So far I have read two books on this topic:
An Invitation to Social Construction by Kenneth J. Gergen (2015)
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Penguin Social Sciences) by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1991 reprint)
Gergen’s main claim is that what how we experience the world depends on our relationship with it. What I really like about this book is the accessibility, it is interesting to read and does not use stylistic gimmicks to make the writer seem smart. Gergen reminds us that our perceptions of truth and morality are constructed by our environment which we create ourselves so our truth is only one of many possible truths. This means that we need to be open to other ways of seeing the world which might be just as valid. The same applies to language, which is never value free. We talk our reality into being and some voices, such as scientists, are privileged while others are silenced. I think this applies to women’s voices, especially to women who work in low paid jobs. When you are working for £9 an hour, you do not compete with men for jobs because all the well paid, manual jobs that men used to do went away a long time ago. Solidarity between men and women is essential to survive from one day to the next. I believe that a large part of the population could not care less how many female CEO there are because that is so far removed from their reality that it is absolutely immaterial. Books such as ‘Lean in” by white, privileged women such as Ms. Sandberg only support the existing capitalist system, they advocate that women should join the rat race and become as enslaved by corporates as a lot of men are. There certainly is no ‘women’s liberation’!
Gergen points to Garfinkel who says that “we treat words as if they were pictures of the objects to which they refer”. The dominant discourse decides what mental image we see when we look at a word such as ‘success’ or ‘career’ without considering that success for one person can be a very different thing that for another. Dictionary.com defines success as “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.” I would suggest that this definition is very male, very middle-class and reflects the materialistic value system that we currently live in.
I found Berger and Luckmann’s book difficult to read, it uses highly academic language and gave me lots to think about. Do I fully understand what I read? Probably not. What I understand is that that we create our world through the context we live in. Our reality is shaped and enforced by our surroundings and if those surroundings change and do not reflect who we think we are, there is the potential for personal crisis. It made me think of my ‘being’ a student. I currently struggle to see myself like one. My wife and mother identity is reinforced every day through the interactions with my family. My ‘Manager’ identity is reinforced every working day in the interactions with my team, my manager, my colleagues and the general tasks that I do. My ‘student’ identity however is very weak as there is only the interaction with the lecturer and the students on the research methods course once a week and then very rare interaction with my supervisors. I now understand why the other students, especially the undergrads who have very little life experience to draw on, are so unhappy with the current learning environments. It is no only the lectures that are important, it is the day to day interactions – in the library, in accommodation, in the pubs, walking around campus – all the signs and symbols that confirm ‘I am a student’.