3.7.1 The Thomas Theorem

The existence of social structures has been considered as very important in guiding our behaviour. We can take a different approach and put emphasis on the active role of members of society in everyday social life. We refer to this approach as the social construction of reality. Let's take a few examples.

Friday is of religious importance for Muslims, for Christians it's Sunday and for Hindus it's Thursday.

Mauritians have never considered the 1st February as a date of special significance but now various interest groups are claiming that it should be considered as a public holiday.

The importance and the number of activities parents organise around their children nowadays were not widespread in our society in the 1950's.

These examples show that there is nothing intrinsic in a particular day or in the nature of our children which make them of particular significance. It is rather the meanings we attach to them which will guide our behaviour. These meanings are not out there but rather created and modified by members of society.

This is what Thomas means: situations that we define in a particular way will at the end become similar to what we defined in the first place. For example by defining Friday as a religious day, Muslims will organise their activities in a particular way so that Friday becomes a religious day.

The Thomas theorem showed how at an individual level, reality can be constructed. We now examine how reality can be constructed at a global level.

The social construction of reality at a global level has been analysed by Berger and Luckman who argue that "all certainty is basically uncertain: it has a very precarious foundation. Things are real because people believe they are real. There is no universal standard or yardstick against which they can be measured. The universe of meaning is a social construction of reality. One society's reality is another's pretence; things defined as meaningful in one society are meaningless in another" (Haralambos, p. 657).

The universe of meanings includes philosophical ideas about the meaning of life as well as practical knowledge of our daily life. As a product of society, the universe of meanings in turn feeds back and helps produce society. Hence, each universe of meanings originates from meanings individuals attribute to things and these meanings in turn organise and guide human behaviour. Society and the universe of meanings are interdependent.

Meanings individuals attribute to things will vary from society to society and from one period to another. For example, women in Saudi Arabia and those of the United States will view the taking of a job differently and both societies will view working women differently.