Socially Constructed Reality

This quote is central to the idea of the social construction of reality: "The world is such-and-such or so-and-so only because we tell ourselves that that is the way it is". Reality construction has been discussed by many different people but has frequently left the first year Sociology student more confused than enlightened, I hope to change that confusion to understanding. As Pirandello's character in The Pleasure of Honesty says upon meeting a family:

Also important to this work is Gitlin's (1980) study of the way in which the mass media covered the antiwar movement. He states:

He further argues that the mass media coverage was totally different from his perception of how those events took place. Here, Gitlin's perception of reality is different from that of the mass media. The question is not whether Gitlin was right or the media was right, the emphasis is on how "perceptions" are produced and communicated.

In another example, Epstein (1973: 176) spoke of his observations of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) attempts to block the registration of students at Columbia University in September of 1968. From his observations:

The mass media aired a two minute segment depicting campus unrest which included the entire one minute of violence. This mass media segment gave the suggestion that violence was the major theme of the attempted blockade. Researchers using historical data should remember that historians often present their work as factual information when it is only their interpretation of the events.

Before we begin to enter the world of reality construction there are a few things about the human body and brain/mind that must be made clear. To begin, we must realize that, based on current scientific evidence, all stimuli coming into the brain comes through one of the five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. But, the eyes don't see, the nose doesn't smell, our ears don't hear, our mouth doesn't taste, and our skin doesn't feel. These sense organs are merely transmitters of sensual information. Let's use the eyes as an example. We believe that "seeing is believing", but that's not really the case. We usually see what we expect to see. Light photons are reflected in some manner from something in the direction in which our heads are turned and are received as various light wave patterns by the cone and rod receptors in the eyes. These photons strike the rods and cones inside the eye in a precise manner causing an electrical-chemical signal to pass down the optic nerve to sight receptors in the back of the brain. These sight receptors receive these signals as an upside-down image. The mind then interprets these signals, turns then right side up and, after being filtered, or censored, through the neocortex, and based on our past experiences, tells us what it is we are seeing. The point is, it is the brain/mind combination that sees, not the eyes. The same is true of the other four senses.

Now, I'm going to ask you to agree with me on two principles. First, no two people in the world have exactly the same sensory neural makeup: central nervous system. No two people's eyesight, etc., is exactly the same, especially when combined with the sense receptors in the brain. For this to occur, all nerves of each individual would have to be equal in all respects, plus they would have to have the same DNA encoded and decoded in exactly the same way, and this is virtually impossible. Second, no two people in the world have exactly the same psychological makeup. Their socialization, biases, and personalities are not going to be exactly the same. This is even seen in the study of identical twins.

OK, having gone this far then, if we accept the above as being true and combine that with the idea that our "reality" is shaped by (1) the signals received through the central nervous system and (2) the person's interpretation of that imput as filtered through their individual personality and biases, then no two people "see" or experience reality in exactly the same way which means that they must create or construct their own individual reality based on their day-to-day experiences. From this, then, we see that reality is not as concrete as people usually believe that it is and reality must actually be quite fluid and shaped by individual experience. Again, all we know is what our five senses tell us as filtered through the nural connections of our central nervous system and the personality of our mind.

Usually the first question asked at this point is, "Why do we all see the color red (or some similar color) the same?" Actually, we probably don't. Biologists have discovered that there are at least four different possible red receptor cones in the eye. If we took a red sheet of paper and held it in front of four people, each one having one of these four different red receptors, each would see red, but not the same red. The hue would be a little different. Then why do we all identify the color red (except for color blind people) the same? Simple, we're taught as small children that this particular combination of pigments is called red.

Another question, "If we all create our own reality, then how do we come to any agreement as to what anything is?" The answer is simple, we negotiate reality. For example, say twenty people are standing at the four corners of an intersection when an accident involving three cars occurs. If we interview all twenty people individually and ask them what happened we're going to get twenty similar but different stories. But, if we put those twenty people in a room together and ask them to come up with a single coherent story as to what happened at the accident, they eventually will. One person might say that the navy blue car hit the ... , and another will interrupt and say no, it was black, and someone else may interject another color; but they will start out disagreeing. Through a process of negotiation they will finally come to an agreement as to what happened at the accident that they can all agree with, and, a few years later, if asked about the accident, they will recall that same negotiated story rather than their original story. This negotiated reality becomes their new reality. This story will be different from any of the stories that the witnesses gave individually. Therefore, what we call reality is simply the agreement that we have come to as to the content of our world.

I'll leave this discussion with a final quote:

Works Cited

Castaneda, Carlos. 1971. A Separate Reality. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Epstein, Edward Jay. 1973. News From Nowhere: Television and the News. New York: Random House.

Gitlin, Todd 1980. The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of

the New Left. Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press.

Parandello, Luigi. 1962. "The Pleasures of Honesty". In To Clothe the Naked and Two Other Plays. New York: Dutton. pp. 143-198.