Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore

Berger, Peter L.
Prometheus Books,
9781616143893 (hb)

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Cover of book Peter L Berger - an 'accidental sociologist' as he considered a career as a Lutheran minister - has produced a witty memoir on post-war sociology. One amusing story recounts the time that two Latin American revolutionaries, sent by their leader, visited his office in New York City to ask for advice on how to overthrow a country. Berger gently explained that his work was a "theoretical exercise", concerned with the construction of society: he apologised for having no "useful advice" to give regarding the reconstruction of society. Berger's humanistic sociology interweaves with a 'coffee house methodology' whilst jokes are used to elucidate profound points. His boundless curiosity suggests that the sociological rather than religious path was well chosen. The chapters recount his academic trajectory in chronological order: his time at the progressive New School in New York City; his seminal study, The Sociology of Knowledge, followed by a period of self imposed academic estrangement (p107).

In Balzac on Twelfth Street (chapter 1) Berger discusses his particular view of sociology and how it has been underpinned by the theoretical perspectives of three sociologists: Albert Saloman; Alfred Schütz and Carl Mayer. From Saloman, he gained "an understanding of the place of sociology in the history of ideas" as well as an endless fascination about the motives of individuals. From Schütz, "a sense of how phenomenology could enrich sociological theory" whilst Mayer gave Berger an ongoing approach to "the sociology of religion" as well as a thorough understanding of the work of Max Weber (pg 26). The overarching intellectual theme that appears to have motivated Berger is his view that sociology should be an opportunity to debunk "the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty".

'From a Clique to a Failed Empire' (chapter 3) provides the most interesting yet disappointing statement of the book. Berger discusses how he instinctively supports the "middle position (between radical change and stubborn preservation)" on most subjects. Berger abhorred racism; supported the Civil Rights movement and was initially sympathetic to the subsequent radicalism of the 1960s; however the roots of his self reported exile can be detected during this time. Disillusioned with the level of "rage against all institutions of liberal democracy" expressed by 'leftists' and radical feminists he went on to distance himself from academia and define himself politically, as a conservative. Whilst there are some noticeable differences between UK and US conservatives, there is little elaboration of what he alludes to as being the 'middle ground'. What could have developed into an addition to the cultural history of the 1960s, instead becomes diatribe of various altercations with radical groups (See also Politically Incorrect Excursions - chapter 6). These chapters, however, are interesting in terms of gaining an understanding of the level of academic isolation he clearly felt. As Berger declares, "The zeitgeist shifted dramatically in the intellectual culture, not only in America, but also in much of the world. The moment in which it seemed that my thinking was congenial with the temper of the times, ended in a big bang" (p107).

From a personal perspective it was enjoyable to link his concepts to my ongoing doctoral research on graduate destinations. 'Many Gods and Countless Chinese (chapter 5) provides a discussion of 'mediating structures' - institutions such as family, church and voluntary associations - which is particularly useful. Berger notes that when considering whether a structure mediates you need to discern the values that are being mediated. From the perspective of higher education, this leads to the seemingly unanswerable question: are universities there to produce learners or earners? His observations on the 'feel' of institutions suggests parallels with research by Reay, David and Ball (2001) on 'institutional habitus'; whilst his commentary on graduates falsifying CV's so as to gain non graduate jobs is unfortunately reflected in the current labour market.

This book is an enjoyable read being especially useful for postgraduates and early career researchers from a sociology background, and of course, any historian of the discipline of sociology. Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist is written in clear and accessible language. An interesting and thought-provoking book that demonstrates that whilst an academic career is often filled with ups and downs, "explaining the world", as the title suggests, need not mean that one becomes a bore.


Reay, David and Ball (2001)

Teresa Crew
Bangor University, Wales