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Pierre Bourdieu and Social Construction of Reality sample essay


Berger and Luckmann in their book, Social Construction of Reality did not only seriously dealt with several sociological themes, they also attempted to found a new idea of the ‘sociology of knowledge’. They provided an introduction to Schutz and social phenomenology and established a theoretical background for later works, especially in the fields of sociology of religion and industrialization. However, the most daring presentation of the authors in this book was the consolidation of the two major theoretical postures in the study of the man and his society: objectivism and subjectivism to arrive at a new sociology of knowledge.

The social construction of reality entails the first major effort at detailing the interrelation and dynamic relationship between man and his society, a field hitherto polarized by the antithetical stances of the objectivist and subjectivist schools of thought. While on the one hand, objectivism holds that individual’s perception of reality is defined by the forces of the society imposed upon the individual, notwithstanding his consciousness or will, in this respect, social facts are seen as things that determine the conduct and representations of individuals; in contrast, subjectivism, in line with Max Weber reasoning, holds that “the object of cognition is the subjective meaning complex of action” (quoted in Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

Berger and Luckmann posited that both stances should not be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. They explain that both understandings come into play in the construction of social reality. Their position is aptly conveyed in the statement ‘Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.’

Although, Berger and Luckmann are renowned for their work in this field, Pierre Bourdieu can be regarded as the most prolific author on the subject of social reality. His work on the understanding of social reality is wide, diverse and at the same time convergent. The purpose of this paper is to examine Berger and Luckmann’s ‘social construction of reality’ from a Bourdieu perspective, to determine if Bourdieu strengthens and expands Berger and Luckmann’s theory of social reality or addresses the topic from a different theoretical position.

Berger and Luckmann on Social Construction of Reality

For Berger and Luckmann, albeit man and his society both take the position of product and producer interchangeably, the relationship between the two is not causal, mechanistic or unidirectional, it is, according to them, dialectic. Dialectic, in the sense that social reality is defined by the unending relationship between man and his society. In explanating this theory, the author took recourse to the conceptual arsenals of habitualisation, Externalisation, typification, Objectivation, institutionalisation, and legitimation.

These concepts effectively describe how society, which was the product of man, became the producer of man. The basic understanding that runs through these concepts is that the society is the product or ongoing product of man, however, through internalisation of the norms of the produced society, as it is passed from one generation to the other, actions and perceptions of reality become limited and restrained by these societal norms, until they become established as facts that defines realities. The next question that will seek our attention is how does man produces the society and in turn, man becomes the product of the society.

From Berger and Luckmann viewpoint, habitualisation is the first step in the creation of the society. They assert that actions frequently repeated become cast into a pattern. That is, as individuals act, they organise perceptions and actions into a coherent pattern that can be reproduced with minimal efforts, thus such pattern of actions have been habitualised. Albeit, habitualised actions still retain their individual meanings and character, they are lost over time, as the meanings become embedded in the individual’s general stock of knowledge and thus taken for granted in present and future projects.

The authors suggest that habitualisation holds positive advantages for an individual. For one, it frees the individual from the burden of choice, for while there might be a hundred ways of carrying out a project, habitualisation narrows these down to one and thus providing a background in which human activities may be carried out with minimal decision making. Furthermore, the meanings embedded meanings of habitualised activities makes it unnecessary for every situation to be defined individually, since complex and diverse situations can be subsumed under habitualised predefinitions, such that activities can be anticipated and alternatives assigned standard weights.

Habitualisation precedes and gives birth to institutionalisation. According to Berger and Luckmann, “Institutionalisation occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualised actions by types of actors”, though what should be stressed is the “reciprocity of institutional typifications and the typicality of not only the actions but also the actors in institutions.” Furthering this argument, they suggest that typification of habitualised actions that build up institutions are always shared habitualisations that are available to the members of a particular social group, though not only individual actions, but also the actors are typified in such institutions.

However, institunalisation is effected through history. The authors contend that the reciprocal typification actions that constitute institutions are built up in the course of a shared history. They stress that “They cannot be created instantaneously.

Institutions always have a history, of which they are the products. It is impossible to understand an institution adequately without an understanding of the historical process in which it was produced” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966 p.54). Moreover, it was emphasised that institutions generally manifest in collectivities with considerable number of people and by their very existence, control and define human conducts by setting up predefined patterns of conducts, which channels individual actions in a particular direction, as against the numerous directions that is possible theoretically.

To adequately conceptualise how society is created through habitualisation and institunalisation and how these come to define human actions and perceptions, the authors created an imaginary situation of a society created by the interaction between two individuals A and B thus:

“[If] A and B alone are responsible for having constructed this world. A and B remain capable of changing or abolishing it. What is more, since they themselves have shaped this world in the course of a shared biography which they can remember, the world thus shaped appears fully transparent to them. They understand the world that they themselves have made. All this changes in the process of transmission to the new generation. The objectivity of the institutional world “thickens” and “hardens,” not only for the children, but (by a mirror effect) for the parents as well.

The “There we go again” now becomes “This is how these things are done.” A world so regarded attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way and it can no longer be changed so readily. For the children, especially in the early phase of their socialization into it, it becomes the world. For the parents, it loses its playful quality and becomes “serious.” For the children, the parentally transmitted world is not fully transparent. Since they had no part in shaping it, it confronts them as a given reality that, like nature, is opaque in places at least” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966 p.59)

In the example above, the child becomes incapable of distinguishing between the objectivity of the natural world and the objectivity of ‘social formations’. Using the language as an example, a thing is what it is called; the child is incapable of comprehension beyond this level. It is argued that it is only at this stage that we can now speak of a social world, in a complete sense. This is the period when individuals now come to see societal realities like the facts of the natural world, and it is in this manner that social formations transmitted from one generation to the other.

Pierre Bourdieu on Social Reality

Bourdieu, undeniably offered a more extensive treatise on social knowledge and social realities, however, the underlying ideology that unifies the work of Berger and Luckmann, and Bourdieu is that bought works seek to reconcile the differences and so doing merge the subjective and objective conceptions in sociology. Both works suggest that the differences and antimony between the “structuralist” view of the society that seeks out “invisible relational patterns operating” behind the control of individuals and the “constructivist” viewpoint “that probes the commonsense perceptions and actions of the individual” (Wacquant, 2006 p.6) are artificial and unnecessary, and thus sought to reconcile both approaches to studying the society.

In line with Berger and Luckmann contention, Bourdieu too believes that the society is the product of man’s habituated actions and that the externalisations of these habituations reinforce the objectivity of societal realities. However, Bourdieu deploys more extensive conceptual models to explain his contention, thus, he did not only strengthened Berger and Luckmann’s understandings of social knowledge, he further expands the reach of their theory.

The conceptual arsenals deployed by Bourdieu in explaining social knowledge and social reality include the notions of habitus, capital, field, and doxa. These are intertwined and interrelated in a dynamic fashion, so that each fully explains social knowledge only in relation with the others. Thus a brief examination of these concepts is pertinent in highlighting Bourdieu stance on social knowledge.

Habitus, though considered an old philosophical notion originating in the thoughts of Aristotle, was retrieved, expanded and popularised by Bourdieu in the 1960s. The term is used to describe the externalisation of internality and the internalisation of externality i.e. it is a system of durable and transposable ‘dispositions’ through which an individual judges, perceives and acts in the social world (Wacquant, 2006, 2002). The author contends that

These unconscious schemata are acquired through lasting exposure to particular social conditions and conditionings, via the internalization of external constraints and possibilities. This means that they are shared by people subjected to similar experiences even as each person has a unique individual variant of the common matrix (this is why individuals of like nationality, class, gender, etc., spontaneously feel “at home” with one another). It implies also that these systems of dispositions are malleable, since they inscribe into the body the evolving influence of the social milieu, but within the limits set by primary (or earlier) experiences, since it is habitus itself which at every moment filters such influence (Wacquant, 2006 p.7)

From the above, it is evident that while societal realities defines the actions and perceptions of individuals, this occurs within the cognitive realm of the individual, to some extent, as the habitus tend to act as a mediator between past experiences and present situations, a reason why Bourdieu refers to it as structured, by the patterned social forces that produced it in the first place, and structuring, since it defines and gives coherence to an individual’s activities across the different segments of living (Bourdieu, 1977). This fact was adequately illustrated in the study of the peasant and his body, a study Bourdieu carried out in his childhood village of Béarn (Bourdieu, 2004).

Since this system of disposition acquired by individual over time and space influences perception, judgement and action, it also infers that the system of disposition acquired by an individual will depend on his position in the society. Bourdieu called this ‘capital’. He differentiated between economic capital subsuming material and financial assets; cultural capital comprising scarce symbolic goods, skills and titles; and social capital consisting of resources accrued by an individual by virtue of membership of a group.

The fourth branch of capital not commonly mentioned is the symbolic capital, which is slightly different from the three mentioned above. Symbolic capital is taken to represent capital that is available to an individual on basis on honor, prestige and recognition. It is basically derived from culturally classificatory modes, a war hero, for instance, is highly regarded. However, while the other three species of capital mentioned earlier do have symbolic values, symbolic capital cannot be converted to other forms of capital. For Bourdieu, the position of any individual or institution and the disposition gathered is defined by the overall volume of capital and the composition of the capital possessed.

While habitus and capital determines individual’s social knowledge, Bourdieu extends this concept further with the notion of fields. This is based on the contention that the “various spheres of life, art, science, religion, the economy, the law, politics, etc., tend to form distinct microcosms endowed with their own rules, regularities, and forms of authority” (Wacquant, 2006 p.8) making up the various ‘fields’.

Field is described as ‘a structured space of positions that imposes its specific determinations upon all those who enter it’. It infers, therefore, that a field structures action and perception within from without, just as habitus defines practice from within. The field channels and directs individual actions by providing an array of options and alternatives with the associated costs and benefits, but the individual still acts within the scope of his habitus. Thus, “It takes the meeting of disposition and position, the correspondence (or disjuncture) between mental structures and social structures, to generate practice” (Bourdieu, 1989, quoted in Wacquant, 2006 p.8).

It is thus clear that both Burger and Luckman, and Bourdieu adequately stressed the fact that social reality is neither the sole product of structural dictates of the society nor that of intentional pursuit of goals as canvassed in objectivism and subjectivism, but the product of the dialectical relationship of both. Again, although the work of Bourdieu extends this argument further, as can be seen in his work on class, tastes and classification (Bourdieu,1984), the whole argument still boils down to the fact that the interrelationship of structures and cognition influence man’s social knowledge, perception of objective reality and practice. Both arguments can be seen to reason along the same line, with that of Bourdieu strengthening and expanding the reach of that of Burger and Luckman.

This similarity between these two approaches to social knowledge is explicitly presented in habitualization of Burger and Luckman and habitus of Bourdieu. In the former, the authors contend that as humans act, their actions and perceptions are organized into coherent patterns. For Burger and Luckman, it is through this habitualization that individuals construct social meanings, over time.

Similar meanings can be deduced from Bourdieu’s habitus, which also contend that by exposure to certain societal conditions and conditioning, individuals begin to create an internal inventory of meanings that later serve as the basis of practice. Such similarities can also be extended to include Bourdieu’s concept of ‘field’ which can be likened to ‘institutions’ conceived by Burger and Luckman. Both concepts could easily be converged to mean that, while human practice is influenced internally by organized patterns of actions or perceptions, this influence is moulded by the factors prevalent in the immediate society of the individual.

Unfortunately, similarities between both authors cannot be extended further. Burger and Luckman’s idea tend to infer that structures and actions influence action in sequence that is, individual actions are institunalized, producing the society, and henceforth, the societal structure totally influences practice. In contrast, Bourdieu deploys an arsenal of conceptual tools in explaining the relationship between structure and action. He uses capital to indicate how the social position of individual influences practice, he also extends the concept of habitus (action) and field (structure) further than the shallow meanings ascribed to these by Burger and Luckman.

Unlike the later, Bourdieu could be said to effectively bridge the divide between subjectivism and objectivism, when he indicated that neither habitus nor field is capable of unilaterally determining social action, at any particular time. He argued that it takes the meeting of habitus and capital (social position), and the correspondence (or disjuncture) between mental structures and social structures to generate social action. What this means is that to explain any social event or pattern, one must inseparably dissect both the social constitution of the individual and the makeup of the particular social structure within which he operates as well as the particular conditions under which they come to encounter and impinge upon each other (Bourdieu 1989).

One can also find another evidence of Bourdieu going deeper and diverse than Burger and Luckman, in his ‘An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology’ (1992) where Bourdieu insisted that sociologist must at all times be present to the effects that their own internalized structures and meanings can have on their studies. He argued that this could distort or prejudice their objectivity (Bourdieu, 1992). Here again, it becomes apparent that Bourdieu delves deeper and provides a better understanding of social knowledge than did Burger and Luckman, although this does not take away from the fact that both authors seek to achieve the same thing: the bridging of the antimony between the subjective and objective views, with the primary differences lying in the depth and substance of each authors’ views.


Bourdieu, Pierre (2004). The Peasant and His Body. Ethnography, 5(4): 579–599.

———. (1990). Language and Symbolic Power. Edited and with an introduction by John Thompson.

———. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory 7-1 (June): 18- 26

———. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic Wacquant (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berger, L. Peter and Thomas Luckmann (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise its the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, pp. 51-55, 59-61.

Wacquant, Loïc (2006).Pierre Bourdieu. In Rob Stones (ed.). Key Contemporary Thinkers. London and New York: Macmillan.

———. (2002). The Sociological Life of Pierre Bourdieu. International Sociology, 17(4): 549–556.

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