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Social Construction of Reality

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For centuries, philosophers and sociologists have pondered the idea of reality. Sociologists generally accept that reality is different for each individual.

The term social construction of reality refers to the theory that the way we present ourselves to other people is shaped partly by our interactions with others, as well as by our life experiences. How we were raised and what we were raised to believe affect how we present ourselves, how we perceive others, and how others perceive us. In short, our perceptions of reality are colored by our beliefs and backgrounds.

Our reality is also a complicated negotiation. What is real depends on what is socially acceptable. Most social interactions involve some acceptance of what’s going on. While we participate in the construction of reality, it’s not entirely a product of our own doing.

Example: A wealthy individual, whose basic survival needs are met many times over, buys his pets gourmet, organic food that costs more per week than the weekly earnings of a minimum-wage worker. He is proud that he is able to take such good care of his animals and insists that it’s the right thing to do if one really loves one’s pets. After all, his vet was the one who recommended that he buy that brand. A minimum-wage worker who loads that food into the rich person’s car might feel anger when he realizes how much money this individual spends on his pets. The minimum-wage worker might fume that this man’s pets eat better than he does. He might wonder whether this rich man has any concept of reality.

How we define everyday situations depends on our respective backgrounds and experiences. The wealthy individual has learned through interactions with others that spending money on one’s pets is a worthy expense. His reality is one of pride. The minimum-wage worker has learned through interactions with others spending that much money on a pet is a negative thing, so his perception of the situation is entirely different.

The Thomas Theorem

What is the “real” reality? Is buying a pet expensive food the right thing to do or a waste of money? According to sociologist W. I. Thomas, “if a person perceives a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” This statement is also known as the Thomas Theorem. In other words, our behavior depends not on the objective reality of a situation but on our subjective interpretation of reality. The consequences and results of behavior make it real. For example, a teenager who is defined as deviant might begin to act deviant. He makes his label real.

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