Michael R. Leming, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Spring Semester 1998

The sociology of knowledge would contend that man is the creator of his society and he is also the product of his society. This may seem contradictory but it reflects the dialectic character of the societal phenomenon.

The fundamental dialectic process of society consists of three moments, or steps. These are externalization, objectivation, and internalization. My view of the sociology of knowledge is reflected in these three concepts.

Externalization is the on going outpouring of the human being into the world, both in the physical and mental activity of men. Externalization is the process where man creates his socially constructed world. This creation includes the construction of symbols (meaning systems), society, culture, and institutions.

The process of objectivation involves that attainment by the product of man's creation of a status which is independent of man. For example, man invents language and then finds that both his speaking and his thinking are dominant by its grammar. We find in the process of objectivation that the socially constructed world takes on a reality sui generis.

Internalization is the reappropriation by man of the reality he has created and objectified. Man transforms the structure of objective world into the structure of his subjective consciousness. He makes real or "real-izes" his creation. By doing this man becomes the product of his society.

An example of internalization is when the individual not only plays the role of an father, but when the individual becomes the father.

The process of socially constructing the world is, above all, an ordering experience. A meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the experiences of the individual when he is involved in the world-building enterprise. Man, unlike animals whose world is ordered a priori, must impose a meaningful order upon reality.
Humans live in society and share a culture which enables them to hold onto an ordered existence. To maintain this ordered world there is a need for social control, socialization, and legitimation. These social processes explain to the members of society the "why" of the social order.

In ordering his world, man places himself in a meaningful context. This nomos takes on a sense of ultimacy, especially when man projects his nomos into the universe or cosmos. Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. In other words, the nomos becomes sacred. For this reason, religion is the chief legitimator in society because it explains the "why" of the social world by placing it within an ultimate, sacred, and meaningful cosmos.

Religion serves a basic and important function in and for society by preventing anomy--finding the Nomos meaningless. However, the price for the individual of escaping anomy is alienation--a false consciousness, denying the dialectic nature of the relationship between man and society. Through alienation, society is viewed as ultimate and is REAL, rather than created by the human being. However, in reality, although man denies it, the relationship between man and society remains dialectic. Thus, under this perspective, religion is part of the socio-cultural reality--created by man--which serves to legitimate social order by producing a "false-consciousness" in the believer.

This brings us to the point of definition: Clifford Geertz defines religion as a system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

This definition seems to follow directly from Berger's externalization, objectivation, and internalization. However, Durkheim's definition of religion as a system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things (set apart as wholly other) which unite individuals into a moral community; also relies heavily upon the assumption that man is the creator and creature of his socially constructed world.

Two other definitions of religion by Glenn Vernon also provide a sociological understanding of the nature and function of religion. Nominally defined religion is a system of beliefs and practices related to high intensity value definitions and/or definitions of the supernatural. Functionally defined by Vernon, religion is that part of culture composed of shared beliefs and practices which not only identify or define the supernatural and the sacred and man's relationship thereto, but which also relate them to the known world in such a way that the group is proveded with moral definitions as to what is good (in harmony with or approved by the supernatural) and what is bad (contrary to or out of harmony with the supernatural). According to O'Dea there are six main functions of religion:

  1. Aid the individual in providing support, consolation, and reconciliation.
  2. Provides a transcendental relationship with the Beyond.
  3. Makes sacred the norms and values of established society.
  4. Calls society's norms and values into question.
  5. Provides a sense of individual identity and helps with the self-concept formation.
  6. Aids in the growth and maturation of the individual and his passage through the various age gradings.

O'Dea brings together these basic functions of religion for society and the individual with the following definition:

Religion identifies the individual with his group, supports him in uncertainty, consoles him in disappointment, attaches him to society's goals, enhances his morale, and provides him with elements of identity. It acts to reinforce the unity and stability of society by supporting social control enhancing established values and goals, and providing the means for overcoming guilt and alienation. It may also perform a prophetic role and prove itself an unsettling or even subversive influence in any particular society. The contributions of religion to society may be either positive or negative--religion may support society's continued existence, or religion may play a part in undermining society.

*Whenever the word man is used, it is the intention of the author that it mean "human". The pronoun "his" when referring to "human" is not intended to be uninclusive--rather an attempt to use the actual words of Berger and others. I know that Dr. Berger would not use the same pronouns today.

Go to Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy, Chapter 1 -- Religion and World-Construction

Go back to Discussion Questions

If you have any questions or comments please email: