I have to admit that I get addicted to reality shows every once in awhile. It's just incredibly interesting to me to watch identity maintenance in action. It's also a perfect microcosm of reality construction in the Berger and Luckmann sense. Hm...maybe I should start showing clips to my students.
Anyway, for those who haven't been exposed to Berger and Luckmann in the past, the main idea is that humans are born into an existing society and internalize the messages from that society accordingly (thus, a little girl will probably grow up feminine and a little boy masculine*). However, existing society came from somewhere, and this is where it always stumps my students. Individuals (and more commonly groups of individuals) are constantly creating and recreating their social worlds. So, an individual is born into a society, but that individual will help perpetuate (or change) that society with his/her actions. Today in class I used the example of my students sitting in seats staring at me, much as they have for the past 15 years of their lives in similar classrooms (because they were socialized to do so from the age of 5). Nobody challenged my status as a teacher. Likewise, I played my role** as teacher, and didn't start doing cartwheels, which I can't do anyway...maybe I could have done a somersault. Anyway, I digress. Ultimately, Berger and Luckmann argue that the relationship between individuals and society (or any social system) is dialectical; you can't understand one without the other.
What's most fascinating about reality shows is that the participants both conform to/recreate the norms learned/internalized in their larger social system, as well as create new "realities." I linked to "Age of Love" earlier, which I am hesitant to admit watching.*** The show's producers created an artificial rivalry between the "cougars," or 40-somethings and the "kittens," or 20-somethings, who were all vying for 30-yr.-old Mark's attention. What was interesting to me was the way that the women so quickly bought in to the rivalry, but this wasn't surprising. Hierarchy is a part of human life (especially when a valued good is introduced to the situation, although I still don't understand the draw of that man), as is homophily (the tendency for people to choose similar alters). In America, age stratification is not always that pervasive, but these women made it so. They started identifying themselves less on their occupational or parental status, and almost solely by their age status, which created a nice little "reality" that looked somewhat similar, but not quite the same as the normal reality of most of us who don't constantly think of our age.**** In other words, age became a more important status characteristic than it usually is for the majority of us...or perhaps it just became more noticeable that we have deep stereotypes based on age.
*Although this is a simplistic example, given ongoing findings about biological differences between the sexes, gender is one of the easiest things to observe in our everyday lives, and so it serves as a good jumping off point here.
**Brad Wright has a nice discussion of role theory on his blog here.
***Did any of the rest of you find the guy completely devoid of substance? If we trust homophily, that says a lot about the woman he chose.
****To be fair, I may feel differently about this when I'm no longer in my twenties.