Invitation to Sociology

Peter L. Berger

It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem. This too is a deceptively simple statement. It ceases to be simple after a while. Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole.

Anthropologists use the term "culture shock" to describe the impact of a totally new culture upon a newcomer. In an extreme instance such shock will be experienced by the Western explorer who is told, halfway through dinner, that he is eating the nice old lady he had been chatting with the previous day--a shock with predictable physiological if not moral consequences. Most explorers no longer encounter cannibalism in their travels today. However, the first encounters with polygamy or with puberty rites or even with the way some nations drive their automobiles can be quite a shock to an American visitor. With the shock may reflect not only disapproval or disgust but a sense of excitement that things can really be that different from what they are at home.

The experience of sociological discovery could be described as "culture shock" minus geographical displacement. In other words, the sociologist travels at home--with shocking results. People who like to avoid shocking discoveries, who prefer to believe that society is just what they were taught in Sunday school, who like the safety of the rules...should stay away from sociology. People who feel no temptation before closed doors, who have no curiosity about human beings, who are content to admire scenery without wondering about the people who live in those houses on the other side of that river, should probably also stay away from sociology. And people whose interest is mainly in their own conceptual constructions will do just as well to turn to the study of little white mice. Sociology will be satisfying, in the long run, only to those who can think of nothing more entrancing than to watch men and to understand things human ....

To ask sociological questions, then, presupposes that one is interested in looking some distance beyond the commonly accepted or officially defined goals of human actions.

A few examples of the way in which sociology "looks behind" the facades of social structures might serve to make our argument clearer. Take, for instance, the political organization of a community. If one wants to find out how a modern American city is governed, it is very easy to get the official information about this subject.... However, it would be an exceedingly naive person who would believe that this kind of information provides a rounded picture of the political reality of that community. The sociologist will want to know also the constituency of the "informal power structure." When sociologists study power, they "look behind" the official mechanisms supposed to regulate power in the community.

Let us take one further example. In Western countries, and especially in America, it is assumed that men and women marry because they are in love. As soon as one investigates, however, which people actually marry each other, one finds that the lightning-shaft of Cupid seems to be guided rather strongly within very definite channels of class, income, education, [and] racial and religious background.

We would contend, then, that there is a debunking motif inherent in sociological consciousness. The sociologist will be driven time and again, by the very logic of the discipline, to debunk social systems. This unmasking tendency need not necessarily be due to the sociologist's temperament or inclinations. Indeed, it may happen that the sociologist, who as an individual, may be of a conciliatory disposition and quite disinclined to disturb comfortable assumptions, is nevertheless compelled to fly in the face of what is taken for granted.

Credit: Invitation to Sociology by Peter Berger. 1963. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Doubleday Dell.