Intro to Sociology: Reification, Agency and Structure

Post in: German

I’m teaching the introduction to Sociology at the Goethe-University, Frankfurt, and one of the early concepts that we’re working with is reification. I use this concept early because a lot of the things we will learn in the introduction to Sociology don’t sound very empowering for new sociologists. We learn a lot about structures that hold situations into rigid, repeating, visible patterns and forms. If there will be progress, this young generation will be part of making that happen. So we examine what thoughts, assumptions, and actors are behind the status quo. Why are things as they are? The idea that something invisible, invented, or social is in fact a hard-and-fast law of nature is called “reification” in sociology.

I got the following fantastic question from a student after the lecture that introduced reification:

I had to think a lot about the “reification” and unfortunatly I wasn’t ready to put my thoughts to speech at the end of last session, so now via email.
I understood Schwalbe in the way, that it is wrong to refere to a “reificated problem”. E.g. it would be wrong to criticise “the money” as bad, but rather criticize Lehman Brothers for doing bad stuff with money.
Now, when we accept that we live in a “reificated world” (at least that’s how I understand Marx with “fetischisiertem Warensystem”) and that “Beziehungen zwischen Menschen werden zu Beziehungen zwischen Dingen”, so how can we criticise this world without refering to a “reificated problem”? If we only refer to people’s actions wouldn’t we be blind for the circumstances we live in?
I don’t think there is an easy answer for this, but perhaps you can give me some advices, where I can read more about the problem “how to criticise the reification we live in”

After weeks of Emails like “How do I get the online learning space to work?” I was thrilled to get something substantive to chew on. Here is how I answered him.

I am very happy to get a substantive and interesting question — thank you!

Schwalbe is giving us ways to think that are different from conventional ways of thinking; he is trying to suggest ways to think sociologically. He didn’t spend a lot of time on reification compared to the many other sources where one can get detail on the topic. I think Schwalbe meant that we should not lose sight of the fact that the PEOPLE make the situations in the social world. Some people start to feel helpless as if “the system” or “the money” or “the school” or “the government” exist on their own without human invention or intervention. Schwalbe wants us as sociologists to realize that PEOPLE are behind the existence of these big structures, and that people have the power to change them. Furthermore, many of the early and current sociologists are interested in explaining how social revolution, social change, and social movements come about and what happens to them. Is changing existing established structures something that comes easily? No. Are there forces of power — like traditions, convenience, personal stake, lack of reflection, or people in power with something to lose if something changes who will fight hard to keep things from changing? Yes. But to act and assume that social things are the way they are because these are laws of nature, like laws of physics, is not the way sociologists think about the social world, or at least we try hard to examine the underlying causes of structures.

What Marx means with “Verdinglichung” is — among other things — that the human interaction is removed from (or, put another way, invisible to) the transaction, and that the people are acting like cogs in the big industrial machine instead, or encouraged to act like cogs in the machine because otherwise the consequences would be losing their jobs, social ostracism, and so on.
I agree that it’s a contradiction for sociologists to do both at the same time, recognize human agency in the structures we live within, and recognize that the structures exist apart from any one individual’s isolated power to change them. This is the central tension of sociology, and you found it already in week 2. Congratulations!
It’s going to be confusing for a while starting out learning Sociology, because we have to hold contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time. I first present that these social worlds are human inventions, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, and then I will present the patterns of these social worlds that exist outside of any one individual’s preference or behavior. Both are true at the same time. Learning to see both is the act of seeing the world sociologically. Recognizing which has more power — the structure or the individual — often has to do with the given situation. (Our guest on 24. October, Prof. Sutterlüty, presented a talk that gives a good example of this. Not every child born in poverty circumstances or with abusive parents becomes abusive, but there is a pattern that people who are abusive are more likely to have been abused themselves than those who are not abusive. The individual has agency, but the circumstances (structure) shape the individuals’ behavior in ways we can see as systematic patterns.)
Next week’s reading by Berger and Luckmann (link below) will take up the question of reification a bit more. So hang on, more is coming (see box below). Beyond that, several sociologists think a lot about this problem of “structure versus agency” and many links about this are also below. In our reader, we have texts by Barbara Risman, looking at Gender as Structure — how people’s individual decisions around gender behaviors (like the man earning most of the money and the woman working part time or staying home with the children) — are both the result of structures that include men’s not taking responsibility for care of their own children during the workday, a lack of affordable child care, expectations that men work for pay full time and higher wages for men, and at the same time reinforce those structures so that deciding differently from these gendered ways of behaving will be even more difficult for the next people facing these decisions. Another scholar we’re reading this semester is Raewyn Connell, who also takes up the issue in detail.

A short answer is, we can criticise the reification we live in by recognizing what exactly is reified, and by whom. “This group ‘A’ assumes that X always has to happen this certain way Y. Why does A assume this? What are the consequences of their assumption? What actions, by whom, hold X in place Y?” We could go on with these kinds of questions. That’s a constructive criticism and one that brings the debate forward! What is the X, what is Y, who is group A, and what other groups or individuals are complicit with this X and Y?
One of my favorite examples is: employers and employees assume that employees should not have private family responsibilities that “infringe” upon the standard work day, and both assume that the employer has a right to expect a standard work day (morning to evening) from workers. As a result, employers demand continuous uninterrupted work hours during days and weeks and years from their employees, and employees feel that they have to hide their private life from their employer or else accept lower wages, fewer work hours, and fewer worker protections (part-time or €400 jobs). Lawyers who drafted laws around labor and the labor union leaders who were lobbying for specific labor protections were and are complicit with these assumptions. X here is the work day and work week, Y is the 40-hour workweek broken into 5 workdays each 8 hours, and A is employers and employees, other groups and individuals are lawmakers, judges, labor unions, and also family members who support this system.

Does that help? We could go on, and that’s an oversimplified model, but just to give an example. “Reified” is the assumption that a workday is and must be 8 hours, and that a work week is and must be 5 days. Or even that a week is 7 days – that is a human construct too!
Very best regards, and thanks again for the great question.

General source for the course: Schwalbe, Michael. 1998. The Sociologically Examined Life: Pieces of the Conversation. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. Newer edition:
More about reification (Verdinglichung):

More about structure and agency:

One Comment

  1. Shannon Zenner
    Feb 03, 2014

    Dr. Hofmeister, How very fascinating your class must have been for an Intro class. I so wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Having only just re-started my academic career I am so very intrigued with yours. The discussion you had with your student via email reminded me so much of free will vs. fate arguments from my first liberal arts college classes. It is so elegant a concept “structure versus agency” and so applicable to my own current interest of study, polarized discussion and social media. I think I’ll have to check out your other readings on the concept of reification. Thanks so much, Shannon Zenner

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