Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore

Les Gofton is intrigued by the memoir of a scholar who finds modern life deeply disappointing

September 22, 2011

Along with weight-loss shows and endless streams of stand-up "comedy", one of the cultural innovations brought to us by the rise of satellite TV channels is the proliferation of Grumpy Old...programmes. For those unfamiliar with the genre, celebrities from past decades grumble about a series of tedious topics for an interminable period of time, just like real people do. Peter Berger is, on the evidence of this memoir, a natural for the format. Unfortunately, only those of us who discovered something called "sociology" in the 1960s will have ever heard of him. For owners of the paperbacks that made him famous - Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective and The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (co-authored with Thomas Luckmann) - he was, as he says himself, on the crest of the zeitgeist for a little while. Along with Luckmann, Berger learned his sociology from one of the great masters, Alfred Schutz, who taught at the New School in New York, according to legend, for a yearly stipend of one dollar, supporting himself from a successful import business.

Throughout this text, Berger is disarmingly frank, and in places pleasingly modest, as he charts a career filled with chance encounters and a large degree of self-deprecation. At the party following his doctoral defence of a thesis on religion, Berger recalls, Schutz - who had attended without saying a word - asked him: "Do you really believe that nonsense you said in there?" Many of his early adventures will be familiar to those who grew up in the post-war era: the search for all kinds of work to get by, from odd pieces of fieldwork to teaching and market research, and little to suggest any great prospects.

As he begins to establish himself, he writes his two landmark texts. Neither is well received by the academy, but both are best-sellers. And from this point in Berger's account, the mood shifts decisively, as his youthful freshness and belief in the life of the mind darkens into something sour and rebarbative. Paradoxically, his million-selling Invitation and the hugely influential Social Construction appear to have become sources of resentment. After the late 1960s, he begins to see the rise of "leftist" movements, from feminism to Post-Modernism, and most of all "constructivism", as dangerous. The young man who had supported the civil rights cause while working in a college in the deep South at the beginning of the decade would go on to register as a Republican.

Throughout the rest of this account, Berger mounts one attack after another on the shibboleths of late modernity. Constructivism and its followers are subject to special vilification, as the illegitimate offspring of the reworking of Schutz's ideas that brought him fame. The book becomes a litany of cantankerous confrontations with liberals, leftists, students and radical feminists - even the "ultra-conservative" Ivan Illich is singled out for failing to toe the line.

Berger's work has been unfairly ignored, he argues, by the intellectual elite for whom - the 1960s having receded into everyone's youth - he is most definitely passé. His work on religion, secularisation, development and identity has ended up firmly outside of the tent. Right-wing libertarianism is never far away from his line of argument here, whether it is objecting to the anti-smoking movement, documenting the ordered discipline of Korean children or accusing feminists of creating outrageously privileged rights for women. But perhaps he was always heading this way.

As a young GI, he recalls, one of his buddies - a colourful character who had previously been a pimp in New Orleans - asked him about his job, and Berger told him: "I used to study theology, but I'm a sociologist now." "Once a Godder, always a Godder," his friend replied. So it goes.

Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore

By Peter L. Berger

Prometheus Books, 263pp, £22.95

ISBN 9781616143893 and 6143909 (e-book)

Published 7 June 2011

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