Introduction to Sociology

Theodor W. Adorno


9 July 1968

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have the impression that the air‑conditioning is not working again. I don't know if you have the same impression. If so, I should be grateful if someone would take the matter up with the building administration. On a day like this, in heat like this, collecting one's thoughts is an almost impossible task. It just can't be done.

I have the feeling, Ladies and Gentlemen, that at the end of the last lecture I pushed ahead rather quickly to bring an idea to a conclusion. So I would just like to repeat the concluding point I made, and attach to it a reflection which bears on some fundamental principles. I tried to show you that sociology, in its claim to be able to control society, exerts the wrong kind of authority. Its error lies in trying to extend the possibility of a scientific control of individual social situations—as when sociological findings contribute to improving the psychological conditions of work in a way which raises productivity—to the point where it becomes a control of society as a whole. This aspiration has asserted itself more or less openly, if only in individual sectors, rather than in the comprehensive way we find in Comte. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am aware that one might ask in response to this—on the basis of common sense, not dialectical reflection and logic—why methods which really work quite well in solving social problems on a small scale, in micro‑sectors, should not be extended and applied finally to society as a whole? I sometimes anticipate such objections, since I have the feeling that they might come from you rather less than they should, and ideas gain their depth by chafing against each other. I believe the question I have just posed is of such central relevance to the position of sociology today that—if I am to give you a serious introduction to the discipline—I owe you an answer to it. Sociology is a very curious discipline in one respect which has not often been emphasized: it has been concluded that in sociology, unlike the natural sciences, it is possible to understand its object from within. This idea has been put forward by Freyer in particular. I would like to express it in the language of philosophy, for I cannot properly introduce you to sociology while forgetting philosophy that is in the nature of the kind of sociology I am presenting to you. Stated in philosophical terms, the problem implicit in the above proposition is none other than that sociology is the science which, as the subject, simultaneously has itself as its object. That is to say that the subject—and the ideal subject of science is, finally, society as a whole, which performs the act of knowing—really owns nothing other than society. I have repeatedly expressed the idea in this lesson—I mean lecture [Speaker and audience laugh] — that sociology consists essentially of the reflection of science upon itself. That society is both its subject and its object was already implicit in that idea. But however straightforward this may sound, it actually conceals the central problem, the central difficulty, of sociology itself. For in the society in which we live a subject comprising the whole of society does not exist. Subject and object diverge in this society, and, to an unprecedented degree, living people are the objects of social processes which, in their turn, are composed of people. If you consider this for a moment, you realize that the difficulty lies in the fact that in the sociological perspective the social subject, or society as subject, is treated as if it were indeed identical with society as object. This happens because the concept of sociology which I am discussing critically with you here—a technocratic approach which is extended to human beings—is adopted in such an all‑embracing way. The objectifying, reifying methods of sociology are applied to society as a subject, whereas these reifying methods ought, of course, to stop short at the living subject. My lectures in this semester comprise a catalogue and a critique of the basic ideas of positivist sociology. And if I am constantly reproaching that kind of sociology with being an expression of a reified consciousness, it is only now that you can understand this contention in the strict sense in which it is meant. My criticism is that as soon as sociology is applied to society as a whole—which ought to be a subject—then, by its internal logic, it turns society into an object; and that in doing so—in the act of cognition, as it were—it repeats the processes of reification which, for their part, are already implicit in the logic of the commodity character which is spreading throughout society. I would say that the true application of a critical, dialectical theory of society consists precisely in not equating society as subject with society as object. For two reasons: on one hand, because society as object—that is, the social process—is not yet by any means a subject, or free, or autonomous; on the other, because society as subject, or as potentially a subject—that is, conceived as a self-determining, mature society which is also liberated in terms of its content—resists and is incompatible with precisely the objectifying, reifying kind of thinking which is inflicted on it by the established sociological methods.

It’s now almost thirty years since Paul Lazarsfeld published an article in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (or rather in Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences which took over from the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung during the war) which actually—and this is very curious—expressed the problem I am discussing here, although he would certainly have rejected the formulations I have used. Lazarsfeld was an extreme exponent of positivist sociology, and especially of empirical social research, and because of these theoretical disagreements I had the most violent collisions with him in the three years of our collaboration. His article is called: ‘Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communications Research’. In the course of the arguments carried on between him on one side and Horkheimer and myself on the other, he hit on the idea that in these disputes, particularly as regards communications research, two incompatible and irreconcilable conceptions of sociology were at work. One of them, which he called ‘administrative research’, identified and analysed social facts and made them available to this or that administrative agency; the other was critical research into communications. However, the real difference between them does not lie in the goals they pursue, but one might almost say—in the fact that one treats human beings as objects—for example, objects of the manipulation of the culture industry, which wants to find out how to arrange its programmes so that they sell as well as possible—while the other, to which we subscribe, holds fast to the potential of society as subject, and to the belief that, in all its manifestations, society should be measured critically against the concept of its own subjectivity. If I have criticized sociology for its pretension to authority, I could also express that by saying that this is nothing other than an administrative pretension which has become all‑embracing, and that implicit in precisely the ideal of total administration—despite the apparent neutrality of this kind of sociology—is something which is anything but neutral. I should like to close these reflections with that observation.

The problem I am concerned with here has received a certain attention in Germany, too, and even outside our school sociologists have tried to take account of these matters. For example, René König has attempted—perhaps he saw this as a kind of concession to the ‘Frankfurt people’—to differentiate between sociology and social philosophy. About this it should simply be said that, in doing so, he has naïvely taken over the old division of labour between philosophy and the individual sciences, without taking note of the special situation of sociology which I have pointed out to you: that it is the discipline whose object is necessarily, and inherently, its subject. He has overlooked the fact that this subject‑character of the object brings about, of its own accord, those modifications which we try to apply in our kind of sociology, and which have found their expression, however inadequately, in the dialectical method of sociology. Now, I’m not a fetishist with regard to names, and still less with regard to concepts couched in the nomenclature of academic whimsy. If I refused to accept König's distinction at the outset and continue to do so, it is not only because, for the reasons I have just given you, I regard it as intrinsically impossible to separate the two moments he would like to keep apart. It is also because, in the society in which we live—and in keeping with an experience which has been confirmed so often that I should like to call it a sociological law—distinctions which appear merely formal when they arise have a tendency to turn into distinctions of content. If one is told in any context that a hierarchical distinction of some kind is merely a matter of form and is of no consequence, one can be almost certain that in reality it is of extreme consequence. That is true to an extraordinary degree, and for very deep reasons—namely because the rational structure of bureaucracy asserts itself essentially through formal, and particularly formal‑legal, mechanisms. For example—to put it quite bluntly—if one were to accept the distinction between sociology and social philosophy, then a distinction according to the same criterion would be adopted by the large foundations, by research associations, the Volkswagen Foundation or whoever else; and research projects—which, in the case of collective, empirical projects, are, as we know, very expensive—would be allocated to sociology, while everything else would be classed as philosophy. And if research projects were set up from a standpoint which, in terms of this division of labour, were defined as social philosophy, no money would be available for them. I think it is useful for you to be aware how distinctions which seem to be merely methodological or epistemological impinge quite directly on the practical conduct of these disciplines. I am taking this as an opportunity to point out to you that under the prevailing concept of ‘administrative research’, sociology, or empirical sociology, has been developed in an extremely one-sided way. Its potential to gather useful information has been fostered, while all the aspects of empirical social research which have critical implications have been neglected to a quite extraordinary degree. These critical implications concern social theses and assertions, such as those of the affluent society, or the so‑called ‘social partnership’, or the alleged pluralism of society—to mention a few of the favourite theses—which might be subjected to actual empirical investigation. Not the least of the objectives pursued by the Institut für Sozialforschung has been to attempt, within the modest limits set by financial considerations, to carry out at least a number of model studies of an empirical kind, from which it is seen that empirical methods can be functionally redirected [umfunktioniert] — to use that expression—to provide a critical, empirical perception of society, albeit one which presupposes theory.

Lurking behind the problems I have been talking about all this time is something much deeper and more difficult. It is the objective ideological function which the application of a strict academic division of labour has with regard to sociology. What I have in mind here might perhaps be expressed in terms of the following thesis: the strict moats dug between the differentiated scientific disciplines cause the intrinsic interest of these disciplines to disappear; and this interest cannot be restored by retrospective cooperation or integration—for example, by mutually explaining findings or discovering formal agreements between structures identified, say, by sociology and economics. This is simply because something secondary, assembled after the event from factors (as they're called), is made to appear as what is decisive and concrete; and the purpose of science, ultimately—as the positivists in particular ought to admit—is to engage with social concreteness, and not to gratify itself with schematic classifications.

I should like to illustrate this by citing a problem which I consider to be just as relevant to the general situation of sociology, and to the concept of sociology, as the moments I have drawn to your attention so far in this lecture. This is the relationship of sociology to what was earlier called political economy [Nationalökonomie] and is now—for interesting reasons about which much could be said—generally referred to as economics [Volkswirtschaftslehre]. This is really the problem of political economy itself. Of the demands put forward by students with regard to university reform, the most urgent, in my opinion, is for the fullest possible development of political economy. This is now especially urgent since the other very important demand at our university and in our Department, for the establishment of a Chair of Psychoanalysis (to which I shall come back later), has now been met by the appointment of Professor Mitscherlich. Perhaps I might add, without in the least wishing to usurp your role or give you avuncular advice on your endeavours, that it seems to me in general that the student movement, as far as it can be seen as an internal university matter, operates most fruitfully when extends to questions and demands concerning the content of disciplines, rather than when it is institutionally orientated, as seems to be largely the case at present; in this, the movement seems to me to run a certain risk of adaptation to the prevailing institutionalism. I believe, therefore, that the concern should be less with procedural rules, orders of business, problems of delegation and suchlike, than with the content of the disciplines themselves, where the scope for critique—heaven knows—is wide enough.

My thesis is quite simply that the strict division between economics and sociology, the consequence of which is unquestionably to dismiss the Marxian theory ante portas, causes the decisive social interests of both disciplines to disappear; and that precisely through this separation they both fail to assert their real interests, what really matters in them. I am speaking here in purely cognitive, not practical, terms; at this moment I am talking only of the perception of scientific structures, although this problem, by its own logic, is hard to separate from problems of praxis. The famous sociology which, in Scheuch’s dictum, ‘seeks to be nothing but sociology’, restricts itself to opinions and preferences or, at most, to interpersonal relationships, social forms, institutions, power relationships and conflicts. In this it disregards that which is the actual raison d'être of all these things—things, I call them; I mean, all these moments—and by which alone these moments can actually be measured. For it disregards the process of the real self‑preservation of human society; it disregards the fact that this whole, gigantic social process held together by exchange can finally have no other purpose than to guarantee and keep in motion, first of all on the material level, the life of the whole human species it the cultural standard which it has attained. If one were to make this point, one would be told at once by the sociologists: ‘Well now, we as sociologists really cannot concern ourselves with such questions of the economic survival of a nation or, for that matter, of humankind; those are really matters which have to do with economics. The specifically sociological aspect of all this is the interpersonal element, without regard to such economic processes.’ In other words, sociology—and this is really the gravest objection that can be made to what is generally called sociology—disregards the social production and reproduction of the life of society as a whole. And if anything is a social relationship, it is precisely that totality. But as soon as one puts forward such a point of view one is promptly accused of economism.

In Max Weber, it must be said—despite his famous attack on the Marxian superstructure‑base theory in his study on the Protestant ethic—the problem of the connection between sociology and economics was at least regarded as a problem. It is, finally, not by accident that his not‑quite‑finished magnum opus is called Economy and Society, and does thus pose the question of the interrelatedness and reciprocal influence of these two entities, which, admittedly, in keeping with the sociological schema, are already conceived as separate. What has now occurred in sociology—against Weber—is that this connection between economy and society, which clearly appeared to him to be the central sociological problem, has been excluded from scientific sociology in the narrower sense; that sociology—if you look at sociological literature in general—no longer pays any attention to it; and that even sociologists as socially critical as the late C. Wright Mills are finally beholden to what I might call the ruling sociology, in that they operate first of all with concepts such as power, elite and personal control of the apparatus of production, without involving themselves—or not very deeply—in an analysis of the economic processes themselves. As for economics itself, however, it will have no truck with anything—whether it be history, sociology or even philosophy—which does not take place strictly within the context of the developed market economy and which cannot be calculated, mathematized, according to the schemata of current market relationships; those disciplines are accused, for example, of presenting a purely sociological theory of class. Because this material is rejected by both disciplines, the decisive fact is expelled from economics as well: the fact that the economic relationships between people, though ostensibly of a purely economic, calculable nature, are in reality nothing but congealed interpersonal relationships. Sociology, on the other hand, in concerning itself only with relationships between people without paying too much attention to their objectified economic form, acts as if everything really depended on these interpersonal relationships or even on the opportunities open to social actions, and not on those mechanisms. What is lost in the gap between them—and this gap is to be understood not topologically, but as something really missing from the thought of both disciplines—is exactly that which was once referred to by the term ‘political economy’. What thus disappears from sociology is not only the decisive element whereby social activity is able to maintain itself at all, but also knowledge of how it maintains itself, with what sacrifices, threats and also with what potentialities for good—in other words, what is lost is precisely what matters, the core, one might say, of the social process. Not to mention the fact that the question of the relationship of economy to society, still as urgent as ever, vanishes from sociology. This question is directly connected to the further question how far present society is still an exchange society and how far it is no longer that. And on this latter question, in a way I hardly need to explain to you, any prognosis regarding allegedly political or social questions largely depends. The question, Ladies and Gentlemen—to state the matter bluntly—the question regarding the tendency of capital, the concentration of capital, which is always brushed aside with far‑fetched arguments within economics, is not only a question of economic calculation. Nor is it only a question which determines the structure of our society down to the level, I would almost say, of the most delicate subjective behaviour. It is also the question on which the development of society, and of specifically social forms, decisively depends. And if this question is not addressed, the whole of sociology is really neutralized in advance in face of the destiny confronting humankind. On the other hand, it must be remembered that what is called for is not only the assimilation of the mathematized market economy into sociology; economics, in its turn, is called upon to do precisely what it fails to do: to translate the economic laws back into congealed human relationships. The fact that there is a point or area of indifference between economics and sociology is no doubt the reason why Marx produced his curious formulation: ‘political economy’. It is curious because, firstly, as some of you will know, Marx consigned the whole sphere of politics to ideology. But there is something very ambivalent about even the theory of politics as ideology. On one hand, politics as the expression of existing power relationships is ideological in that it behaves as if it were a kind of technique or procedure independent of the social power relationships; on the other, however, politics, or the political sphere, also contains the possibility, the potential, for social change. It might be said, therefore, to put this, too, in dialectical terms, that politics is and at the same time is not ideology. I should like to add here, incidentally, that Marx had a violent aversion to the word sociology, an aversion that may have been connected to his very justified distaste for Auguste Comte, on whom he pronounced the most annihilating judgement. If this distaste is analysed more closely it is seen to be bound up with the fact that the reifying, merely contemplative posture of sociology towards society was repugnant to him, and that he somehow divined that to set up a science of society like any other science involved an ideological displacement which was impossible. For, as I mentioned earlier, society is really not an object but a subject. But he also took account of the very ambiguous situation regarding social science, in that while he despised sociology as the discipline which was becoming established at that time, and poured scorn on the word, he nevertheless devoted the major part of his own mature work to what can only be called theoretical national economy. I leave open the question whether, in this work, the reduction of economic connections to reified relationships was at every moment apparent to him, or whether he, too, had to pay his tribute to reifying science, a tribute from which, probably, no-one who concerns himself with science is exempt. One has always to choose, it may be said, between the reifying scientific consciousness and, if you like, amateurish unstructured thinking; and, reality being as it is, one is likely to find it very hard to pass beyond that contradiction.

I should add that the point here is not that the dividing lines between the disciplines are drawn too heavily; I am thinking of something far more definite and radical. I believe that the separation we are concerned with not only offends against this or that border crossing, which is unavoidable in organized thought, and would not cost me any tears. I have in mind something much more serious: the fact that the strict division between economics and sociology sets aside the really central interests of both disciplines. As a result, both fall to assert these central interests and thereby fulfil their function within the existing order, by not probing the wounds which this order has and which, above all, it inflicts on each of us, even if we have not yet become the objects of wars or similar natural catastrophes of society.

Ladies and Gentlemen, what I have tried, with a certain insistence, to demonstrate to you regarding the relationship of sociology to economics also applies to the relationship of sociology to other neighbouring disciplines, if not in such an emphatic form; and it applies, above all, to its relationship to history. The separation from history, incidentally, took place only gradually. In Marx, who, of course, came from Hegel, the categories used are not only so‑called systematic categories developed from concepts, but are always also, and intentionally, historical categories. In a very similar way, Hegel's own systematic categories are at the same time historical ones. Weber, too, was strongly guided by historical material. The de‑historicizing of sociology that we are seeing today is a further symptom of its reification, of the amputation of that in it which is capable of growth. But I shall speak about that on Thursday.

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Introduction to Sociology, edited by Christoph Godde, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), Lecture Sixteen, 9 July 1968, pp. 136-144. (Footnotes omitted here.)

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