Danger: beliefs embraced as facts


Credit: christopherwitt.com

As a social scientist, I’m interested in how people distinguish between what they know and what they believe. For some, there is no difference. For me, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, but I think about it all the time. In the current cultural environment, I’m especially concerned about the human tendency to accept beliefs as facts. I urge some critical thinking, especially in regard to the consumption of media content.

In The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained the concept of social constructivism. As summed up nicely in Wikipedia, “Its central concept is that people and groups interacting in a social system create, over time, concepts or mental representations of each others’ actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality is become embedded in the institutional fabric of society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.”

Two decades before Berger and Luckmann, sociologist Robert Merton published an essay in The Antioch Review (Vol. 8, No. 2, 1948) entitled “The self-fulfilling prophecy,” explaining how “a false definition” of a situation can prompt “behavior that makes the originally false conception come true.” I observe this process occurring all too often in our social world, and so I re-read Merton’s essay frequently.

“It is the social or public self-fulfilling prophecy that goes far toward explaining the dynamics of ethnic and racial conflict in the America of today.” Keep in mind that Merton’s “today” was 1948, and also consider the state of our social world 70 years later….

As to how to invalidate a self-fulfilling prophecy, Merton suggested, “The initial definition of the situation which has set the [belief-to-fact process] in motion must be abandoned. Only when the originating assumption is questioned and a new definition of the situation introduced, does the consequent flow of events give the lie to the assumption.”

In this essay Merton also explained how the dominant culture in a society defines “out-groups” according to misguided beliefs and then systematically condemns members of these groups both for embracing and rejecting the values – the beliefs – of the dominant culture. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, as Merton wrote. “The systematic condemnation of out-groupers continues largely irrespective of what they do” (emphasis in original).

Merton argued that “moral scruples and a sense of decency” are not enough to invalidate “false definitions.” Institutional change is necessary to turn things around. I agree.

The self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby fears are translated into reality, operates only in the absence of deliberate institutional controls” [emphasis in original], he wrote. “And it is only with the rejection of social fatalism implied in the notion of unchangeable human nature that the tragic circle of fear, social disaster, and reinforced fear can be broken.”

I provide this post as food for thought. You can read the full text of Merton’s essay on Jstor – you’ll have to register, but reading is free.

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