Eminent sociologist Peter Berger has died. The New York Times has a lengthy obituary here. In my neck of the woods, Berger is most known for his book, with Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann introduced a vocabulary for understanding the process of social construction (externalization, objectification, internalization, habitualization, etc.) that has been applied widely, including especially in institutional theory in organizational sociology. Elsewhere, Berger is known for his extensive work in the sociology of religion.
At the same time as the laudatory obituaries circulate, I am a bit troubled by one omission: Berger’s work for the tobacco industry. As documented by Glantz et al (2008)’s article on the role of sociologists in defending tobacco from public health critics in the 1970s-1980s, and discussed more at Sourcewatch, Peter Berger was deeply involved with pro-tobacco social science. For example, in the industry-commissioned book Smoking and Society: Toward a More Balanced Perspective, Berger accused the anti-smoking movement of being a “health cult” (an interesting charge from a sociologist of religion).
None of this work is mentioned in the New York Times obituary. Nor is it mentioned on Berger’s wikipedia page. And yet it seems like a full accounting of his life and legacy (and of the legacy of 20th century sociology) should grapple with this aspect as well. What do we do with the fact that one of the most prominent figures associated with the term “social construction” also worked as a “merchant of doubt”?