Peter L. Berger: Short Bio and Important Contributions in Sociology

Peter L. Berger Contributions

Peter L. Berger (1929-2017) was an Austrian-born American sociologist and a theologian. He was affiliated to different renowned universities of the world. He also founded the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs, at the Boston University in 1985 (Berger, 2017). He has written extensively on sociology of knowledge, sociology of religion and modernity like Invitation to Sociology (1963), The Social Construction of Reality(1966), The Sacred Canopy (1967), The Desecularization of the World (1999), to mention a few. This article attempts to outline some of his significant theoretical contributions in the field of sociology. First, the idea of sociological consciousness would be discussed. Then, how sociology can be seen as a humanistic discipline will be briefly mentioned, followed by the arguments on sociology of knowledge given by Berger. Finally, this article will talk about his contribution in the field of sociology of religion and modernity.

The flow diagram given below shows the main concepts of Peter L. Berger that would be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Peter L. Berger theories

Sociological Consciousness

In the book, Invitation to Sociology (1963), Berger has argued that sociology is a form of consciousness which is different from common sense. He has defined ‘sociological consciousness’ as an important tool for the sociologists which helps them to understand that there is more than one reality and that there are competing systems of interpretation. According to him, there are four motifs that are associated with sociological consciousness- debunking, unrespectability, relativization and cosmopolitan(Berger, 1963).

According to Berger, debunking is a methodological aspect associated with sociological consciousness. He has argued that the motif of debunking is used to go beyond the official interpretations and unmask the mainstream commonsensical understanding of any social aspect. In the book, Berger has cited the example of Max Weber’s seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, originally published in the year 1904,to further elucidate the idea of debunking. Generally, it is understood that there is no association between the domain of religion and the domain of economy. But Max Weber has debunked this idea and has shown how the ethos of Calvinism, one of the sects of the Protestant denomination has led to the growth of capitalism in the Europe.

The mainstream values, ideas and activities that are perceived to be legitimate and ‘respectable’ in the society come from the dominant sections of the society. According to Berger, the second motif of ‘unrespectability’ demands the sociologist to understand the activities, values and ideas of the non-dominant, marginalized section of the population which are usually deemed as ‘unrespectable’ by the dominant section of the society. By doing so, the sociologist might get a new perspective which is different from the dominant section of the society. In ‘Social Structure and Anomie’, published in the year 1938, Robert Merton has argued that in every society there are certain ‘cultural goals’ and some ‘institutionalized means’ of achieving such goals. If we look at it from the lens of respectability, these goals and means are based on the values of the dominant section of the society. In the context of the American society, Merton mentioned that the prevalent cultural goal is individual monetary success and the institutionalized means for that is hard work. In a society, there might be a set of people who might resort to robbery instead of the legitimate means of hard work to achieve the cultural goal. From the lens of the dominant section of the population, it might seem to be an unrespectable way to achieve the cultural goal. But Merton argued that there are differences in opportunities due to the hierarchical social structure in society and a result of it, many people fail to access the legitimate means to achieve cultural goals and thus resort to illegitimate means like robbery (Deflem, 2018). This study of Merton can be seen as an instance of using the motif of ‘unrespectability’.

The third motif that Berger talks of is the motif of relativization. This motif helps a sociologist to understand that there is no universal truth and that truth is relative. There is no one way of looking at the social world. People from different cultural and social milieu have different ways of looking at the social world and engaging in social activities. For instance, Irawati Karve (1953) in her study on the kinship organization in India has talked about four different zones in India where there are four different rules of kinship structure and marriage are prevalent. While, cross-cousin marriages are prescribed in the kinship structure in the Southern zone, in the Northern zone in India, it has been proscribed. From this example, it can be understood that the social reality is relative.

The fourth motif of sociological consciousness is cosmopolitanism. Berger argues that a sociologist should have a cosmopolitan attitude towards the social world. Though the sociologist may come from a particular social milieu, he/she/they should be open to embrace the different ways in which people might be living around them. Sociologists must be tolerant towards the differences. For instance, a sociologist who might be coming from a Hindu Brahmin family should have a cosmopolitan and value-free perspective to undertake a study on the anti-CAA protests that were staged by the Muslim women in India in the years 2019 and 2020.

Sociology: A Humanistic Discipline

The three main drivers for the emergence of the discipline of sociology were the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution of 1789. Being influenced by the ethos and principles of the Enlightenment like empiricism, reason and such, sociology, since its inception tried to build its place in the academia as a scientific discipline. However, unlike natural sciences, where the studies are conducted under controlled settings, in laboratories, where they can come up with causal relations with ease, disciplines like sociology, which is a social science, deal with human beings, the society. Social scientists do not conduct their studies under controlled settings for they deal with the social, which cannot be controlled.

In the book, Invitation to Sociology, Peter Berger has suggested that in the attempt to make a claim on scientism, so as to build its place in the academia, sociology must not “fixate itself in an attitude of humorless scientism that is blind and deaf to the buffoonery of the social spectacle” (Berger, 1963: 165). By this point, Berger is trying to argue that the scientific methods used by the discipline of sociology stands apart from other disciplines. He mentions that sociology has a democratic focus of interest. As a result, while other scientific disciplines may consider them insignificant, every aspect of human activities and their social existence may fall under the purview of sociological investigation. According to Berger, sociologists must be attuned to the art of listening to their participants in a study. While analysing the social events, they must try to put themselves in the shoes of their participants, what Max Weber has termed as ‘verstehen’ (Coser,). This helps sociology to stay grounded to its humanistic touch. But sociology being a scientific discipline, the sociologists must keep their own values and prejudices at bay when they are listening to their participants. Unlike the normative disciplines like theology, sociology does not talk about ‘what should be’, but ‘whatitis’. He has also mentioned that sociology having a humanistic approach is influenced by other disciplines like history and philosophy. It can be said that Berger has approached sociology from a synthetic standpoint.

Sociology of Knowledge: Contributions of Peter Berger

In the book The Social Construction of Reality(1966), Berger has argued that for a long period of time, the domain of sociology of knowledge has been glossed over especially by the English academia as something that is insignificant, especially because this domain was tied to the socio-historical context of Germany. In his discussion on the sociology of knowledge, Berger has mentioned the contributions made by scholars like Marx, Scheler and Karl Mannheim.

Apart from studying the empirical variety of ‘knowledge’ in human societies, he has mentioned that the sociology of knowledge also deals with the process by which a body of knowledge is socially established as a ‘reality’. Berger has argued that society can be seen both as an objective reality and a subjective reality. The processes of institutionalization and legitimation are associated with the construction of the ‘objective reality’ and the process of socialization is associated with the construction of the ‘subjective reality’. According to him, sociology of knowledge is concerned with the relationship between human thought and the social context in which it arises. Thus, according to Berger, “sociology of knowledge is concerned with the analysis of the social construction of reality” (Berger, 1966: 15).

Religion and the Modern World: Contributions of Berger

In the book The Desecularization of the World (1999), Peter Berger has argued that modernity does not ensure secularization. He has come up with the idea of ‘desecularization’. He has argued modernity has given rise to strong religious sentiments in various parts of the globe. He has thus contested the idea that we live in a modern and secularized world. Berger mentions that modernization has also led to counter-secularization along with secularization. He argues that secularization at the level of the society cannot ensure individual consciousness would be secularized. Berger (1999) writes, “Modernity, for fully understandable reasons, undermines all the old certainties; uncertainty is a condition that many people find very hard to bear; therefore, any movement (not only a religious one) that promises to provide or to renew certainty has a ready market” (pp.7). The ISKCON or the Hare Krishna movement, which emerged as a new religious movement during the late twentieth century around the world can be seen as an instance of ‘desecularization’ of the modern world.


Peter Berger has made many important contributions in the field of sociology. Some of his contributions have already been mentioned above. The concept of ‘sociological consciousness’ has influenced generations of sociology graduates. His idea of ‘desecularization’ debunks the commonsensical notion that modernization leads to secularization. His argument that the knowledge about ‘reality’ is socially constructed helps sociologists to empathetically listen to others and attempt in putting themselves in the shoes of others, which makes it a humanistic scientific discipline. To conclude, it can be reiterated that Berger has left an indelible mark in the field of sociology.


Berger, P. (1963). Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Approach. Anchor Books: New York.

Berger, P. &Luckmann, T. (1966). The Construction of Social Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Penguin Books: USA.

Berger, P. (1999). ‘The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview’. In P. Berger (Eds.) The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (pp.1-18).William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Michigan.

Berger, J. (2017, June 29).Peter Berger, Theologian Who Fought ‘God Is Dead’ Movement, Dies at 88. The New York Times.

Deflem, M. (2018). Anomie, strain, and opportunity structure: Robert K. Merton’s paradigm of deviant behavior. The Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Criminology, 140-155.

Karve, I. (1953). The Kinship Organisation in India. Deccan College: Poona.

List of Some Books on Sociology by Peter L. Berger for Further Reading

Invitation to Sociology, 1963

The Social Construction of Reality, (with Thomas Luckmann), 1966

The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, 1967

The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, (with Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner), 1973

Sociology Reinterpreted, (with Hansfried Kellner), 1981

The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview, 1999


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