Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

January 30, 2006


Today – complete Marcuse, summary of early critical theory; introduction to Habermas. 

The readings for the section on Habermas are CST, pp. 76-86 and “What is Discourse Ethics,” from Habermas (1991), pp. 196-203.


Later this week – Erik Olin Wright.  Read CST, Chapter 5, with emphasis on pp. 89-90 and 104-100.  I will also give you a handout on Wright. 


No class on Friday, February 10.


Summary of critical theory through Marcuse


1.  Supradisciplinary method.  Once Horkheimer became Director of the Institute for Social Research in 1930, he envisaged the Institute as carrying out interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary studies that cut across and combine various traditional academic disciplines.  Kellner notes that Horkheimer argued that social philosophy should examine and elucidate

the fate of human beings, insofar as they are parts of a community, not mere individuals.  It concerns itself above all with the social life of the people: state, law, economy, religion, in short, with the entire material and spiritual culture of humanity.  (Kellner, 1990, p. 2). 

That is, he looked on critical theory as an approach that would examine all aspects of social life, not only the larger structural forces but also the individual, consciousness, and the community.  In intellectual terms this meant working with ideas from philosophy, the social sciences, the arts, the humanities, and other traditions.  Rather than being interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, the aim was to assemble various writers and thinkers who could combine and synthesize ideas from these various perspectives.  By studying current social and political problems, the hope was that a new synthesis of perspectives could be achieved, whereby the boundaries of the traditional academic disciplines could be overcome – that is, a superdisciplinary approach to the study of the social life of people. 


Horkheimer was critical of sociologists and other social scientists for eliminating philosophy from their analysis and limiting themselves to the study of specific aspects of social life, without considering the structure and organization of society as a whole (Kellner, 1990, top of p. 3).  At the same time, he was critical of some branches of philosophy for limiting themselves to observable facts and the “scientific method.”  For Horkheimer, philosophy is essential to an overall social theory, but this theory also has to be involved in concrete studies of the social world – there should be a “dialectical penetration and development of philosophical theory and the praxis of the individual disciplines” (Horkheimer quoted in Kellner, 1990, p. 3).


As a result of these considerations, critical theorists are critical of Marxism when it is mechanically materialist or too determinist.  They were especially critical of branches of philosophy, especially positivism and scientific methods associated with it.  They are also critical of sociology and other social sciences for being insufficiently critical and having only partial analyses. 


Given that the initial concern of these theorists was to understand the reason why class consciousness had not developed among the working class, their first project was to conduct an empirical study of the white-collar working class in Germany, to obtain information concerning their psychological, social, and political attitudes and combine this with theoretical ideas from the various social sciences (Kellner, 1989, p. 19).  The findings of this study were that “the actual revolutionary potential of the German working class was less than was usually assumed, and that, while the workers might resist a fascist attempt to take over the government, it was unlikely that they would undertake the sacrifices necessary for a socialist revolution” (Kellner, 1989, p. 20). 


In summary, critical theory achieved the aim of being supradisciplinary in that the theoretical approach cuts across conventional disciplinary boundaries.  At the same time, it is not clear that the specific studies and analyses represent such a dramatic change from conventional disciplinary approaches. 


2.  Political Sociology.  In their early writings, critical theorists worked primarily in the Marxian perspective, but extending it by examining the new forms capitalism took, and developing it in new directions, by examining culture and consciousness. 


a. Commodity Exchange.  Beginning with analysis of the commodity and of commodity production and exchange as the key features of capitalist society, they argued that

capitalist market relations and values were penetrating ever more areas of life.  … Exchange as becoming the primary way in which people related to and interacted with each other in a capitalist market society.  Consequently reification, the turning of humans, culture, nature and everything else into commodities whose fundamental substance was exchange value, came to dominate relationships and activity within capitalist society.  (Kellner, 1989, p. 53). 

That is, exchange relationships come to dominate inter-personal relationships so that social interaction and social relationships become structured by production, markets, and exchange rather than by more meaningful forms of direct human relationships.  Marx argued this in his writings on alienation and in Capital, and critical theorists further developed and expanded this argument. 


Critical theorists argued that twentieth century capitalism extended exchange relationships to parts of society previously untouched by markets and exchange.  They looked on aspects of personal life, such as love, friendship, and the family, becoming reduced to an exchange form and becoming structured by the forces of the economy and the political-cultural system.  Consumption became organized by such forces as well, so that there were increasingly “oppressive uniformities and identities” (Calhoun, p. 516).  They were concerned with “the increasing and increasingly enforced sameness of modern society – both a conformism among its members and a difficulty in bringing underlying tensions, even contradictions, to public attention and action” (Calhoun, p. 517) and viewed such forces as stifling individuality and particularity (Kellner, 1989, p. 54), thus producing a sameness among all members of society.  This aspect of capitalism has developed and expanded much beyond the level it had reached in the 1940s, or even in the 1960s (Marcuse), so this aspect of their critique has an important resonance in today’s economy, media, and society.  Consumer and media capitalism have extended their reach into all aspects of the consumer society and life in general, and a critical approach to contemporary society can benefit from and use the ideas developed by these critical theorists. 


b. Administered Society.  A second major feature of the political sociology of critical theory is the concepty of an administered society (Calhoun, p. 517 and p. 523).  Weber had argued that forces of rationality and rationalization were becoming increasingly dominant and determining in western society.  Rather than traditional or charismatic forces organizing society, its institutions, and social relationships, Weber argued that calculation, accounting, planning, and considered decision-making, were becoming the means by which social action was guided.  This implies that there is careful examination of how means could be used to accomplish particular ends.  These forces were clearest in economics, business, and formal organizations, but Weber argued that these same forces made increasingly affected the organization and conduct of politics, education, and even culture and the arts.


Critical theorists added these ideas of Weber on bureaucracy, rationalization, and administration to the Marxian ideas of exchange and commodification of goods and services.  While Marx was primarily concerned with the economic sphere, the critical theorists extended their analysis to the political and social sphere, combining the ideas of exchange and administered society.  The result was a view that capitalism and the society associated with it “was a totalizing system which attempted to penetrate every area of life from self-constitution to interpersonal relations to education.”  These totalizing processes were leading to the destruction of “individuality and particularity” (Kellner, 1989, p. 54). 


One form this took was an economic analysis which argued that capitalism had been transformed from uncontrolled and relatively free markets to a form of state capitalism.  While Marx and some earlier economists may have foreseen some aspects of this, they did not foresee the manner in which the state would intervene in the economic sphere.  Friedrich Pollock, one of the economists associated with the Frankfurt School developed a model of state capitalism, whereby “the state acquires power over money and credit, and regulates production and prices.  Furthermore, management becomes separate from ownership” (Kellner, 1989, pp. 60-61).  While these critical theorists may have overestimated the role of the state in economics, and underestimated the vibrancy of capitalism as an economic system, theories of this sort have contributed to our understanding of capitalism and how it evolves.  There is a strong political aspect to the economic sphere and many aspects of the economy are administered. 


c. Totalizing Societies.   An important part of critical theory related to their critique of totality and totalizing forces.  Critical theorists were always opposed to any form of totalitarianism, whether it was the totalitarian society of fascism in Germany or the totalizing form of administered socialism in the Soviet Union (Calhoun, p. 522).  Their arguments here make sense given the systems that emerged in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, where structures to “control more and more aspects of life” (Kellner, 1989, p. 54) were established and acquired great power.  For the critical theorists, totalitarian meant any system which organizes many or all aspects of social life and attempts to govern social life. 


Since the critical theorists came from, were living in, and were affected by the fascist form of political and social organization (Calhoun, p. 523), it is no surprise that they developed a model of this totalitarian system.  Their intimate knowledge of this system, and later observation of it from exile in the United States, provided them with insights into the nature and structure of totality.  Critical theorists looked on fascism as a new form of monopoly or state capitalism, whereby “the state assumed functions previously carried out by a market economy and thus became the primary arbitrator of socio-economic development” (Kellner, 1989, p. 67).  They looked on this system as a result of political and economic disorder, a system that capitalism developed to survive in the face of challenges from the working class and its own inability to govern itself.  This was then a new phase of capitalism, “a new synthesis of monopoly capitalism and the totalitarian state which threatens to dominate the world and to eliminate its opponents and all vestiges of the earlier forms of liberal economy and politics” (Kellner, 1989, p. 67).  Attractive as this analysis was, this prediction turned out to be incorrect and capitalism has taken a different form, perhaps totalizing, but in a different manner.  However, the experience of the critical theorists with fascism and totalitarianism helped shape their later analysis.  In particular, they focus on the ways such a political-economic system achieves a rational, efficient form of production, but eliminates alternatives and debate over them.  The reading from Marcuse will show how he interpreted and developed these ideas of totality and administered society as applying to societies that are normally considered more democratic and liberal.


An additional aspect of the discussion is the relative autonomy of the political and economic spheres of society.  Marxists tended to argue that the state and political forces operate in the interest of the owners of capital.  Some of the arguments of the critical theorists questioned this, pointing out that the political sphere sometimes was dominant, and the interests of the administered, totalitarian society might dominate the economic in some aspects.


Another aspect of the analysis of such a system was the “socio-psychological analysis of the cultural roots of fascism in attitudes toward the family and authority” (Kellner, 1989, p. 66).   For Marxists, this was a new direction for social analysis to take and Erich Fromm, one of the key critical theorists, incorporated Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories into the social theory of the Frankfurt School. 


d. Individual and Human Nature.  For the Frankfurt theorists, human nature existed, but it was always related to the historical conditions in which it emerged.  That is, human nature is not fixed across time and place, but emerges from the social institutions in which it develops and exists.  Humans are creative beings, but capitalism creates certain conditions that appear to be natural and unchanging – these dominate and limit human creativity.  The critical theorists argued with the model of the absolute individual consciousness and identity that characterized much enlightenment, liberal thought and considered individuals to be social, “constituted by intersubjective relations with others” (Calhoun, p. 517).  In addition to identity, non-identity and multiple involvements of the individual meant that self-identity took many different forms.  It was in this that the individual can develop creativity and reach beyond an unchanging individual identity.  If society allowed the individual to explore and critique different ideas and situations, this would allow the individual to be free.  But the increasing sameness and uniformity of society, forced on individuals and their relationships with each other, prevents this freedom from being exercised.


Critical theorists considered human characteristics such as “the pursuit of happiness, the need for solidarity with others, and natural sympathies” (Calhoun, p. 517) as essential aspects of humanity.  These were developed in particular ways in each specific form of social organization, since people are products of the historical conditions in which they live.  But critical theory attempted to connect a critical form of reason to these human characteristics.  Horkheimer argued that “a form of reason implicitly critical of civilization” is part of human nature.  The problem is that administered and totalizing societies attempt to stifle and constrain this and channel it in particular directions.  Fromm argued that there is an essential human nature that is “repressed and distorted by capitalist patterns of domination” (Elliott, p. 138). 


Erich Fromm’s contribution to critical theory involved an analysis of the individual, the family, sexual repression, the economy, and the social context of the individual.  His writings outline one way in which the work of Freud and Marx can be integrated.  Fromm argues that there are basic instincts or motive forces for human behaviour, but that these are adapted, both actively and passively, to social reality.  For Fromm, “psychoanalysis … seeks to discover the hidden sources of the obviously irrational behavior patterns in societal life – in religion, custom, politics, and education” (Kellner, 1989, p. 37).  In this way, he combined social psychological approaches with the materialism of Marx – that is, synthesizing the instinctual, psychological forces in humans with the effects of economic and material forces on human life. 


For Fromm, the nuclear family as it exists in capitalist society is key to understanding the connections between these.  That is, the individual is raised in a family, and the family stamps a specific part of the social structure on the child.  This is the manner in which “society reproduces it class structure and imposes its ideologies and practices on individuals” (Kellner, 1989, p. 37).   While individuals growing up in a different society would develop differently, the particular effects of modernity create forms of domination and inner struggles in each individual.  Forms of social behaviour such as being “submissive, self-effacing, and powerless” (Elliott, p. 138) become part of the self in these circumstances.


One of the concerns of the Frankfurt school was to develop an idea of how authority emerges in modern society, given that traditional forms of authority have been eclipsed.  Fromm connected the acceptance of authority with the family and with the larger society.  The individual learns to accept the authority of the father in patriarchal society and develops an inner censor which internalizes commands and prohibitions.  This, plus fear of punishment, are constantly reinforced by other representatives of authority, so that people learn to submit to these authorities and internalize this.  Fromm looked on people as developing weak egos as a result and argued that the ego has to be strengthened and that there should be “rebellion against irrational authority and development of strong egos which do not derive pleasure from either subordination or domination, and which are independent of dominant authority, yet able to recognize rational authority” (Kellner, 1989, p. 43). 


The idea of authority was later taken up by Theodor Adorno in The Authoritarian Personality (published in 1950).  This was a quantitative study conducted in the United States in the late 1940s.  The major concern of the study was to determine “the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda” (Kellner, 1989, p. 115).  Kellner argues that the questions associated with this study and the findings can be useful in analyzing the new right conservatism that has emerged in recent years.  See CST, pp. 74-75.


In this study, Adorno argued that there was a particular character type that could be considered authoritarian – individuals who “had a deep psychological need for an ‘imaginary foe’ on which to project all forms of evil and aggression, a foe which would serve as a scapegoat for explaining the world’s (and individual’s) major problems, fears and obsessions” (Kellner, 1989, p. 116).  Some of the characteristics of the authoritarian personality are adherence to conventional values, authoritarian (uncritical) submission to idealized authorities, and aggression toward those who violate conventional values.  For Adorno

Ignorance about the complex conditons of modern societies leads to a general uncertainty and anxiety, while creating favorable conditions for the projection of paranoid fears onto imaginary enemies.  It also leads to … ‘ticket thinking’ and ‘personalization in politics’, whereby the confused, anxious authoritarian personality buys into an entire political agenda and projects hostile and aggressive tendencies on personalized enemies, while idealizing authoritarian leaders.  (Kellner, 1989, p. 117).

Kellner argues that Adorno’s findings are still useful and can be used to describe and analyze contemporary attitudes and movements of the conservative right in the United States – their characteristics today are essentially the same as in the late 1940s.   The main characteristics of the authoritarian personality are as follows.


Characteristics of the Authoritarian Personality

               i.      Conventionalism.  Rigid adherence to conventional, middle class attitudes.

             ii.      Authoritarian Submission.  Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.

            iii.      Authoritarian Aggression.  Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.

           iv.      Anti-intraception.  Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tenderminded.

             v.      Superstitions and Stereotype.  The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.

           vi.      Power and ‘Toughness’.  Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.

          vii.      Destruction and Cynicism.  Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.

        viii.      Projectivity.  The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.

           ix.      Sex.  Exaggerated concern with sexual ‘goings-on.’

Source:  Kellner, 1989, p. 115.


Conclusions and problems:

Marcuse.  Marcuse developed a powerful critique of consumer society, focusing not just on the waste and irrationality of a consumer culture, but integrating it with earlier critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and dialectical forms of analysis.    Also note the comparative pleasure and reality principles – p. 70 of CST.

Family and gender.  Adams and Sydie argue that critical theorists tended to focus only on men and had an idealistic view of traditional family structure.  In addition, they did not understand how capitalism and patriarchy had structured women’s position and experiences.   Their analysis of the traditional family appears to differ little from that of Parsons, with segregated sex or gender roles.  Further, the critical theorists tended to look on women as more closely connected to nature, with there being a distinctly “feminine principle,” considered by Marcuse to possibly be a source of emancipation (Adams and Sydie, p. 73). 

Too one-dimensional.  One-dimensional tendencies overstated.   Unable to develop theories of change and understand how critical social movements and analyses develop in the totalizing system. 

Similarity to systems approach of Parsons, but with a different evaluation of the social forces.




Calhoun, Craig.  2000.  “Social Theory and the Public Sphere,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Elliott, Anthony.  2000.   “Psychoanalysis and Social Theory,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory,” second edition.  Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers.

Farganis, James. 1996. Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1990?. Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory.  from Illuminations,

Kellner, Douglas. 1995. Media Culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London and New York: Routledge.

Ritzer, George. 1996. Sociological Theory, fourth edition.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, Bryan S.  1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf. 1999. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Expanding the Classical Tradition, fourth edition.  Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall.


Last edited January 31, 2006