Back to previous page


Post Most

Book review: ‘Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,’ by Peter L. Berger

By ,

Who knew that sociologists regard economists in roughly the same way the Redskins view the Dallas Cowboys? In this memoir of his scholarly career, Peter L. Berger writes that, with a few exceptions, economists are “as impervious as fundamentalist mullahs to any language other than the one allegedly revealed to them, and to them alone.” He later approvingly cites a conversation with Bernard Lewis, in which the distinguished Islamicist confesses that he’s been thinking of writing an essay on economics but has settled only on the opening lines:

“In the history of human thought science has often come out of superstition. Astronomy came out of astrology. Chemistry came out of alchemy. What will come out of economics?”

In “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Berger makes clear that while he may be an authority on religion and modernity, he isn’t himself solemn or pontifical. He came to this country as a teenager from Vienna and, being without any money, enrolled in the New School for Social Research because he could work during the day and attend classes at night. He started in 1949 and earned a doctorate in sociology in 1954. At the sherry party celebrating his newly awarded PhD, he recalls meeting one of his advisers, who spoke to him in German:

“Very well, Berger. You are now a doctor. Congratulations. But tell me: Do you really believe all the nonsense you wrote in this dissertation?”

Berger then comments: “He smiled warmly as he said this. His intention was clear: He knew that there was no way of replying to his question without appearing to be foolish. ‘Yes, I believe the nonsense’? ‘I don’t think I wrote any nonsense’? I said nothing, just laughed; he laughed too. He just wanted to make me a little uncomfortable and to stop me from having delusions of grandeur. In this he succeeded.”

In his memoir, Berger certainly displays a particularly cleareyed sense of self. Though he once planned to become a Lutheran minister, he makes obvious his liking for jokes, attractive women, smoking and lively coffeehouse conversation. He tells us that he cranked out his immensely popular “Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective” (1963) in all of three weeks. A few years later, during summer holidays, he wrote (and published) two novels, one of which, “The Enclaves,” involves a protagonist who navigates various alternate realities and includes “the legend of a lost realm of eastern Hungarians,” the Magyar section of the New York Public Library and an erotic master-slave fantasy.

Since the 1970s, Berger admits to having felt increasingly removed from — or marginalized by — contemporary sociology, having no flair for quantitative analysis and little sympathy with leftist political agendas. As a social scientist, he stresses that his research is as “value-free” as he can make it, but that as a man, he is a moderate Christian, and as a citizen, he is what we might call a cultural conservative. He doesn’t disguise the fact that wealthy Texas businessmen and right-leaning think tanks have often sponsored his work.

That work, however, has been exceptionally varied. His master’s thesis focused on Puerto Rican Protestants in East Harlem; his dissertation, on the Iranian Bahai movement. The latter, he writes, “was a detailed application of Max Weber’s theory of the ‘routinization of charisma’ — the process in which a passionate movement led by an extraordinary leader mutates into a formal organization administered by bureaucrats.” The Bahai sect conformed to this pattern, though Berger also hypothesized that before “routinization” sets in, “the most radical version of the movement’s message will win out over more moderate ones.”

During the mid-1950s, Berger served in the Army, and in the late 1950s, he taught at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. These experiences shocked him into an awareness of American prejudice. He gradually came to believe that sociology’s “humanistic” purpose lay in debunking “the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty” and, in particular, “unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals.” From these convictions, Berger has never wavered.

Berger’s most influential scholarly book, “The Social Construction of Reality” (written with Thomas Luckmann), appeared in 1966 and has sometimes been viewed — quite wrongly, he stresses — as part of the deconstructive school associated with Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The French thinkers, he writes here, maintain that “since all reality is socially constructed, there is no objective truth or at least none that can be accessed. Indeed, there are no facts, only ‘narratives.’ There is no objective way to make epistemological judgments as between the ‘narratives.’ But what one can do is to ‘deconstruct’ them — that is, to unmask the interests that they invariably express. These interests are always expressions of the will to power — of class, or race, or gender.”

In contrast, Berger strongly emphasizes that he does believe in facts and empirical evidence, though he fails to make clear — at least to me — how his own debunking humanism radically differs from the unmasking process of French deconstruction. I suppose that he would emphasize that in his research he is far more theoretically objective and “value-free.”

In his later career, Berger has spent a good deal of time studying East Asian capitalism, arguing that it provides a model for how one may modernize without discarding traditional beliefs. Indeed, he contends that modernity doesn’t invariably induce secularism or, in Weber’s wistful phrase, “the disenchantment of the world.” Rather than an absence of gods, says Berger, what typically results is pluralism, a multiplicity of belief systems. Having lost the certainties supplied by a taken-for-granted religion, people find themselves desperate for “mediating structures” to “stand between individual life and the megastructures of a modern society, notably the state, the economy, and other vast bureaucracies.” Without such buffers, which include the family, neighborhood, church and voluntary associations, “individuals will experience the social order as alien or even hostile, and the large institutions of society, especially the state, will lack legitimacy because of this remoteness from the values by which people live.”

Hence, Berger infers, Pentecostal religions have flourished in the modern world because they provide the humanity and warmth otherwise absent from so much of capitalist society and from established, i.e., bureaucratized religion. A Pentecostal church offers a loving, personal God and the refuge of a caring community. In effect, people join out of self-interest rather than theological conviction.

Berger’s notion of “mediating structures” bears more than a little resemblance to his teacher Alfred Schutz’s concept of “finite provinces of meaning” — that is, “realities into which one may temporarily escape from the reality of everyday life (other examples are aesthetic experience, religious experience, the worlds of abstract thought).” To this list, Berger would add humor, and he ends his deeply engaging memoir with a series of jokes, including the following definition: “An economist: Someone who knows everything — and nothing else.” I guess he just couldn’t resist.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion: wapo.st/reading-room .

ADVENTURES OF AN ACCIDENTAL SOCIOLOGIST How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore By Peter L. Berger Prometheus. 264 pp. $26

© The Washington Post Company