The Social Construction of Reality

This post was written by guest blogger James Karlsen

The title is from a book written by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. In number of pages the book is not long (it has around 240 pages) but in impact it is huge. It is probably one of the most important books within the social sciences in the 20th Century. It has been a game changer within the social sciences. The book represents the starting point of a new paradigm: social constructivism.

Berger and Luckmann develop a theory that aims at answering the question of how subjective meaning becomes a social fact. The argument from the authors is that “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 79)[1].

When referring to Berger and Luckmann my intention is not to give an introduction into their theory but to connect it to an ongoing debate in the Orkestra Blog about the social dimension of territorial development. I want to contribute to this debate sharing some reflections on action research and how it can generate social change.

The main message from Berger and Luckmann which is important for us as researchers is that reality is socially constructed. It is constructed by us, by the people living and working in society. However, we often forget that and take reality for granted, as if it were something given from the outside, that we just have to adapt to. As researchers we can analyse trends and construct explanations about them or we can engage, trying to foster change with other territorial actors. Since reality is socially constructed it can be changed. This is the mission for action research: to engage in change processes and to challenge taken for granted realities by actors in society.

One example of such a taken for granted reality, is context. Although context is much used by social scientists, it is usually used to denote something that is given. However, policy learning is actually about understanding the context and trying to change the context through policy. This is a different approach to policy learning: from an actor approach towards a contextual approach. This implies that context plays a more complex and important role that is usually assumed in innovation and regional development theory. One lesson from our study of policy learning is that cognitive frameworks of policy makers as well as researchers are a part of the context that needs to be challenged during an action research process. This kind of change can be hard for all the actors involved in a change process because it is about challenging and changing taken for granted assumptions about realities. However as Berger and Luckmann demonstrate, what man sees as realities are socially constructed by humans, and can therefore be changed.

[1] Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge: Penguin Books.


Previous posts in the series on the Social Dimension of Territorial Development are:

Ampliando el rol de la Universidad

Innovación social y desarrollo industrial, ¿tienen algo que ver?

El Desarrollo Económico Territorial, la participación ciudadana y el  “Buen Vivir”

Saliendo del armario

Una aproximación a la dimensión social del desarrollo territorial 

Convirtiendo lo social en ventaja competitiva


James Karlsen

James Karlsen (PhD Norwegian University of Science and Technology) is Associate Professor at the University of Agder. Prior to his appointment at the University of Agder he worked as a senior researcher at Agderforskning and at Orkestra. He has worked with territorial development processes as a policy maker and a researcher at national and local levels in Norway and the Basque Country. Karlsen is widely published on topics such as regional innovation systems, action research networks, the role of universities in regional development, and how regions can cosntruct regional advantage. He is coauthor, with Miren Larrea, of the book Territorial Development and Action Research. Innovation through Dialogue.

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