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The mediated construction of reality

This text was first published in . The topic is , the genre and the year of publication .

Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp.
Cambridge, 2017
278 pp, ISBN 9780745681313, (pbk)

The mediated construction of reality.

This book is written by a formidable team. Nick Couldry is a media professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science in Great Britain, and Andreas Hepp is a media professor at the University of Bremen in Germany. Together, they have written an ambitious theoretical monograph. It’s been 50 years since Berger and Luckmann (1966) published their now classic The Social Construction of Reality, and the authors translated this influential theory into the present time and renamed it The Mediated Construction of Reality. Couldry and Hepp argue convincingly that big data, artificial intelligence and automation intensify the complexity of the social, and its degrees of interdependence (p. 69), to such an extent that Berger and Luckmann’s description of social life is made invalid (p. 126). Couldry and Hepp take issue with two specific claims from Berger and Luckmann. Their 1967 claim that “everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world” is no longer clear. The same goes for the claim that the world of everyday life “originates in people’s thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these” (p. 164).

The new book is rigged to support alternative explanations for these social phenomena, where data infrastructures are included in the analysis. It presents itself as a materialist phenomenology of the media, and its aim is to supplement Berger and Luckmann and keep social constructivism alive as a theoretical foundation.

First, a summary of the argument: The introduction sets up the story with a broad historical perspective on media history and its theoretization in the social sciences and humanities. Part I carefully recounts and develops the idea of social construction of the social world, turning to the media’s role in the process. They describe three waves of mediatization during the last centuries: mechanization, electrification, and digitalization. Figuration is introduced as a better concept than network or assemblage to explain the “ordering force” (p. 57) of these technologies. In part II, Couldry and Hepp write truly interesting analyses of shifts in the meaning of time and place due to information technology. The character and scale of technological equipment have really become more complex after 1967. They discuss five translations of data into practice, among them the strange presence of the constantly updated data double that we all carry around along with us (p. 135). Couldry and Hepp suggest that these developments are related to greater systemic order in social life. They argue that “social actors are sorted in relation to particular action-outcomes on the basis of how data relating to them is categorized and processed” (p. 124). Part III deals with the influence of “deep mediatization” on agency in the social world, and discusses issues such as self, collectives, and order. I will say more about this below. In the conclusion, Couldry and Hepp rightly say that normative questions relating to social relations are under-theorized. They encourage us to ask what is good and what is bad about the developments.

Despite their own recommendation, Couldry and Hepp don’t take a clear position regarding good or bad. They don’t recommend certain developments or warn against others, they only describe interesting structures in a procedural, generalized form. While it is understandable that the authors do their best to write like level-headed sociologists, I detect an undercurrent that suggests the authors are in fact worried about the power of technologies and its impact on social life now and in the future.

In the conclusion, they write rather dramatically, “We reject entirely a technological determinist approach, and specifically in the form that argues that new ‘media’ generate a specific ‘logic’ that, in some simple way, is rolled out across the social terrain” (p. 214).

Why do they feel the need to reject this position so strongly? Throughout the book, Couldry and Hepp make descriptions that have a clear causal direction from technology to humans, for example, “the child increasingly depends from her early awareness on a media infrastructure” (p. 150), and “flash mobs are forms of collectivity that have (digital) media as a pre-condition of their existence” (p. 172). While Couldry and Hepp use the language of social constructivism, they deal with a large number of technologically induced changes in social life where substantial technological agency should be reckoned with in a more direct way.

My problem is that while I read, I get a sense that almost everything they write is explained better by the characteristics of the technological novelties that they set out, than by the humans’ social ability to negotiate and restructure. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I sense that the authors have a less social constructivist argument than they realize. In fact, there is an undertone of concern that reminds me of Heidegger–who by the way is not quoted anywhere in the book. Hepp and Couldry are concerned with digital infrastructure and its relation to “ordering.” They argue that media infrastructures constitute an “organization of material resources” (p. 191), with “figurational order” (p. 125) that humans engage with in communication. In “The Question of Technology” (1954), Heidegger connects order with technology and describes a negative, or at least uncanny, aspect of modern technologies like the computer. Heidegger writes,

Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve (Bestand). (Heidegger, 1954: 225)

Couldry and Hepp describe “humans as a service” (p. 186), and while they touch on the fact that humans can be reverse adapted to fit with the needs of big data, artificial intelligence, and automation, they don’t formulate judgments, evaluations, or critiques of what is going on. It’s up to the reader to guess what they mean about these phenomena.

While Couldry and Hepp lack a normative position on future developments, Heidegger has a position that would be a good fit for “deep mediatization” too. Heidegger warns us that there is a serious misunderstanding regarding modern technology, namely, that the humans and their social structures are in control of ordering, or that technological innovation always benefits humans. Heidegger argues that humans can become part of the standing reserve without understanding it properly. “Man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself and postures as lord of the earth. In this way the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct” (Heidegger, 1954: 232). In my view, Couldry and Hepp, and by extension the mediatization project in general, suffer from the misunderstanding that Heidegger diagnoses. They stick somewhat stubbornly with their modernized version of social construction, and construct clever conceptualizations that confirm the dominance of the human in the human–technology relationship. They are unwilling to face the 21st century technological forces in a truly open manner, and hesitate to engage in a normative evaluation of the future.

I am confused but also deeply impressed after reading The Mediated Construction of Reality. Couldry and Hepp engage in a Herculean struggle to describe the social meaning of data processing in the human lifeworld, and the book is full of sharp observations. I am really glad they took the trouble to write it.


Berger, PL. and Luckman, T. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.

Donner, J. (2015) After Access: Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. [1954] (1993) “The Question Concerning Technology” p. 213-239 in Heidegger. Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Horst, H. and Miller, D. (2006) The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. Oxford: Berg Publications.

Response to review by Lars Nyre

We are most grateful to Lars Nyre for his review of our book The Mediated Construction of Reality (Nyre, 2017). It is a generous review, but there is one aspect of the review with which we disagree and that disagreement, we think, raises a question of broader interest, hence this brief response. That is the question of how sociologists of media should provide a normative perspective on the complex phenomena which they seek to research.

Nyre acknowledges that we insist in our book on the importance of taking a normative stance on the sociotechnical developments we describe, the phenomena that we sum up in the term ‘deep mediatization’ (Couldry and Hepp, 2016: 7, 11, 33). But Nyre (2017) is dissatisfied with how we do this: ‘Couldry and Hepp don’t take a clear position regarding good or bad. They don’t recommend certain developments or warn against others, they only describe interesting structures in a procedural, generalized form’ (p. 836). At the same time, he argues that we do in fact have are normative stance on technological change, which we don’t fully disclose, ‘an undercurrent’ that he detects that we ‘are in fact worried about the power of technologies and its impact on social life now and in the future’.

Nyre then goes onto argue, third, that our very own analysis of how media and information technologies work in everyday life should indeed provoke a normative concern (which we fail to articulate): the concern is that those technologies impose structures which are beyond taming by human interpretation and so are incompatible with our overall social constructionist framework. Nyre implies, fourth, that it is our inability to face this analytical contradiction that explains why we don’t ‘come clean’, as it were, on our normative stance. As he puts it,

they stick somewhat stubbornly with their modernized version of social construction, and construct clever conceptualizations that confirm the dominance of the human in the human – technology relationship. They are unwilling to face the 21st century technological forces in a truly open manner, and hesitate to engage in a normative evaluation of the future. (Nyre, 2017: 837)

We welcome this robust engagement with the very core of our book. Nyre however appears to imply that somehow our argument is in bad faith, because its attempt at both normative explicitness and analytic completeness cut across each other, with problems in the latter making the former impossible, but in a manner which that very conflict prevents us admitting. If correct, this is a serious reason for dissatisfaction, or at least unease, with our book, so let us face this head on.

We argue that Nyre misunderstands, or ignores, the type of normative argument we offer in the book (and the reasons for choosing that way of formulating normative questions) while also misunderstanding how our ‘materialist phenomenology’ (Couldry and Hepp, 2016: 5–8) tries to understand the relations between technology and human life. In short, we do offer a normative stance, but it is just not the sort of definitive judgement that Nyre would like, and we ‘fail’ in this, because we don’t think such resolution is yet possible. But the question of what sort of normative stance is adequate to today’s complex and increasingly datafied world is an interesting one, hence our need to respond to Nyre’s claims.

The whole argument of chapters 10 and 11 of our book is directed to understanding the normative implications of previous chapters’ theoretical and empirical explorations. We make this clear early in chapter 10 (p. 192) when, in a discussion of how algorithmic judgements are already at odds with the intentions (mindedness) of human actors, we conclude that ‘phenomenology becomes a critical science, a register of potential ethical and political challenges emerging within our ways of life with media’. But we immediately go on to emphasize (p. 192) why we will not be offering a simple ‘good or bad’ judgement about this conflict.

The reason is that, drawing here on Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) landmark reworking of Bourdieu’s critical sociology into a sociology of critique embedded in the everyday normative complexities of the lived world, direct moral judgements claim a stance ‘above’ those complexities that is just not available. Moral judgements about the whole social world of some sort remain possible, indeed essential, but after Boltanski and Thévenot, it is simply not credible sociologically to lapse into decontextualized and generalized normative judgements of the sort that Heidegger, Nyre’s explicit reference-point though Bourdieu’s bête noire, felt able to make. We draw on Norbert Elias, the social theorist whose ideas run through our book, to support the idea that, while sociology must certainly face moral questions head on, it is a complexity of judgement that is needed. (This does not mean, incidentally, that we dismiss the value of Heidegger’s reflections about technology: indeed, while Nyre correctly notes Heidegger is not cited in our book, the essay where one of us introduced the concept of ‘tool reversibility’ that is developed in our book link explicitly to Heidegger’s problematic of tools; Couldry, 2017.)

We sought in our book to avoid claiming that today’s technological developments are simply ‘good or bad’ and instead to transpose our normative concerns into a more complex discussion about order, that is, multiple pressures toward order and disorder. Total disorder is certainly not good; it is unliveable. Almost all social orders however generate conflicts between how they work out and the value generated within them, conflicts which in the context of that order may result in outcomes judged good or bad, but it takes time for these conflicts and the form of the values involved to become clear. That, broadly, is the theme of Boltanski and Thévenot’s book and that is the main theme of chapters 10 and 11. We even in chapter 11 (p. 220) try to force the issue about whether definitive normative judgements are possible, insisting that, as yet at least, they are not:

[Elia’s] wider hypothesis of a civilizing process, controversial though it has been, remains, at the broadest level, important for raising normative questions about the large-scale consequences of how many overlapping interdependencies, and the costs or deficits to which they give rise, are lived out and sometimes find ‘solutions’ …. This is not a question that we can answer definitively here, since so many of the many-levelled transformations we have been considering are in their early stages, and their long-term interaction cannot be predicted.

But we struggle to see how this carefulness in formulating normative questions amounts to an normative evasion. Moral questions are repeatedly raised in chapters 10 and 11 of our book. For example, we conclude chapter 10 with the sentence: ‘That is our concern: that, under conditions of deep mediatization, an ever more complex infrastructure of interdependent communication installs a datafied social order which relies more on infrastructural force (or near-force) than on the openly contestable legitimacy of norms’ (p. 212). Or take the final paragraphs of the book:

A problem for any social order that hopes to carry some measure of legitimacy over the longer term comes when our spaces and processes of mutual recognition get themselves blurred with the imperatives of private interests to generate profit from those very same spaces and processes …. Under today’s mediated conditions, then, the social construction of reality has become implicated in a deep tension between convenience and autonomy, between force and our need for mutual recognition, that we do not yet know how to resolve. (p. 223)

Our argument is that the emerging social order based around current figurations of humans being entangled with digital technologies generates deep and lived tensions, tensions which are normative, since how practically we have to live begins to conflict with important values. One form this conflict takes is the increasing role of infrastructural force in our lives. As we make clear, drawing on the critical legal scholar Julie Cohen, there is an emerging conflict about daily practice with information and communication technologies and the values of freedom and autonomy. But it is no help at all to pronounce the resulting state of the social world simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. For it is an emerging social order that we are discussing, an order that provides layered contexts for life and organization which inevitably sometimes have locally good consequences and sometimes locally bad consequences. What we need is, as we try to develop in the book, a frame of analysis which registers the emergence and persistence of that order, as it works itself out in the world. Only from that starting-point can we begin to evaluate that order on a larger scale and the normative conflicts to which it gives rise.

Underlying our disagreement with Nyre on normative formulations is a substantive empirical disagreement. Nyre’s view apparently (and here he invokes Heidegger in support) is that it is a fantasy to believe that human interpretation and social construction can have any traction or influence over the force of technological systems. Nyre notes that we regularly in the book mention that technology has some shaping role over the conditions of social life or over human actors. Of course we do, and that is why we insist in the book on a ‘materialist’ phenomenology, for it is the material context of technology to which we are referring. But why believe that the only causal dynamic between technology and human actors is one that rules out any place for the shaping role of human interpretation, any place for the force of human meaning-making? For sure, the tension between human meaning and algorithmic power is enormous, and we discuss that fully in chapter 7. But we reject Nyre’s quasi-philosophical move – also made by Scott Lash (2007) – that assumes the only outcome is for technological ‘settings’ to somehow override the work of meaning and agency. That is to give up entirely on the complexity we have learned from social studies of technology in the past three decades. And yet, we insist, we must register the tension at play in contemporary societies: we live ‘a datafied social order which relies more on infrastructural force (or near-force) than on the openly contestable legitimacy of norms’ (Couldry and Hepp, 2016: 212). There is, therefore, something practically and politically, not just academically, at stake in defending a hermeneutic stance towards what is increasingly an anti-hermeneutic world (Couldry, 2014). And when we reflect digital media and infrastructures in their making we also need to include the role of human actors, who shape, for example, through ‘pioneer communities’ such as the Quantified Self or Maker Movement, visions of possible developments (Hepp, 2016).

It is as if Nyre, to support his insistence on prematurely resolving the normative issues raised by the social order emerging around digital media, must short-circuit (in his reading of our argument at least) empirical analysis too. That, we believe, is not a productive way to pose the question of how, in an increasingly interdependent world, we should, as critical researchers, respond to the ethical and moral tensions which that world throws up.

The moral, and increasingly political, stakes of this emerging social order are gradually being revealed, a possibility for which our book’s conclusion, written in February 2016 allowed. The subsequent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal served to stage this, even if what it revealed was more an ‘inconvenient truth’ than a fresh revelation.

There is no doubt that the question of how we can take up normative stances of a complexity adequate to the challenges thrown up by deep mediatization is of lasting importance. We therefore thank Lars Nyre for highlighting this question in his provocative review.


Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On Justification. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Couldry, N. (2014) A necessary disenchantment: myth, agency and injustice in the digital age. Sociological Review 62(4): 880–897.

Couldry, N. (2017) Phenomenology and critique why we need a phenomenology of the digital world. In: Markham T and Rodgers S (eds) Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 67–74.

Couldry, N. and Hepp, A. (2016) The Mediated Construction of Reality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hepp, A. (2016) Pioneer communities: collective actors of deep mediatisation. Media, Culture & Society 38(6): 918–933.

Lash, S. (2007) Power after hegemony: cultural studies in mutation? Theory Culture & Society 24(3): 55–78.

Nyre, L. (2017) The mediated construction of reality. New Media & Society 20(2): 835–837.