Reality via Sociality
“Reality is socially constructed.” ~ Austrian American sociologists Peter Berger & Thomas Luckmann
Perception comes from attributing subjective meaning to experiences. Through this continual process people build perspectives that cumulate into beliefs and a worldview.
As gregarious creatures, reality constructs are often determined socially. From infancy, the social context in which we find ourselves shapes perceptions, expectations, and attitudes. Worldview is an accumulation derived from personal experience, most particularly from social interaction.
“Through others we become ourselves.” ~ Lev Vygotsky
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky influenced Jean Piaget with his sociocultural theory, which emphasized that children psychologically develop via an interactive gyre that is steeped in the cultural context of their social environment.
“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” ~ Eric Hoffer
Socialization invariably involves internalization: the apprehension of an event or symbol as meaningful. As always, meaning is provoked by emotion, especially of affinity or rejection.
Socialization has 2 aspects: psychological and cultural. Through psychological socialization a child becomes a member of society. Cultural socialization involves indoctrination in the social norms of the group in which one is being reared: the primary in-group.
A child’s socialization proceeds by interpreting social events as significant. An infant at first perceives the emotional states of others, then comes to understand those states to be particular to situations. The next step extends personal experience into typicality: setting senses of situational normality.
When mommy is upset at me is apparent to any infant even a few weeks old. Mommy is upset with me when I make a mess of my food takes a bit of learning. When making a mess of my food is understood as generally disapproved by adults, concrete examples have been codified into a norm.
This abstraction process – from personal experiences into a conceptualization of commonality – was termed the generalized other by American social psychologist George Mead. The mental formation of the generalized other enlarges identification into being part of society. Hence, socialization is self-identification evolving toward social integration.
“When the generalized other has been crystallized in consciousness, a symmetrical relationship is established between objective and subjective reality.” ~ Peter Berger & Thomas Luckmann
Self-identification comes with a corollary: that others are like you. As willfully active objects moving through space, our naïve assumption is to project the same attributes onto other things, even inanimate objects: mentalizing run amok. Young children routinely impart intention. Asked why a marble rolled off a table, a toddler is likely to reply: “because it wanted to.”
Such projections subconsciously carry into adulthood. Frustration with objects often finds men abusing them as if they are to blame. Inadvertently bumping into something may result in giving the thing a glare, as if it were at fault for being in the way. Even God is on the hook.
“Feeling as if God set you up to fail leads to conflict with deity.” ~ American psychologist Joshua Grubbs
People who believe they were “born that way” are inclined to blame God for their immoral behaviors.
“Morality is the herd-instinct of the individual.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
While there are innate inclinations to fairness, moral behaviors are a set of folkways. Morality is a social construct. More generally, every belief is formed through social interaction.
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“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” ~ the 1928 Thomas theorem, by American sociologists William Thomas & Dorothy Thomas
Our understanding of what is going on – correct or not – guides our actions.
In emergency rooms, patients with no discernible breathing or heartbeat are treated differently by physicians depending upon the patient’s age. Whereas an older person is often pronounced dead on the spot and left for more pressing tasks, a young person is not immediately declared DOA. Instead, doctors spend considerable time listening and testing, giving oxygen and administering stimulants; only reluctantly believing that the grim reaper has no age bias.
Surgeons develop subtle techniques for hiding the mistakes of residents in training, depending upon how the surgeon defines the situation. A mistake attributed to lack of knowledge invokes a cover-up. But an error believed to be caused by carelessness is typically exposed.
“Young surgeons need to learn and practice, but patients need to receive the best possible care. The surgeon in training needs to maintain a good reputation among other doctors and nurses, even if he or she makes mistakes. Such conflicts are resolved by norms that define the legitimacy of mistakes in different situations.” ~ William Kornblum
In a classic study, Princeton and Dartmouth students were instructed to carefully watch a basketball game, taking note of rule infractions by each team. Dartmouth students saw twice as many violations by Princeton players as did Princeton observers, who tallied twice as many infractions by Dartmouth players as Dartmouth viewers saw. Same game, different facts.
We see what we want to see, and what we want to see is shaped by our tribal sociality.
“Our view of the world does not normally transcend the limits imposed by our culture.” ~ Edward Hall
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Edward Hall observed that we all have a proxemic bubble of preferred spatial distance to other people. Friends are let in close; enemies literally at arm’s length or avoided altogether. When a stranger violates our proxemic bubble we feel threatened and may take evasive action.
Proxemics – the use of interpersonal space – differs by culture and gender. Women of the same tribe stand closer to each other in casual conversation than do men. American black women close in on each other, as do Hispanic women to a slightly lesser degree.
Black American men tend to stand closer to each other than white American and English males, who prefer some distance. When a Middle Eastern man engages a White American man in conversation, he is likely to move toward the American while the American backs away.
Gender and race, or even presumed tribal affiliation by looks alone, are significant influences on social experience only because people believe them to be so. Cultural conditioning builds assumptions which guide interpersonal interactions, and the formation of social institutions, including how families are organized, what work people do, and how authority is exercised.
“The man in the street takes his reality and his knowledge for granted.” ~ Peter Berger & Thomas Luckmann
Proximity is a strong determinant of affiliation. Urban dwellers are more likely to form friendships with those on the same residence floor or building than someone 2 floors down or 2 streets over.
American sociologist Mady Segal found that when class seating for police academy training was alphabetical, the listing effectively captured friendship pairings. Segal found proximity had a stronger bonding effect than race, socioeconomic background, religion, or nationality, though these other factors had some effect.
Mere exposure to someone inculcates initial impression. An inceptive affinity commonly leads to a sense of bonding via familiarity; or, conversely, a dislike that grows with exposure. Interpersonal interaction may dispel predisposition, but only by overcoming established inclination.
“Group selection is a significant evolutionary force.” ~ American evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson et al
The need for a high degree of sociality is not confined to humans: it is part of evolutionary heritage throughout many clades. Whether bird, baboon, or human, quality of life is largely defined by one’s social relations.
“Social intelligence is in every adaptation that allows successful interaction in social groups.” ~ American psychologists Karen Schmidt & Jeffrey Cohn
Preference for social interaction among adults varies widely. Those who socialize well are often not the most innovative. A mind’s preoccupations seldom find a strong affinity for both symbolic manipulation and social relations.