where, if one partner misses a cue, the
whole thing is likely to break down. Even in clearly
defined and regulated human activities, with strict
rules, and rigid conventions, the script analogy
seems of dubious value (except in infrequent cases
where there literally is a script, such as the
marriage service).

But if one uses the sort of picture of social life
used by Berger, then the problem of the possibility
of change, innovation, novelty or creativity does
look different. If social life consists of these
massive ‘slices’, with precise expectations and
‘parts’ for all the players, then the problem of how
human individuals can change things begins to look
rather awkward. Berger is ‘a~are of the problem,
and adopts a rather defeatist attitude, as one might
expect. Most of us, most of the time, can’t do much
about anything, he says; we’re prisoners of the
situation and the best we can do is adopt an attitude
of detachment or cynicism. But surely social life
does change … ? Berger weakly appeals to
‘charismatic’ leaders, who, he says, have the
power to break through established definitions of
reality and establish new meanings. In ‘Reification
and the Sociological Critique of Consciousness’ (8),
he talks of de-reification as resulting from overall
disintegration owing to natural or man-made
catastrophes, from situations of culture contact,
or from groups of social marginality. But again
this is seen as certain to’result in social chaos,
instability and weakness.

This is both inadequate as..,an account of what
actually happens and mystifyingly defeatist as an
account of the possibilities of changing things. It is
also implicitly a glorification of whatever status
quo happens to exist, since change is seen as so
difficult and so dangerous. It ignores the possibility
of widely based or communal creative human action
to change things. If this is difficult to achieve, it
is not for the reasons that Berger gives.

And there is another possibility that Berger’ s
theory denies. According to him, the minute we
step outside social routines, in the sense of ceasing
to see them as opaque or given, we inevitably do
this at the cost of commitment. Again,. Berger’s
eclectic Existentialism and relativism lead him to
this view; to an effective denial of the possibility of
serious personal commitment to a course of action,
or to bringing about some form of social change,

which ~ involves a reflective awareness of what
one is doing, a preparedness to defend it rationally,
and a full realisation that one is acting in a specific
soc io-historical situation.

The sociologist is of course the key man who will
help to bring about this change from unawareness
to cynicism. And Berger likes to present the sociologist as both tolerant and yet potentially subversive; subversive of social stability as we begin to
see clearly where before all was opaque, and subversive of personal commitment as we recognise
the existence of alternatives. But in a deeper
sense, his theory is profoundly reactionary and
conformist; it denies the possibility of a committed
yet reflective and adequate social theory, and of
committed personal action that is not based on selfdec eption or illusion.

I ……..


Goffman’s Account
of the Self
I now turn to look at The Presentation of Self in
Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman.

Goffman presents the fundamental concern of
human beings as a concern with the impression of
ourselves that we give to others. We present a
‘front’ or a ‘performance’ to other people, and to
do so we very often need to act in teams. Goffman
uses theatrical metaphors because he thinks that
the impression we try to give, the ‘definition of the
situation’ that we try to present, is usually in some
way fraudulent. It tries, for example, to give the
impression that standards are being reached when
they aren’t, or that motives of one type are really
motives of another type, and so on. In presenting
this definition of the situation we devise a large
repertoire of ‘staging techniques’; and Goffman
believes that metaphors derived from the stage are
particularly illuminating. He makes a disclaimer
at the end of the book, and says that in the end
theatrical metaphors must be dropped, but the book
does not give the impression that this disclaimer is
taken very seriously. He says’ All the world is not,
of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it
isn’t are not easy to specify’ (PS, p7S) and the book
itself gives no hint of what these cruc.ial ways are.

Goffman’s description of social encounters which
use these techniques are extremely vivid. In our
capacity as actors or performers, trying to create
an impression, we try to dupe the audience; we
conceal discreditable facts; we distinguish between
‘back’ regions, where we can relax, and ‘front’

regions where we are on our guard; we ‘manage’

the setting and the impressions we give; we segregate audiences; we adopt strategies to deal with
possible disrupti0ns; we are derogatory about our
audiences behind their backs; and so on. Most, if
not all kinds of social encounters are seen as involving some kind of furtiveness and conspiracy

we are always trying to present an idealized
view of the situation which does not correspond to
reality. Hence Goffman also deliberately juxtaposes
our normal actions with those of crooks, swindlers,

imposters, con men; and suggests that there is
really no difference in kind, only in degree, and in
the fact that the performances of con men aren’t
socially approved.

Now none of these descriptions that Goffman
gives entirely miss their mark. Some of his work
(in particular, I beliefe, Asylums, where he
describes how the inmates learn the role of
‘patient’, analyses the process of institutionalizatior., and sees admission into some hospitals as a
form of ritual degradation) is very illuminating.

Everyone can think of some examples of social
encounters of which a Goffmanesque account would
seem irresistibly apt; and of many others where
there is at least an element of the sorts of things
that he describes. To that extent, I believe that
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a
better book that Invitation to Sociology; at least it
does not wallow in rhetorical pseudo-profundities,
and after reading it, one may well to some extent
view one’s own behaviour in a new light. But the
question is not whether there is any truth at all in
what Goffman says, but whether theatrical metaphors, and comparisons with crooks and swindlers
provide an adequate total way of conceptualizing ,
social encounters.

. If one tried to spell out why theatrical metaphors
In the end become inadequate, I think one would
probably want to say that it was because in real
life, at least sometimes, people believe in and are
honestly committed to the things. that they do and
say. Qua actors on the stage, they are not; they
may of course be com’mitted to acting; or they may
hap,?e~ to belieye in the part that they are playing;
but It IS essentIal to the idea of an ‘actor’ that a
person ~ actor can suspend his personal beliefs
and attitudes and portray a character which may
not be his own.


Now I think it is precisely this distinction as
normally conceived, between being sincere ~r
committed, and being an imposter or acting a part,
that Goffman wants to undermine. And it is in this
that the close similarity to Berger begins to

Wha.t is Goffman’s own account of sincerity, or
?Ommltment, or belief in the part that one is playIng? Well, he says that if an individual plays a
part he requests his audience to take seriously the
impression he is trying to fOliter and that the whole
idea of a ‘performance’ depends in this sense on the
idea of honesty. But what of the person himself, and
his own relation to his performance? At one extreme, says Goffman, ‘there are many individuals
who sincerely believe that the definition of the situation they habitually project is the real reality’

(PS, p77). At the other extreme, the person may
not be taken in at all. He may be cynical, or using
the audience as a means to an end of his own, or
even perhaps duping or fooling them for what he
thinks is their own good. There is, Goffman says,
a spectrum between these extremes, and most
actions probably fall somewhere in between. And
he argues that there is what he calls a typical
cycle from belief to disbelief and vice versa.

Putting it at its simplest, this means that if you
start by acting a part cynically, but do it well
enough, you may well end up ‘believing in your own

So, just as Berger seems to see us as presented
with the options either of taking the social world as
‘objective reality’, or being detached or cynical
saboteurs, so Goffman sees us as being aware that


the impressions we are presenting are only a front,
or else fooling ourselves into thinking that they
‘correspond to reality’. In both cases there is no
remaining distinction between honesty or commitment and self-deception. And in both cases an
increase in self -awareness is seen as necessarily
involving a loss of commitment.

We’ve seen why Berger thinks that the social
world is ‘unreal’. What about Goffman? Like
Berger, he constantly uses phrases like ‘reality’

(or even ‘real reality’), the ‘solid world’ and so
forth. What does he mean by the claim that no performance corresponds to reality? The use 01 the
term ‘reality’ here cannot be to mark a distinction
between performances that do and those that do not
‘correspond to reality’; between those that are and
are not ‘honest’, say: since it is precisely this
distinction that Goffman wants to undercut. Nor can
it be simply a way of saying that people sometimes
fool themselves about their own motives, since
Goffman wants ultimately to suggest that no performance corresponds to reality. So if social
performance and routines are all a sort of charade,
what lies behind the charade?

Like Berger, Goffman is, I think, arguing that
the whole of the social world is in a sense unreal.

He does not, like Berger, use an array of explicitly
Existentialist concepts to try and justify this view.

But in the last chapter of the book he does explicitly
give his account of the nature of the human self.

If we think of the self, he says, there is firstly
the self as character performed. This is not
‘intrinsic’ to the performer at all. It is an effect,
arising from a diffuse set of social norms and
staging contingencies. In this sense we have as
many selves as we have parts that we play, and
there is no scope within Goffman’s theory for
saying that any of these is ‘more truly us’ than any
other; and therefore presumably no scope for
distinguishing genuinely committed performances
from those that are phoney. If we claim to make
this distinction, we are deceiving ourselves.

But there is also, Goffman argues, the self as
performer. His attributes are not merely a
oepicted effect of particular performances, they
are ‘psycho-biological’ in nature. So what are the
attributes of this self? Goffman lists the following:

a capacity to learn
a gregarious desire for team mates
a capacity for deeply felt shame; a fear of
the having of fantasies and dreams (mainly
concerning triumphant performances, or
performances that expose the self to ridicule).

These are presumably the only things that are seen
as intrinsic to the structure of the self. If I ask
‘What, really, am I?’, I can only say ‘a performer’,
with an inbuilt drive to conceal from others the
emptiness that lies behind the performances. In a
sense the only difference there appears to be
between Berger’s ‘self’ and Goffman’s ‘self’ is the
greater emphasis Berger lays on the possibility of
escaping from this bad faith and self-deception though at a price, as I’ve argued.


Berger and Goffman thus present us with a
picture of human society, human nature and the self
which is vivid, arresting, and yet I believe inadequate. The danger of their sort of theory lies in the
fact that it fails to identify adequately the reasons
why social change may be difficult to achieve, and
in so doing, fosters an attitude of cynicism and
defeatism. Those, such as Berger, who can
conceive of themselves as being more aware than
most people of the ‘deception’ of various sorts
involved in social structures and performances,
present themselves as a kind of detached elite who
c an see through other people and tell us realistically what they are like. In fact the theory they
present is deeply conformist, and reactionary,
presenting an illegitimately deflationary and
denigratory picture of human beings which effectively denies the reality or possibility of committed
social action which is not rooted in mystification,
self -deception and ignorance.


K. Marx, Third Thesis on Feuerbach.

Faber and Faber, 1967
eferred to henceforward as SRR.

Penguin, J967, referred to henceforward as SCR.

Pelican, 1966, referred to henceforward as IS.

USA. 1959: ·l”>enguin, 1969, referred to henceforward as PS.

Berger here acknowledges a debt to G. H. Mead, whom he follows almost

7 New Left Review, Vol. 35, 1966, p63.

8 ibid.

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