Emile Durkheim said that society had a reality of its own.

W. I. Thomas’ Theorem says that if we perceive something as real it has real consequences.

C. Wright Mills says that society is the intersection of biography and history.

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman argued that social reality is constructed by our actions.



Social Reality

Generally sociologists say that society is constructed out of beliefs that underlie our actions. Most of daily reality is routine. We interact with others generally following norms which are reinforced through sanctions, positive and negative. We are free to try new behaviors, to challenge the norms, in which case we observe the reactions of others and the outcomes of our actions.

The topic of social reality is too philosophical to take on in an introductory course, but it is helpful to review the major ideas that relate to how we come to understand the reality of the society around us.
Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim said that society was separate from the physical and biological and even the economic realities of life. He argues that there are “social facts” and “social forces” that shape our behavior through symbols and group activities such as ritual. Effectively ritual and routine behaviors enforce a sense of community and collective belonging simply because we are sharing the same actions and giving the same meaning to those actions. These are the social norms that are taken for granted everyday as we interact with others, make political and economic decisions and use the physical artifacts (objects of material culture) that we are so familiar with we barely notice that they have a separate and unique existence from the uses and meanings we associate with them.
W.I. Thomas

The Thomas Theorem “If men define situations to be real, they are real in their consequences.” While the idea of social forces (norms) stresses the shared experience of social interaction, the Thomas Theorem stresses the individual interpretation that people apply to the events and things around them. Since interaction means that we react to each other and respond to others and then get their response it should follow that if some individuals are interpreting events in a way which is different from other people their interpretations of what is going on may be different, even very different. This sense of difference can influence the meanings they get and cause unexpected responses which others have to deal with. In the end the social reality of the group can be affected as Woody Allen shows in this classic clip:

C. Wright Mills

Mills’ Sociological Imagination takes into account both the group awareness of meaning (through history), and the individual awareness of meaning (through biography) and says that these combine to produce social interaction. At the same time Mills accepts that society has an independent reality which offers a structure which we are supposed to use when dealing with other people as well as with the objects in our world.

Berger and Luckman

Thomas Berger wrote a book called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” in which he argued that life is like a performance in which we must follow a script, but were allowed to make changes to that script in order to put our best “self” forward in all situations. Essentially society sets out a series of norms and routines that we are expected to follow; we do our best to follow them so that we can get what we need from the situation. This means that we are likely to do what we are expected to do, even when we don’t want to because it is more important to us to finish our exchanges with other people in ways that put us in the best possible light, or give us an advantage that we might have lost if we let someone know our true feelings, than it is to express our true self.

Anyone who has had a job working with the public is familiar with this, but at the same time we can all think of times when we held back our real feelings even when dealing with those we love and trust.
Social Interaction Social interaction is the way people respond to each other. It is largely determined by the culture of the society through the norms and institutions that have developed over time.

Key Terms
Define Social Reality
Social Interaction

Additional resources Comedy can offer us insight into alternative interactions and interpretations of events that we just take for granted, as the Beatles said “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done”. Here are some sillies, but possible.

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