Section 3.3: The Nature of Reality

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

So far, we have focused on the differences between societies, but now we will delve into the origins of society and how sociologists perceive social interaction.  From the sociological perspective, the nature of reality refers to the understanding that our perceptions and interpretations of the world are socially constructed, shaped by shared meanings, cultural frameworks, and the interplay between subjective experiences and objective social structures.

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Understanding Society: The Social Construction of Reality

In 1966, sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann introduced a groundbreaking idea in their book, “The Social Construction of Reality” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). They suggested something quite interesting: society and the reality we live in are kind of like a group project, created through our everyday interactions.

Building Society: Habitualization and Institutionalization

Let’s dive into the concept of “habitualization.” This term might sound complicated, but it’s pretty simple. Imagine you’re learning to ride a bike. At first, it’s tough, but with practice, it becomes almost automatic. That’s habitualization: when actions we do often become patterns, making them easier to repeat without much thought (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

Now, how does this relate to society? Well, society is like a habit. We don’t just build it; we also accept it because others have shaped it before us. Let’s consider your school. It’s a school not only because of the building but because you and others agree that it’s a school. This agreement, even by people before you, is called “institutionalization.” It’s how ideas or norms get embedded in society. And though these institutions are socially constructed, they’re very real.

🔍 Reflect: Can you think of something in your school or community that exists because everyone agrees it’s there or has a certain role?

Perception Shapes Reality: The Thomas Theorem

W.I. Thomas introduced an idea known as the “Thomas theorem” (Thomas & Thomas, 1928). It’s pretty mind-bending: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In other words, our actions are influenced more by how we see things rather than how things actually are. For example, if a student is constantly called an “overachiever,” they might start acting like one, even if they didn’t before.

The Power of Belief: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

This leads to a concept called a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton (Merton, 1948). It’s the idea that a false belief can become true if people act on it. Imagine everyone in town thinks the local bank is going bankrupt, so they rush to withdraw their money. The bank, not having enough cash for everyone, actually runs out of money. The people’s mistaken belief created a real situation. So, reality can be shaped by our beliefs and ideas.

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever seen a situation where someone’s belief influenced the outcome, even if that belief wasn’t initially true?

The World of Symbols: Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionists take a slightly different approach. They focus on the symbols we use in daily life, like language, gestures, and objects. They believe our reality is influenced by how we interpret these symbols. For instance, seeing someone with a gun might scare us, but if that person is a police officer, we might feel safe.

Our language and gestures also show how we view the world. For example, the “thumbs up” gesture means “great” in the U.S., but it means “one” in Germany and “five” in Japan. Our reality is shaped by these symbolic interactions.

🔍 Reflect: Can you think of a symbol or gesture that has different meanings in different cultures or situations?

In summary, our society and reality are like a canvas, painted by our collective actions, beliefs, and interpretations. Whether through habitual patterns, the power of belief, or symbolic interactions, we are all artists contributing to the ever-evolving masterpiece of society.

Roles and Status: Navigating the Social Labyrinth

Our daily lives are like a stage where we play different characters based on the situations we find ourselves in. These characters are known as roles, and they connect to something called our social status (Merton, 1957).

Playing Different Roles

Imagine you’re in a play, and in one scene, you’re a student reading this text. In another scene, you’re a daughter, a neighbor, or maybe an employee. These are all different roles you play in the drama of life. Each role links to a different social status.

What’s in a Status?

Status is like a tag that comes with certain responsibilities and perks based on your position in society (Merton, 1957). Some statuses are given to you, like being a son or a daughter. You didn’t choose them; they just came with your birth. These are called ascribed statuses. Other statuses, like being a high school dropout or a self-made millionaire, come from your actions and decisions. These are known as achieved statuses.

Even as a student, you have a complex set of roles to play. Think of status as your rank in the social hierarchy and role as the script for how you should act in that position.

🔍 Reflect: Can you think of the different roles you play in a day? How do they change depending on where you are or who you’re with?

When Roles Overwhelm: Role Strain and Conflict

Sometimes, playing a role can be tough, like being a parent. Parents have to cook, clean, drive, solve problems, and provide guidance. This can be overwhelming, leading to something called role strain. It’s like juggling too many balls and feeling stressed about dropping one.

Then there’s role conflict, which happens when you have roles with clashing scripts (Merton, 1957). Imagine you’re a parent and have a full-time job. Balancing family and work can be like walking a tightrope. What do you do when you have a work deadline, but your child is sick and needs you? Or if you’re aiming for a promotion at work but your kids want you at their school play?

College students can also feel this conflict. Being a student, an employee, an athlete, or even a friend can pull you in different directions. The roles we take on shape our choices, our identities, and how we view reality.

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever experienced a situation where your roles conflicted? How did you handle it?

In the grand theater of life, we’re all actors playing multiple roles, each with its unique script. These roles and statuses not only guide our actions but also shape how we see the world and ourselves in it. Understanding and balancing them is key to navigating the complex social labyrinth we live in.


Presentation of Self: Life as a Stage

Imagine life as a giant stage play where we’re all actors, and every day is a new scene. We can’t peek into someone’s mind to see their roles, but we can watch their performance. This is the concept of role performance, which is how a person shows off their role to the world (Goffman, 1959).

Life as a Play: Dramaturgy

Erving Goffman, a big name in sociology, introduced this idea that we’re all like actors on a stage, playing different roles in different scenes. He called this idea dramaturgy. According to Goffman, we manage our impressions to make others see us the way we want to be seen (Goffman, 1959).

Think about how you act differently with your coworkers, grandparents, or on a blind date. You might not change your core self, but different sides of you shine through depending on the company.

Setting the Stage

Just like a stage in a play, our environment shapes how we act. Hosting a dinner party? You’re the host, in charge of food, seating, and clean-up. Your friends are the guests, following your house rules. Everyone knows their role for smooth sailing.

🔍 Reflect: How does your behavior change in different settings, like school, home, or a party?

Making an Impression

This is where impression management, a part of symbolic interactionism, comes into play (Goffman, 1959). It’s all about shaping how others see us. A judge, for instance, wears a robe and uses a gavel to project authority and fairness. And just like that judge, we choose our clothes, hairstyles, and more to shape how others view us.

The Looking-Glass Self

Goffman’s ideas build on Charles Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self (Cooley, 1902). Cooley believed we form our self-image based on how we think others see us. We imagine their view, react to their reactions, and then build our self-image. It’s like using others’ responses as a mirror.

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever changed something about yourself because of how others reacted to you?

In the grand production of life, we’re all actors with roles to play and scenes to perform. Our behaviors, shaped by those around us and the settings we find ourselves in, are like a script we follow to create the image we want to portray. Understanding this can help us navigate the complex social world and perhaps be more understanding of the various roles others play in their own lives.

Role Conflict and Role Strain: Balancing Life’s Many Hats

In the juggling act of life, we often wear multiple hats, sometimes leading to role conflict and role strain. Let’s unpack these concepts and explore ways to manage them effectively.

Role Conflict: When Worlds Collide

Role conflict happens when the demands of one role clash with another (Goode, 1960). Picture a working parent torn between an urgent project at work and their child’s school play. Such situations can trigger stress and frustration, as meeting one responsibility might mean neglecting the other.

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever faced a situation where your different roles pulled you in opposite directions?

Role Strain: Overwhelmed in a Single Role

Role strain, on the other hand, is the stress and tension within one role due to high demands (Goode, 1960). Imagine a student swamped with assignments, exams, and extracurriculars. It can lead to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or exhausted.

🔍 Reflect: Think of a time when the demands of one role in your life felt like too much to handle.

Coping Strategies

  1. Prioritization: Decide which roles or tasks are most crucial at a given moment and focus there (Kahn et al., 1964).
  2. Time Management: Organize and allocate time effectively to balance different responsibilities (Claessens et al., 2004).
  3. Setting Boundaries: Learn to say “no” and avoid overcommitting (Ashforth et al., 2000).
  4. Seeking Support: Lean on friends, family, or colleagues for help and advice (Thoits, 1995).

Consequences of Poor Management

Failing to handle role conflict and strain can lead to anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and reduced life satisfaction (Pearlin, 1983). It’s crucial to find balance to avoid these negative outcomes.

Impact of Societal Changes

Changing family dynamics, gender roles, and technology have reshaped our roles and how we handle them. For instance, dual-income households and shifting gender norms have created new challenges in family roles (Bianchi & Milkie, 2010). Technology has blurred work-life boundaries, complicating role separation (Chesley, 2005).

Navigating role conflict and strain is vital for our well-being and life satisfaction. By employing effective coping strategies and adapting to societal shifts, we can better manage the multiple roles we play in life. Remember, it’s about finding balance and not letting one role overshadow others.


  1. Habitualization and Institutionalization: Just like how we make habits by doing things repeatedly, society forms habits too. When many people follow these habits, they become normal or the ‘norm.’
  2. Perception Shapes Reality: What people believe can shape what happens. If lots of people believe something, even if it’s not true, it can influence what happens next.
  3. Symbols in Society: Just like emojis in texts, people use symbols (like words or gestures) in everyday life. These symbols show what we think is important and help build our social world.
  4. Status and Role:
    • Status: Your ‘place’ or rank in society, which comes with certain responsibilities and benefits.
    • Role: How you’re expected to act based on your status.
    • Role Strain: Feeling stressed because one role asks too much of you.
    • Role Conflict: When two of your roles pull you in different directions.
  5. Life as a Stage: Imagine life is like a play, and you’re an actor. You change how you act based on where you are and who you’re with. You also try to show your best self in different situations.
  6. Looking-Glass Self: Your idea of who you are is based on how you think others see you.
  7. Balancing Roles: Juggling different roles (like being a student, friend, and family member) can be tough. Sometimes these roles clash or get too demanding. To cope, you can prioritize, manage your time, set limits, get help, and adjust to changes. Not balancing well can make you stressed and unhappy.
  8. Reality is Socially Built: At the end of the day, much of what we think is real or true is actually made by people and their beliefs, habits, and ways of doing things.
Word Count: 2474

Key Terms

dramaturgy, habitualization, institutionalization, self-fulfilling prophecy, status, role, achieved status, ascribed status, role performance, looking-glass self, role conflict, role strain, prioritization, time management, setting boundaries, support, societal changes, evolving norms, dual-income households, shifting gender norms, work-life balance, symbolic interactionism, symbols, impression management, W.I. Thomas’s theorem.

References and Further Reading 

  • Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor Books.
  • Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review, 8(2), 193-210.
  • Thomas, W. I., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Merton, R. K. (1957). The Role-Set: Problems in Sociological Theory. British Journal of Sociology, 8(2), 106-120.
  • Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.
  • Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., & Fugate, M. (2000). All in a day’s work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. Academy of Management Review, 25(3), 472-491.
  • Bianchi, S. M., & Milkie, M. A. (2010). Work and family research in the first decade of the 21st century. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 705-725.
  • Chesley, N. (2005). Blurring boundaries? Linking technology use, spillover, individual distress, and family satisfaction. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(5), 1237-1248.
  • Claessens, B. J., Van Eerde, W., Rutte, C. G., & Roe, R. A. (2004). Planning, prioritizing, and execution of multiple tasks. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 16(4), 557-575.
  • Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.
  • Goode, W. J. (1960). A theory of role strain. American Sociological Review, 25(4), 483-496.
  • Kahn, R. L., Wolfe, D. M., Quinn, R. P., Snoek, J. D., & Rosenthal, R. A. (1964). Organizational Stress: Studies in Role Conflict and Ambiguity. Oxford, England: John Wiley.
  • Merton, R. K. (1957). The role-set: Problems in sociological theory. The British Journal of Sociology, 8(2), 106-120.
  • Pearlin, L. I. (1983). Role strains and personal stress. In H. B. Kaplan (Ed.), Psychosocial stress: Trends in theory and research (pp. 3-32). New York: Academic Press.
  • Thoits, P. A. (1995). Stress, coping, and social support processes: Where are we? What next? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 35, 53-79.
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File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  11/02/2023

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