Reification Essay

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Sociologists from several perspectives have critically addressed reification. In general, reification refers to the act (or its result) of attributing to analytic or abstract concepts a material reality — it is a misplaced concreteness. Through reification people regard human relations, actions, and ideas as independent of themselves, sometimes governing them. The abstraction ”society” is frequently reified into something that has the power to act. Society does not act — people do. Reification is an error of attribution; it is corrected by eliminating the hypostatization of abstractions into things or agents.

For phenomenologists, reification is a potential outcome of the social construction of reality. To enter the lifeworld, human expression and subjective intention are externalized through ”objectivation” where they become part of a socially constructed reality. Language is the common vehicle although objectivation occurs through various symbolic forms.

Reification occurs when people understand objectivations as if they were non-human or supra-human things and act ”as if they were something other than human products — such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will.” Reification indicates we have forgotten our ”own authorship of the human world” (Berger & Luckmann 1966: 89). A reified world is a dehumanized one.

Marxist sociologists conceptualize reification as created by the ”fetishism of commodities” where ”the social character of labor appears as the objective (gegenstandliche) character of the products themselves.” To the producers, ”the social relationships of their private labors appear as what they are, not as the immediate social relations of people in their labors but as thingly (sachliche) relations of people and the social relations of things” (Marx 1922: 39). The producers’ own social movement ”posses for them the form of a movement of things (Sachen) under the control of which they stand rather than the producers controlling it” (p. 41). Here, reification — Verdinglichung (ver- connoting a process; dinglich ”thingly” — thus ”thingification”) — is a real social process whereby the social relations among producers do become ”thingly.” Their social relations really are those of commodities (and their value). Human characteristics matter little; one’s ”properties” as the bearer of commodities, especially labor power, do. This thing-like relation of commodity production dominates the workers engaged in production.

Reification links to Marx’s early concern with alienation, where the products and production process under private property are separated from and stand against their human producers. It is a real social process that must be overturned to put social production under the control of its immediate producers.

Lukacs (1971: History and Class Consciousness) argued that reification created false consciousness, thwarting a spontaneous, workers’ class consciousness and thereby supported Lenin’s argument about the need for a revolutionary, vanguard party. Other Marxists, like Gramsci and Korsch, argued that workers would, amid the contradictions of commodity production, break through reified, commodity fetishism and achieve the consciousness needed to struggle for social change.


  1. Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social Construction of Reality. Doubleday, Garden City, NY.
  2. Marx, K. (1922) [1890] Das Kapital, 4th edn., vol. 1. Otto Meissner, Hamburg.

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