German Sociologists and Their Sociological Theories

german sociologists ulrich beck

German Sociologists

Sociology is a science, which deals with the theoretical and empirical exploration of the human behaviour and looks – with a more than 100 year old history. For instance, the German society for sociology was founded in 1909 and includes all scientifically expelled sociologist in Germany. Many theories of German sociologists are known all over the world and can be find in many study books.

Adorno: Critical Theory

Adorno was born on September 11 1903 in Frankfurt at Main. Together with Max Horkheimer, Adorno was the main founder of the Frankfurter Schule ( = Frankfurt school), where the origin of the critical social philosophy and critical theory was set up. The most famous book of this direction is called Dialectics of Enlightenment, published in 1947. During the time of World War II, the institute for social research in Frankfurt at Main moved to Geneva, then to the USA in New York and Los Angeles. 

The critical theory deals especially with the oeconomic basis of society, the psychological development of an individual and the cultural sector. The theorists of the critical theory are in the tradition of Marx and Hegels and have a high means of dialectics. The German sociologists of the Frankfurt school combine marxist and psychoanalytic thoughts. The critical consideration of society combined with the view that philosophy must have a practical meaning and the expectation, that better social conditions will exist in the future, mark the basic points of the thinkers of the critical theory. During their late research, German sociologists Adorno and Horkheimer no longer considered a positive change in society as a possiblity.

Ulrich Beck: Risk Society

Ulrich Beck was born on May 15, 1944 in Poland and was a very well-known German sociologist. His theory deals with a break in the modern society, which emerges from the outlines of the classical industrial society and gets a new form, which is called the risk society. Beck distinguishes between the “logic of wealth production” and the ever-increasing “logic of risk production”. Acording to Beck, risks are for example scientific pollutant distributions or social hazards such as unemployment. One of main differences between the industrial society and the risk society is the equally distribution of the “risks” across all classes. For instance, radioactivity affects everyone. Still, according to Beck, most risk don’t really exist, but get exaggerated by mass media.

One of the most famous quotations of his very successful publication Risk Society from 1986 says “misery is hierarchical, smog is democratic”, which shows exactly, that the risk society related to everyone.

Georg Simmel: Philosoph of Money

Georg Simmel was born on March 1, 1858 in Berlin and was one of the first German sociologists. In one of his main publications which is called The Philosophy of Money from 1900, he developes the thesis, that money is getting more and more influence on society, politics and the individual. The trend of money-making has brought many advantages to human mankind, such as the overcoming of feudalism and the development of modern democracies. However, in modernity, money has become more and more self-serving. Even the self-esteem of an average man and his attitudes to life are determined by money.

One of his main statements says that money exemplified God by becoming an absolute means to an absolute purpose and shows the banks as a main example. In early 20th century, the banks have become bigger and more powerful than the churches and were the center of cities. Everything sensibly perceptible has to do with money. Man, however, has the freedom to strive for dimensions that are more than this, which can happen through the formation of solidarity communities that deal with spiritual life. Through action, the power of money, for example in culture, can be restricted. Thus an artist does not work solely for the sake of money, but to realize himself spiritually in his work.

Ralf Dahrendorf: Conflict Theory

Ralf Dahrendorf was born on May 1, 1929 in Hamburg and was a German-British sociologist. He was a representative of the conflict sociology which deals with social conflicts as a basic component of the social field. Other repesentatives of the conflict theory were Marx and Engesl with their famous analysis of the war between the classes or French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu with his Theory of Practice in which he sees capital as a restricted good due to the social, cultural and symbolic ressources.

According to the conflict theory of Dahrendorf, it is not the ownership of the means of production that is the general cause of conflicts, but the rules which always confronts the minority with the excluded majority. According to Dahrendorf, society is not held together by consensus, but based on coercion. To this extent, his theory of conflict is also a theory of the unequal distribution of power and of the antagonism between society and the individual. The world views and the cultural values ​​in a society are unbalanced. The principle of the social is therefore the conflict, not the timeless validation.

Dahrendorf considers conflicts to be the driving force behind a necessary development of any society. Conflict is therefore unavoidable and can only be dealt with by conflict resolution. Ralf Dahrendorf assumes that there are  social positions within every society. To every social position belongs a social role.

Niklas Luhmann: Systems Theory

Niklas Luhman was born on December 8, 1927 in Lüneburg, Germany and is considered as one of the most famous German sociologists until now and biggest representative of the systems theory in Germany. His most famous work is called Social Systems from 1984 in which he extends the theory of Talcott Parsons. According to Luhmann, systems arise when operations join together. The operation in which social systems arise is communication. When a communication follows a communication (which refers back to it and leads it at the same time), a self-observing social system emerges. Communication is made possible through language and symbolically generalized media of communication which are money, truth, power and love.

The special feature of Luhmann’s view is that communication is not seen as an act by the individual person. In particular, it is not a question of the effects of human beings on humans, which an observer can establish as causality, nor is it about information transmission, which can be understood as a metaphor. The term communication describes an operation in which social systems arise. Communication can only be connected to communication, and in this way these operations are simultaneous and parallel to the operations of other systems. Persons also do not exist as agents but as units constructed by their communication.

Luhmann distinguishes three types of social systems which are interactional systems, orgnisational systems and social systems. Furthermore, society as a whole is a comprehensive system, which is differentiated into functional systems. Functionally differentiated systems are for example the economy, politics and the law.

Featured image: Ulrich Beck St. Gallen Symposium – International Students’ Committee Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 3.0


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