You’ve been there. Someone walks into a room and asks, “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?” Have you ever thought about that question? It seems rather odd to say such a thing when you look at it at face value. Don’t you know whether the room is too warm or not? Can’t you decide for yourself? Why ask the question? What this question—and others like it—betray is how fragile our grasp of reality is.
We feel compelled to engage in what is best understood as a “reality check.” We look to others to confirm our perceptions of reality and, by developing agreement, we decide what is real and what isn’t. “Yeah, I’m feeling kinda warm myself.” Between the two of you, you’ve determined that the room is too warm. But what happens when a third person enters the room and says, “Brrr! Is it cold in here or what?” Their reaction challenges your shared understanding, your sense of what is real. However, this third person is also at a disadvantage given that the two of you have already decided upon the question of temperature. “Actually, we’re kinda warm in here.” Now you have two different views of reality confronting one another. And without even speaking the words out loud, you’ve sent the message: “There must be something wrong with you. You must be getting sick.” While such words may never be spoken, the message is received and the third person begins to doubt her perceptions. “Oh really? Huh! I must be getting sick.” And with that, the challenge to the dominant reality determined by the first two people—the idea that the room is too warm—has been defeated and everyone can relax again, safe in the idea that their grasp of reality is secure.
Notice that this entire conversation occurred without even consulting a thermometer! Presumably, a thermometer would give us an objective measure of the temperature of the room—an objective sense of reality. But we don’t need objective measures to convince ourselves that what we perceive is real. All we need are others who agree with us. Then it is real! But what if those first two people were wrong? What if their senses were “off?” What if they were just crazy? What if the third person had the most accurate perception of temperature? From the perspective of the dominant group, it doesn’t matter. Their agreement has created a reality more “objective” in their eyes than any thermometer could provide. They now have the power of numbers and can impose their understanding of reality upon all others who would disagree. And the more people who join them, the more powerful their version of reality becomes.
In this way, society—our collective perceptions, understandings, and definitions—achieves the character of objective REALITY. And the most compelling evidence for this objective quality of society is its coercive power. Sociologist Peter Berger tells us, “The final test of [society’s] objective reality is its capacity to impose itself upon the reluctance of individuals” (1969:11). Once we have a shared and therefore objective sense of reality, it must be dealt with. Creating reality through interaction and agreement is a fateful endeavor. It’s not like blowing bubbles that float harmlessly away, dissolving as they do so. This might be the image that rugged individualists have: that individuals are the primary movers and shakers in this world and that individuals can accomplish anything on their own if they only set their minds to it and work hard enough. But our actions—individually and collectively—have consequences that limit our future choices and options.
Instead of blowing bubbles, we are building bricks every time we create a sense of agreement about anything in our world. And we know better than to toss those bricks up into the air, for they won’t float harmlessly away. Instead, we lay those bricks down, building the walls and structure of our society. And once those walls are in place, we must deal with them. We have to walk around them, or walk through the door we placed in the wall. We can climb over the wall, tunnel under the wall, or blow up the wall. Regardless, we have to confront the reality of The Wall. And so that wall—that thing we call society we created through simple interaction and agreement—shapes our lives, limiting our behavior and our perception of what is real. In fact, that wall is so much a part of our lives that we don’t even really recognize it for what it is: our own prison. In this way, the fundamental coerciveness of society is not in its ability to control or to punish, but in its power to impose itself as an unquestioned reality (Berger 1969:12). Society is at its strongest when we don’t even notice it; when we take it for granted.
However, as the vignette above indicated, there isn’t just one monolithic REALITY out there determining all of society. There are diverse populations and cultures within society, each with its own agreements—their own versions of reality. And there are plenty of situations in which those competing realities clash with one another in what might be understood as “reality contests.” Is climate change caused by humans real? Many, many people, including that vast majority of scientists, agree that it is. But there are others who, while smaller in number, seem to have a considerable amount of power and influence and who have determined that it is not real and are fighting for their own version of reality. A reality contest. One of countless others. Was Obama born in the U.S.? Was the world created in just six days? It is where these reality contests exist that reality—society itself—is most fragile. So many people are willing to ignore the thermometer, or even toss it out altogether.
These areas of contested terrain highlight how uncertain social reality can be. Which vision of reality will come out on top and dominate over the others? Can the thermometer really be ignored? And actually, isn’t the thermometer itself—our instrument for “objective” measurement—a socially constructed product dependent on collective agreement … one that varies between Fahrenheit, Celsius, and so on?
Is it hot in here or is it just me?
Berger, Peter L. 1969. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books.