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Experience -II: when worldviews collide

I keep swinging back to a text which has had a massive influence on me – Berger & Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality – which develops Alfred Schutz’s “Common-Sense” interpretation of human action. For Schutz there are two processes which are fundamental to the Common-Sense understanding of reality. These are: experiences; and the construction of hypothetical structures that enable us to make sense of them – so that we interpret our experiences by constructing abstractions, generalisations, formalisations and idealisations. Our everyday experiences are “ordered” within a horizon of familiarity and “pre-acquaintanceship”. Schutz uses the term “consociates” to denote those with whom I share my common-sense world, and from the “repricocity of perspectives” between me and my consociates arises the sense of “common” knowledge which tends to be conceived of as objective and autonomous, and acts to order and make meaningful our interactions.

Berger and Luckmann build on Schutz’s ideas by adding the dimension of the “Other” in this socially-constructed (and maintained) reality. The “Other” occurrs when, for example, we encounter someone with a view of reality (or a theory) which is radically different from our own – but one which is no less (if not more) effective at explaining, predicting, and ordering reality. In Berger & Luckmann’s perspective, the processes that internalise the socially-objectivated world are the same processes that internalise socially-assigned identities. In other words, my sense of selfhood is intimately entwined with my worldview and hence needs to be maintained, legitimated, and even sacralised (and Berger sees religion as the domain of the latter). Berger argues that when one’s worldview is threatened by the radical encounter with the Other, the response may well be profound alarm, and he sees as typical responses, Conversion (get the person over to my understanding) and Violence (the forced assertion of my symbolic universe over that of the Other). Berger’s term for this is nihilation – the denial of the validity of anything outside one’s own symbolic universe and the assignment of it to an inferior ontological status:

“A major occasion for the development of universe maintaining conceptualization arises when a society is confronted with another society having a greatly different history. The alternative universe presented by the other society must be met with the best possible reasons for the superiority of one’s own … The appearance of an alternative symbolic universe poses a threat because its very existence demonstrates empirically that one’s own universe is less than inevitable .. This shocking act must be accounted for theoretically, if nothing more.”
(The Social Construction of Reality, p126)

Conversion and Nihilation can happen in a conversational encounter. We can see more forceful examples of Nihilation in operation, in say, the theorising of the Australian Aborigines as “less than human” which in turn, permitted their physical nihilation:

“I myself have heard a man, educated and a large proprietor of sheep and cattle maintain that there was no more harm in shooting a native than in shooting a wild dog.”
(Archbishop Polding, 1845, to Australian Parliamentary Committee on the Condition of Aborigines)


  1. Gyrus
    Posted December 11th 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Natives got caught in an ontological pincer by much of the European response to the “new worlds”. It seems that many of the early advocates of the human status of indigenous peoples were Christians who were concerned that if these people weren’t human, they couldn’t be converted or “saved”.

    There was a gamut in Christian attitudes toward colonization, with Quakers pioneering what would become known as indigenous rights, but for the most part, even the humanization of natives merely shifted the project from genocide to ethnocide. I guess it was a shift from “less than human” to “less than Christian”.

  2. Phil Hine
    Posted December 11th 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that, Gyrus – I’ll be posting some of my research into colonialism & racial theories – and how they were co-opted into 19th century “Occulture” in due course.