The ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSTRUCTION of REALITY
by Hugh M. Lewis
What would be the human tidal wave to sweep clean the slate of history?
Leaving aside the sticky issue of the reflexive paradox of the anthropological "reconstruction" of the anthropological construction of human reality, the scientifically objective point of view is taken of human reality as a process of anthropological construction--of humankind making itself in the world while reconstructing the world in itself. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman's "The Social Construction of Reality" (1967) provides, as a seminal essay in the sociology of knowledge, the platform for the anthropological construction of reality. They wrote of the centrality of language as both the basis for the public stock of knowledge reinforcing "objectivity" and as a subjectively reinforcing "conversational apparatus," of the convergence of the three dialectically related processes of externalization, objectivation and reification, and internalization during the critical "moment" of socialization in which a social world reproduces itself in the individual and the individual produces her/himself in the world. They mention both an anthropological theory of the order of acquisition of human symbolic capacity and of uniquely human "world openness" which allowed humankind to remake itself in the world, and of the human incorporation of social processes as if natural, the expression of natural factors as if social, and the necessary dialectical balance between social and natural, ideal and real forces in the construction of reality. They refer to a psychological theory of discrepant internalized realities due to incomplete primary socialization or contradictory secondary socialization. Nevertheless, the work is to be critiqued as privileging a sociological and social structural framework, and of implicitly rendering as of secondary and derivative importance either anthropological or psychological alternatives. Any outline of a theory of the anthropological construction of reality must strike a delicate balance between psychological and sociological versions, and we may then speak of the inauguration of a genuinely scientific "anthropology of knowledge."
Taking our lead from a Post-Modern point of view, we can calmly claim that Anthropology is a construction of human reality. It is not human reality itself, except inasmuch as this too is anthropologically constructed, nor is it a "reconstruction" implying that there was ever something originally "constructed".
If it is constructed, then it is a special kind of construction. From the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge, we can refer to the classic case of the social construction of reality. We speak of the tripartite dialectic in which humankind externalizes its reality, reifies this external construction, and then subsequently internalizes what it originally externalized as if a natural part of itself, all three phases coming together during the critical moment of the socialization of the individual through which a society reproduces and perpetuates itself.
This formal dialectical structure of the social construction of reality can be seen as privileging a structural, sociological account of human reality, albeit a comprehensive and inclusive one, which casts the possibility of the "psychological construction of reality" as but the consequence of the process of socialization. A model of the psychological construction of reality, coming from a psychology of knowledge perspective, would probably reverse this order such that humankind would make its external world a reflection of its internal designs--the projective stage upon which all the human emotions, mentations, drives, play themselves out.
From an alternative point of view of the anthropological construction of reality, there is good reason to seek some kind of middle ground between the sociological and psychological poles. It would privilege neither perspective in its attempt to seek a balance between them.
The anthropological construction of reality then would derive from a kind of anthropology of knowledge, one which, like its counterparts in sociology or psychology, would necessarily open the doors of understanding onto a world of relativistic paradox. Such a perspective would also have to embrace the inherent reflexivity of "trying to push the bus while remaining on the bus"--the anthropology of knowledge is necessarily a constructed anthropology.
The question remains as to what precisely such a reflexive "anthropological construction of human reality" would amount to. It would combine both the objective elements of the sociological construction of reality with the subjective elements of a psychological construction of reality, and it would recast this recombination as the "cultural" elements of human reality. Culture would be seen as existing somewhere within the no-human's-land between "Self" and "Other", or between many selves and others. It is demarcated by the phenomenological patternings of interaction between many different selves, seen internally, and many different others, viewed externally. If humankind is by necessity a social being, it has also become irremedially a highly individuated, interiorized being.
Of course, as with the social construction of reality, language is to be seen as a central mediating mechanism of the entire cultural process. From the standpoint of our linguistic encoding of a "common stock of knowledge" which nevertheless has a differential landscape of saliency, we can speak of cultural codes and cognitively internalized maps of the cultural world that remain in the implicit relational fields of our world. These codes are schematic chunks that are transmitted between individuals and between generations, and which, in the process of transmission, become gradually modified. From an internal point of view, these cultural codes and the patterning of their interrelationship remain remarkable conservative, and yet retain a capacity for chaotic reorganization. Language comes to embody and contain within it the entire cultural field of meaning.
Because it is the medium of primary enculturation, the language, and all that it encodes, takes on a degree of "subjective inevitability" that reaches the level of primary process, of psychological primacy, that it becomes, in the process of its acquisition, organic. The integration that exists in one's effective life-world, one which exists within a viable cultural context composed of significant others, becomes the foundation, and the reflection, of the integration that comes naturally within the self. At this point, we cannot clearly separate what is nature and what is nurture, or what is internal and what is external, as others are in us and we are in others. This is called primary bonding, and, upon an unconscious level, becomes a near total imperative in our lives.
The language that is the principle medium of our cultural instruction and information about the world becomes also the primary mechanism for the mediation between inner and outer worlds, between self and others--it is no coincidence that so many pathological psychic process are evidenced in terms of linguistic disorder. Language is more than a kind of "conversational apparatus" for reinforcing the subjectively internalized constructions of reality. It is in a sense the active substance of meaning, the actual construction of the cultural world--a construction that has both internal, psychological resonances and external, sociological reverberations. For the ephemeral moment of its being thought or spoken, for the brief period of its scope and intentionality, language precipitates the culturally constructed sense of reality--as both unconscious ground and as social background or cultural context--as the vehicle of world knowledge and of common sense.
What we refer to as the objectivation of constructed knowledge and its subsequent "reification" in the world, is in fact the process of the concrete precipitation of cultural meaning in the world through communication. It amounts to the realization of cultural reality and its process, somewhere in the no-human's-land between self and other. However briefly, realities merge instead of colliding--figure and ground become a single totality--and meaning is made.
It is to be seen from this standpoint that what we are accomplishing with our science, and our anthropology as science, is the construction of an alternative cultural language, one which transcends the historical contingencies of the cultural process but which is nevertheless susceptible to these contingencies, and one that can maintain an objective dialectic beyond the dialectic that is part of the normal processes of human reality. Our sciences accomplish this feat of objective transcendence of the cultural ordering of human reality by forcing knowledge to meet certain rigorous standards of control--that it is publically universal, or open knowledge, and that its terms of communication are not restricted by internal, privatized definitions, but remain relatively or potentially available to everyone. By its reflexiveness, anthropological science, and the science of anthropology, as linguistically encoded, behaviorally expressed constructions of human reality, transcends its own dialectic while remain within the bounds of the terms of its dialectic.
We must see the achievements of technological progress, of social organization and scientific development, as but extensions of this cultural process in the anthropological construction of reality--our world has become, for better or worse, a human-made world which nevertheless remains susceptible to all the whims and vagaries of human nature.
A psychological version of the model of the social construction of reality might reverse the order of presentation, such that the issues of internalization, socialization and the positing of subjective structures of knowledge would come before their reification and subsequent externalization in the larger world. Like the hen or the egg question, we cannot really say which should come first, and it is on this kind of dilemma that the holism of an anthropological version of reality pivots. The holism of such an anthropological version does not preclude analysis of the processes of the human construction of reality, but only renders all such analysis conditional to a kind of stochastic symmetry between knowledge and reality, and our own anthropological self-awareness.
Any such theory must contain the following elements: 1. An explanation of enculturation and the internalization of the external human reality within the human, and an account of the organic processes which are inextricably tied to such enculturation and internalization. 2. A theory of mythological symbolization and of symbolic processes of projection and informal "fallacy" which permit humankind to organize its behavioral realities on the basis of internalized beliefs and symbolic schemas. 3. A theory of the historical embedding of the anthropological constructions of reality upon many different levels and the framing and precipitation of cultural experience by this embeddedness. 4. A theory of the functional grammar of language as a broader social phenomena and as social praxis which is both psychologically constrained and psychologically constraining. 5. An anthropological theory of meaning which sees information as a kind of parallel-processing dialectic which goes on simultaneously upon the different levels, on a broader socio-structural level in terms of roles and status identities, on an interpersonal level of dialogical and nonverbal interaction, on a psychological level of the internal functioning of the personality, upon a biological level of the organic functioning of the brain, and even of the genome, itself. 6. An accounting of a kind of anthropological relativity and relativism of knowledge, understanding that is intrinsically, normatively arbitrary and descriptively nondiscrete, that is historically and culturally constrained and constraining, that is socially conditioned and conditional, psychologically centered, and even from a purely perceptual point of view, that is fundamentally "representational" rather than "presentational" about human reality. 7. Finally, any such theory of the anthropological construction of reality must provide an adequate account of human paradox, the source of anxiety and "antinomality" within knowledge, and of the anthropological role of science in the resolution of such paradox, a question which must inevitably confront the issue of the reflexive anthropological reconstruction of the anthropological construction of reality.
For humankind, nature and culture and mind and body are inextricably fused as a single synergistically integrated reality. The inherent "world openness" of human being is linked to the fact that our behavior is not instinctually determined--becoming free from the bondage of instinct allowed us to slip out of the fold that natural selection provided our progenitors. It meant that we faced an imperative of cultural dependency--to be complete we must incorporate into our organic being as if natural a cultural contrived substitute for our loss of nature. It also meant that our cultural realities would become the primary vehicles for expression of our innate drives and needs. It also gave us our first curse of our capacity to incorporate into our being as if natural and automatic things which are of humanmade construction--things which are by definition "cultural." And we cannot clearly say whether it was our first rudimentary cultural artifacts, our guttural gesticulations, our first efforts with our fumbling fingers to hew a stone, or the first fire that sparked the imagination, which freed us from the burden and security of our instinctual dependency, or whether it was our liberation from our own biological drives and needs which fostered our first capacity for culture. More likely it was a kind of dialectical cybernesis.
What remains certain is that this process involved both belief as well as behavior. It freed the mind as well as the body--and also that it occurred simultaneously upon several different levels of human experience. I will refer to this as "organic process" and will make the distinction between "primary process", "secondary process," "phenomenological process" and "social process". Primary process refers to the acquisition and internalization of cultural traits at a level that is organically "natural" and automatic. Secondary process refers to the subsequent acquisition of traits in terms of identification, habituation, appetites and aversions on a level which remains available to our awareness and yet usually out of our awareness. Phenomenological process refers to the kind of dialogical "structuration" and "pathways of praxis" by which we biographically, idiographically arrange our lives. Social process, or structuration, refers to the wider socio-structural patterns, the networks and social action, mobilization and mobility of social resources, the constraints and screens of opportunity, the labeling, reference and status-role assignation which impinge upon our world and our lives in so many ways. Historical process, or "transculturation," refers to wider processes of intercultural exchange, contact and historical civilization.
We can speak of internalized cultural schemas, codes, models, cognitive maps and the symbolic, emblematic organization of experience in terms of experience, expectation and encounter by which humankind must frame, evaluate and respond adaptively to its environment. Humankind is always faced with a basic existential decision to modify its internalized scaffolding of human reality to better fit its experiences in the world, or else to attempt to moderate its external experiences in order to fit its internalized framework. And in this regard we can more often than not be regarded as neurotic failures.
It should go without saying that such internalized mapping of the world occurs primary in terms of mythological and symbological process in which we ask of symbolic forms and functions, emblems and icons, the double duty of standing for many things at once and to often stand in place of the realities it represents. And in terms of this fundamental process, one which entails psychological processes of repression and projection, rationalization and delusion, the average modern human being is not fundamenally different from his most "primitive" forebearers. The savage mind is indeed incapable of the modern paradox of admiring a good hater.
Cultural constructs, traits, knowledge and experience becomes historically embedded both within the personality and within social patterning as praxis. This embedding entails a kind of conservative resistance to radical change as well as a kind of perverse "history of unintended consequences"--the chaotic history of underdetermined multifactorial systems. We can speak of a kind of historical momentum that carries the human world forward down its own course to construction and destruction. It is a momentum that accretes itself in ideology and systems of rationalization, in religious systems of ritual, mythology, of belief and value, in social custom and constraint, as well as within the internalized, socially reinforced character of the individual personality.
Diverse cultural schema become reiterated, recreated, revitalized and in the process reworked and modified in the successive performances and reproduction of cultural reality. In this regard we may also refer to a kind of cultural "unconscious" which remains contextually embedded in both the environment and our effective experiences of our life worlds, one which tends to be all encompassing and "larger than life" in appearance. It conditions and constrains not only our individual and social action, even the possibilities for such action and intention in the world. Because of its all consuming embeddedness in both our common sense and our consensus, it remains normally out-of-awareness, given, taken for granted, tacit only, beyond the ordinary purview of our critical faculties or our conscious control. And yet it constitutes the socially real substrate for our consciousness, for our capacity for inference, belief, for our normative decision-making and even our imagination and creativity.
From this standpoint that we can reconsider an anthropological version of a "functional theory" of grammar, and, implicitly, a theory of "mind." This theory must contrast with the predominant structural psycho-linguistic paradigm that explains language primarily in terms of its organic foundation in the brain and precludes the analysis of language as a social, cultural and historical phenomenon. Language as social process can be seen to be a nested cluster of contextual frames and figures within yet other frames and figures of signification. These symbolic, linguistically encoded frames are not unlimited, but constitute a minimal, paradigmatic set defined upon limited number of definitional dimensions and design. They remain prototypically, statistically "basic" in their derivation from and of human experience, and they are polythetically constituted. These basic, primary frames are "universal" in the sense that they underly the range of human variation. Derivative transformational rules, culturally and historically specific, are applied to these paradigmatic frames in such a way as to render speech production generative and the possibilities for linguistic permutation boundless.
Both linguistic frames, and the transformational rules applied to these frames, become embedded and internalized to the point of "native speaker intuition". The frames are, by design, intuitively self-evident and immediately available to human awareness. Such a capacity comes from our superb faculties for pattern recognition, faculties that allow us to keep everything else implicitly constant while we can focus our conscious attention upon particular "figures" which are changing within our field of view. The innate capacity for such linguistic acquisition is as much a function of the generalized capacity and organization of the mind as it is a matter of any localized, specialized seat of syntactic organization or of universal deep grammar in the brain. The capacity of the human mind is to store knowledge frames within other overlapping knowledge frames in such a way that a limited capacity can yield an unlimited range of possibility. The organization of the human mind relies upon the ability to accommodate and assimilate minor adjustments and shifts in patterning while keeping all other frameworks in a "steady state"--a kind of frequency modulation similar to the functioning of a television set. It also relies upon a background field of passive, instantaneous recognition from which it configures experience, and upon a trick of "passive processing" of information that does not require our conscious attention. It is a "trick" that the mind plays upon our awareness to fill in the gaps, to render as if animated and continuous the flow of experience what may in actuality be a discontinous series of events or discrete series or array of signals.
Pan-linguistic frames and mention of mind brings to bear the critical question of the anthropological construction of meaning in human reality. Meaning is not arbitrary in the construction of reality. It is conventionally constrained and historically conditioned. Meaning is embedded within the Mind and enacted in the world. Meaning is a universal field of significance and possibility that remains implicit in the organization of human consciousness and experience. It can be seen as a human horizon and universal human context of consciousness which is itself multidimensional and mulitleveled.
Meaning is constituted by the mediation of boundaries between two or more parallel but dialectically interactive sets that produce constructive and destructive patterns of interference. It can be seen as multi-lateral symmetry/assymmetry and complex dialetical system of cybernesis. It occurs in the split structure of DNA codes, in the hemispherical lateralization of brain function, in the dialogical interaction between self and other, as well as in the internalized dichotomy between ego and id, or superego and ego, or between conscious and subconscious, or presented sense of self and background self, and also on a larger social frame work between people defined by status-role identity and corporate superoganizational ethos. Meaning is the by-product, an epi-phenomenal patterning, the residuum of our principle existential challenge to deal adaptively with change, chaos and entropy in the natural order of things. It nevertheless becomes the mythological ground of our being to which we primarily refer our experiences of change--though derived from change it comes to constitute the basis for change in our culturally constructed world.
We are left to reconsider the general problematic posed by the anthropological relativity of our knowledge, and the paradoxically reflexive relativism of our understanding of this relativity. Human knowledge, culturally constructed and organically embedded, is neither unlimited nor universal in its purview. The field of meaning consists of an epigenetic, convoluting topography of the mind. It is both historically and culturally variable. There are different regions and localities of mind in the world that remain mostly resistant to translation. We can transcribe signals, translate significations, interpret definitions and evaluate foreign symbolisms, we can even get into the heads of others, but we cannot readily transfer one range of meaning or superimpose one area of the field upon another without undue distortion.
Such anthropological relativity has certain implications for our world. It entails the possibility that disease and illness may be as much a phenomenon of social pathology as it is a question of biological or organismic health or dysfunction. It entails the impossibility of rendering absolute, nonarbitrary judgements about the qualitative status of human events in the world. It does not preclude the possibility of universally general "covering laws" but renders these highly unlikely and always conditional to specification. It entails a statistically determined yet undertermined model of reality. It entails the inexorable antinomal paradoxes of trying to define infinities in finite terms, finite things in terms which are infinite, of capturing change in terms of things which seem static, of finding unity in diversity and identity in difference, of making the strange familiar, and rendering discrete that which appears continuous.
Anthropological relativity entails that our science of anthropology and our anthropology of science shall remain a metalogical exercise in reflexive, apperceptive human awareness. It guarantees that our constructions of reality, however validated, shall remain irreducibly human constructions, and that our knowledge and experience of the world, however objectively based, shall remain inherently subjective in constitution. It reminds us that our belief in the materially real, alienated objectivity of our knowledge of the world is but a delusion, a trick of our imagination upon reality. We cannot know or even imagine a world that is not a humanly constructed one--for in our very act of imagining or knowing, we are constructing it in our own image.
Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.
Last Updated: 03/07/05