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Berger's Motifs of Sociological Consciousness

Peter L. Berger is one of the two American sociologists to have the most affect on my own sociological perspective. This was accomplished mainly through his book, Invitation to Sociology, published in 1963. I first read it in graduate school and it had an immediate impact on me. I remember thinking at that time...this is why I had decided to get a Masters in Sociology, this is me and my thoughts. It was like Berger knew me...he said things I had been thinking of well as introducing me to new ideas. Although I had already gone through the "sociological door," so to speak, his "invitation" confirmed for me why I had done so. Berger made me feel welcome in a way no other did (with the exception of C. Wright Mills).

Invitation to Sociology is a book which although dated in terms of some of his historical references, is truly a classic in sociology. It draws the reader into a world of reality least for me...can't help but enthuse and excite. I have assigned and taught from this book in almost every Intro. Sociology class I've ever had. I've likewise included many of its ideas in many other courses. Student after student has told me verbally or in written assignments how much they enjoyed and learned from Berger's book. Below, there is a link to an online bookseller who includes some comments by other readers of Invitation to Sociology. If you haven't read this book ever or very recently...whether you are a sociological beginner or a veteran of sociology, I urge you to do so...or to do so again.

Before presenting some specific information from Invitation to Sociology, I'd like to make a couple observations about it. First, Berger's writing is a combination of "extreme clarity," endless caveats and roundabout paths, and jargonish prose (ironically, the very kind he critiques in the book). In addition, his use of foreign terms and phrases without translation has always been a bit much for me. As I've told every class assigned to read it...he sometimes takes the "long way around" to get to his point, but he will always get there. One must be patient sometimes...Berger always gets to Los Angeles from Miami (even if he goes by Sioux Falls!!). Often its when you may seem the most lost that his clarity jumps out at you. He can sometimes (often!) say the most complicated things in the most clear language...very much noticeable and worth the effort to get to...I might add.

Second, Berger has written numerous other books which are respected and well-known. One in particular is The Social Construction of Reality (written with Thomas Luckman). It's a fine book and just as much a classic in the "sociology of knowledge" as "Invitation" is in its own right. His other book of note is The Sacred Canopy, a book in the "sociology of religion." Likewise, its a fine book. I've also included a link below which gives a little biographical info on Berger...including a bibliography of his works. It is noteworthy that this recent listing contains no reference to "Invitation"...but its still worth viewing.

Amongst the very numerous insights and passages it contains, there is one section/chapter that I find immensely useful in helping teach others about the sociological perspective. Chapter 2 (Sociology as a Form of Consciousness) contains Berger's ideas about HOW to think sociologically...especially critically. He does this by articulating four (4) motifs (themes) of "sociological consciousness." As I've said countless times in classes, it is one thing to ask students to think critically in a sociological vein...its quite another to give them the "tools" to do so. This is what I believe Berger does for us in Chapter 2. So, what follows is a short outline of each of these "motifs"...each beginning with a quote from the book which introduces it. These outlines are by no means comprehensive, but they do manage, I believe, to set the content and tone of each of them. Obviously (careful now!!), a fuller reading of this chapter will help gain a better understanding of them...especially with the "Little Dictionary" the ASA offers (see below) at hand.

Motifs of Sociological Consciousness


"We would contend, then, that there is a debunking motif inherent in sociological consciousness. The sociologist will be driven time and again, by the very logic of his discipline, to debunk the social systems he is studying." (p. 38)

...a "looking beyond"

...a "seeing through"

...the "art of mistrust"...of appearance/the surface/form

...It's PREMISE: Nothing is as it seems to be ("The 1st Wisdom of Sociology") "unmasking tendency"

...there are levels and meanings of reality not given in "form," "appearance," "behavior," "beliefs," "interpretation," or "self-conception"


"In looking at this American development we can detect another motif of sociology, closely related to that of debunking but not identical with it--its fascination with the unrespectable view of society." (p. 43)

...awareness of worlds/realities other than those of middle & upper class respectable "standards" and "propiety"

...based on division of culture into "respectable" (normal) and "unrespectable" (deviant) sectors by ruling elite
----------Ignoring OR devaluing anything
----------which deviates from the standards

...LANGUAGE: is often the clearest sign of the sectors
----------Supression of certain language in
----------certain situations
----------Not mentioning undesirable things

...a "puncturing" of the facades of so-called "respectability"
----------Seeing the totality/wholeness of
----------social reality
----------A clearer view of society than with
----------"googles" of respectability
----------Exposing ANY taken-for-granted
----------belief or position


"...we would look once more on this phenomenon of relativization that we have already touched upon a few times. We would now say explicitly that sociology is so much in tune with the temper of the modern era precisely because it represents the consciousness of a world in which values have been so radically relativized." (p. 48)

...realization that an individual's or a group's views/values/ways are NOT absolutes...are NOT "truth/normality" itself

...gaining perspective (distance) on own ways
----------By examining the process of their
----------By gaining insight into the ways of
----------other groups/cultures

...ideas change when their situations or conditions change

...realize that societies provide MEANING SYSTEMS which provide a "total interpretation of reality" to believe in
----------Our own lives are RELATIVE TO that
----------meaning system


"To these we would, finally, add a fourth one, much less far-reaching in its implications but useful in rounding out our picture--the cosmopolitan motif." (p. 52)

...the broadest, most general of the motifs...the FOUNDATION of the other motifs openness to other ways of thinking and acting...without prejudice...WITH empathy

...transcending one's own physical location and one's attachment to it
----------Recognize the "accident of birth"
----------and "narrowness of nationalism" feel at home wherever their are others who think

...a broad, open and emancipated view on human life realize that..."nothing human is alien to me"