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.
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.
People perceive reality differently, and when they decide how they are going to view a person or a situation, they act accordingly. Since we all perceive reality differently, our reactions differ. Our definition of a situation as good or bad, to be embraced or avoided, dictates our response to it.
Ethnomethodology, as founded by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, is a theory that looks at how we make sense of everyday situations. Though we may view a situation differently from those around us, our backgrounds provide us with some basic assumptions about everyday life. Ethnomethodology studies what those background assumptions are, how we arrive at them, and how they influence our perceptions of reality. In order to understand these assumptions, students of ethnomethodology are often taught to violate or challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions we have about everyday life.
Example: In the United States, one background assumption is that emergency personnel, such as police officers, wear identifiable uniforms when on duty. An officer at an accident scene who is wearing everyday clothes might find that crowds won’t obey someone who claims to be a police officer but is without a uniform. The officer might have difficulty keeping onlookers at bay or redirecting traffic away from the scene. When the background assumption is not fulfilled, members of the public will not respond as respectfully as they would if the officer were in uniform, and the officer will have a hard time performing required duties.