peter berger and tobacco sociology

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”?

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

7 thoughts on “peter berger and tobacco sociology”

  1. As the “cult” name-calling implies, Berger was aiming at the motives of the anti-smoking groups, not their facts. Unlike his paymasters, he didn’t suppress data (AFAIK); he probably didn’t even do a serious methodological criticism of the other side’s data. My impression is that his anti-anti position was part of a disenchantment with the left. If liberals were for it, there must be something wrong with it. If liberals were against it, it must not be so bad.

    He also seems to have viewed public health initiatives as nanny-state assaults on individual freedom. He also opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to reduce diabetes and obesity by limiting the size of soft-drinks that movie theaters could sell. Forcing the very thirsty to buy two 15-oz. cups rather than one 30-oz. cup struck him as but a step away from Saudia Arabia. (I am not making this up – FWIW, more about it in my blog post from 2012 here .)

    He also came to share the conservative reflex that if something was European, it must be bad. So he also criticised Mayor Bloomberg for living with a woman not his wife. “I cannot say whether Bloomberg’s quasi-European lifestyle has anything to do with his idea of New York City as a quasi-European welfare state.” (Nice example of apophasis, btw.)

    Andrew Gelman, who knew well of Berger’s work as a shill for Big Cig, also had this to say (here):

    “But what impresses me is that Berger is doing regular blogging at the age of 84, writing a long essay each week. That’s really amazing to me. Some of the blogging is a bit suspect, for example the bit where he claims that he personally could convert gays to heterosexual orientation (“A few stubborn individuals may resist the Berger conversion program. The majority will succumb”)—but, really, you gotta admire that he’s doing this. I hope I’m that active when (if) I reach my mid-80s. (As a nonsmoker, I should have a pretty good chance of reaching that point.)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The NYT article is heavily focused on Berger as a Karl Barth-like Protestant protector and preserver of the faith. Which is the anti-modernist reaction which largely led to fundamentalism in the real world.

    Peter Sloterdijk gives an excellent critique of this form of fundamentalist castration anxiety in his wonderful “You Msy Change Your Life”:

    “Peter Sloterdijk presents a critique of myth – the myth of the return of religion. For it is not religion that is returning; rather, there is something else quite profound that is taking on increasing significance in the present: the human as a practising, training being, one that creates itself through exercises and thereby transcends itself”


  3. The accusation of the anti-smoking campaign as being based around health cult is not all that surprising, just think about growing demand for fat acceptance movement. The overweight issue is perhaps a nice illustration, it is neither religious practices, nor sexual practices of my neighbour whose pollution troubles me today, but her eating habits, her lack of physical exercises. As if wasting of health became somehow bad in itself and contagious, like the abandonment of salvation, or the homosexuality in the past.

    Liked by 1 person

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