directory TUTORIAL: Communication Environment



Coordinated interaction is intimately tied to our ability to create and maintain definitions of self and others ... these definitions are created by society and supported by communication. Most theorists suggest that the relationship between self, communication, and society is a complex, circular one. Social structures originally tell us who to be and how to communicate, but these structures depend on communication for their maintenance. Through communication we can act on and change the very structures that create us.
- Sarah Trentholm

If it is true that the meanings humans make of messages they receive strongly depend on what Berger and Luckmann call "the reality of everyday life" then it should be possible to find examples of situations in which the same message takes on different meanings to people whose "reality of everyday life is different." One way to test this theory might be to investigate the meanings that arise from messages distributed by the mass media.

For example, suppose that a message sent out over a television channel. The signal is received by many thousands of television sets, and it delivers the same data to each; that is, everyone who receives it is presented with exactly the same images and sounds. So, if different people take this text to have different meanings, these differences must arise within the minds of the people.

Suppose, then, that the evening news reports an announcement that a large chemical company has decided to open a plant in a certain town. What different meanings might this message take on?

The meanings that people will make of this message arise in good part from the realities of their everyday lives. Berger and Luckmann point out that these realities are intersubjective -- which is to say that each person's meanings relate to, and to some extent depend on, the meanings of others. Thus, humans cannot escape the conclusion that their communication environment plays an active and important part in their lives. As another writer puts it:

Many of our apparently unique personal opinions are in fact derived from social conditioning by dominant codes of values transmitted by others, beginning in the cradle and including the media of family, school, and popular entertainment, rather than from personal and informed decisions that we actually made for ourselves.
- Wilden125

However, as Trentholm notes in the quotation that heads this section, it is not just that everyday reality affects our communication -- it is that our communication also affects everyday reality. This is what we mean when we speak of the social construction of reality -- that when we communicate, we participate in the building of the reality that we inhabit.

THE BERGER/LUCKMANN MODELexampleSummary of the Model

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.
- Franz Kafka

This model proposes a step-by-step process by which the members of a society construct the reality that they inhabit. In brief, Berger and Luckmann argue that some of people's personal habits become public, and that these shared habits eventually become so widely and strongly accepted that they are taken for granted, and passed on from generation to generation as always having been true.

Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and apprehended by its performer as that pattern.
- Berger and Luckmann

Habits arise naturally during the course of our lives. Consider, for example, our need to wash ourselves. While at home, we could take a bath or shower at any time. Yet, most of us develop a pattern of washing at a particular time -- in the morning after rising, perhaps, or in the evening before going to bed. The same is true of many other activities -- the path we take on the way to work, the manner in which we greet other people, certain words that we use in conversation, and so on. Even though many choices are available in these situations, we habitually tend to limit ourselves to a smaller set.

exampleRules of the Road

During communication, we notice the habits of others and they notice ours. Because habits repeat in certain situations, they reduce our mutual uncertainty as to each other's behavior, and they assist us in predicting each other's meanings and intended actions.

The most important gain is that each will be able to predict the other's actions.

Concomitantly, the interaction of both becomes predictable. The "There he goes again" becomes a "There we go again." This relieves both individuals of a considerable amount of tension. They save time and effort.... Their life together is now defined by a widening sphere of taken-for-granted routines. Many actions are now possible at a low level of attention.
- Berger and Luckmann 54

In this way habits become mutually useful.

exampleRules of the Road

Berger and Luckmann point out that as this goes on, we begin to "typify" our acquaintances -- that is, we identify people as being of certain types. For example, Shaq is "cosmopolitan," Sarah is "assertive," Martine is "intellectual," John is "compulsive." These types become part of our knowledge of our friends and acquaintances, and we employ them regularly as we interact.

Typifications formed during intimate face-to-face communication are based on our personal knowledge of the individuals. However, when we engage in many face-to-face encounters with people who we do not know very well, our typifications are not based on intimacy but on our expectation of the function of the encounter. For example

Knowledge of these "typical" patterns of behavior are shared among all of the members of the society, and the constant use of these mutually anticipated exchanges is what defines the society's institutions. In other words an institution is a widely repeated pattern of interaction during which the people involved relate to one another as types.

exampleRules of the Road

Fire fighters, for example, are expected to be courageous and dedicated, politicians to be friendly and open to compromise, bankers to be honest and cautious, and so on. These public, institutional types are called roles. Berger and Luckmann point out that within the context of an institution:

Both self and other can be apprehended as performers of objective, generally known actions, which are recurrent and repeatable by any actor of the appropriate type. ...By definition, these types are interchangeable.
- Berger and Luckmann 68

In other words roles allow us to separate the actions taken by the individual who is performing the role from his or her personality. Because of this, when we interact with someone in a role, we see ourselves as interacting not with a person but with the institution to which the role belongs. We do not, for example, get angry at the policeman who pulls us over for speeding, we get angry at the legal process that puts such restrictions on our speed. In this manner institutions become generally accepted as being real.

This means that the institutions that have now been crystallized are experienced as existing over and beyond the individuals who "happen to" embody them at the moment. In other words, the institutions are now experienced as possessing a reality of their own, a reality that confronts the individual as an external and coercive fact.
Berger and Luckmann 55
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But, of course, these institutions are real only in the minds of the people who have constructed them, and they will continue to be real only as long as people learn and properly make use of their roles. For this to occur, knowledge of institutions and their roles must be passed on to future generations. This occurs by means of the process of legitimation.

...there must be "explanations" and justifications of the salient elements of the institutional tradition. Legitimation is this process of "explaining" and justifying.
- Berger and Luckmann 86

This continual "explaining and justifying" of a society's institutions keeps them "normal" and acceptable to all concerned. Legitimation is an ongoing process, and as long as it is successful, the institutions will remain "permanent."

The transmission of the meaning of an institution is based on the social recognition of that institution as a "permanent" solution to a "permanent" problem of the given collectivity. Therefore, potential actors of institutionalized actions must be systematically acquainted with these meanings. This necessitates some form of "educational" process.
- Berger and Luckmann 1966, 65

For example, in American society children are taught how to behave in many venues: in church, at the mall, in other people's homes, in restaurants, and so on. By constantly teaching and reinforcing "proper" behavior, the members of a society perpetuate the society's institutions. q1544

Remember that the habits that eventually become institutionalized originally begin as the habits of individuals. As more and more people adopt these behavior patterns, institutions form, and as the patterns are passed on to future generations, the institutions become legitimized and "permanent."

The objectivity of the institutional world "thickens" and "hardens," not only for the children, but for the parents as well. The "there we go again" now becomes "This is how these things are done."
Berger and Luckmann 1966, 55

If an institution remains permanent for a long period time, people may forget how it was created in the first place. In these cases people may begin to imagine that the institution has always existed; that it just "came to be" at some point in the past. This condition is known as reification, and such institutions are said to be reified.

Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly suprahuman terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products - such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will.
- Berger and Luckmann 1966, 82

When institutions become reified, their roles do, too.

Roles may be reified in the same manner as institutions. The sector of self-consciousness that has been objectified in the role is then also apprehended as an inevitable fate, for which the individual may disclaim responsibility. The paradigmatic formula for this kind of reification is the statement "I have no choice in the matter, I have to act this way because of my position."
Berger and Luckmann 1966, 84

Once an institution has become reified, poeple relate to it and to its roles as if they were as real as anything found in nature. In the same sense that people expect on a drive into the desert to find sand and sun and few trees, they expect on a trip to the post office to find stamps and forms to fill out and people in line. Similarly, they expect the people in the post office -- the clerks behind the counter and the other people waiting in line -- to behave according to their roles. Generally, people do not think about this. Things have been this way as long as they can remember, and the see no need to image that they might change.

exampleRules of the Road

Reified institutions provide a society with a sense of history. Reified religious institutions are so important in this regard that many societies use them to date their histories. The Christian 'BC' for "Before Christ" and 'AD' for "Anno Domini," for example, are institutional date marks that are used in U.S. society. The institution of the U.S. government is also synonymous with the nation's social history and actions of the government - e.g., The Civil War, World War I, the Apollo moon landings - are marked as a way of keeping track of the past. Institutional documents - birth certificates and college diplomas, for example - also serve in this regard.

Reified institutions also manifest themselves as societal rules which constrain the possible actions that people might take and thus control the processes of everyday life.

Institutions also, by the very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction as against the many other directions that would theoretically be possible.
- Berger and Luckmann 52

Thus, economic institutions constrain the ways a society measures wealth, educational institutions constrain approaches to vocation and career, religious institutions constrain ethics and spiritual beliefs, and so on. The entirety of these institutional constraints is a "social reality" that is taken to be as real as the rocks and trees of the "natural" world.

exampleRules of the Road


exampleSummary of the Model


In whatever culture we live and whatever our role in it, we must negotiate among a variety of events and objects. These include the normal activities of life and the social contexts in which they occur. ...The traditional way of coming to grips with them...assumes that these events and objects exist objectively and tangibly, that knowledge consists of more or less accurate descriptions of them, and that we "respond" to them or "cause" them to move/change by our actions. In short it treats the events and objects of the world as things that we find.

The alternative view shows the events and objects of the world as the products of human agency. Rather than "found things" existing independently in an objective world, events and objects as we know them are constructed by the continuing dialectic of interpretation and action. ...This view inverts the traditional assumption of the relationship between events/objects and communication. Rather than treating wars, economic depressions, and political systems as objective events within which or about which we might communicate, it takes them as instances of communication.... It is more productive to inquire why patterns of communication so often take the form we call "war" than to treat war as a found thing the probability of which is increased or decreased by specified amounts of communication.
- Pearce 31.

The final segments of this tutorial introduce two phenomina that play significant roles in the construction of social reality: ideologies and technologies.

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