Frankfurt School of Sociological Thought Research Paper Starter

Frankfurt School of Sociological Thought

(Research Starters)

The Frankfurt School is the name now given to the scholars involved with the Institute of Social Research, founded at the University of Frankfurt in Germany in 1923. The school developed critical theory, which strove to reclaim Marx's theories from the misinterpretations of orthodox Marxism. It also incorporated Freudian analysis into Marxist thought, insisted on the primacy of culture in social analysis, and grounded its theory in materialism and action. Members of the school were known for writing on the culture industry, the totalitarian personality, political economy, and aesthetic theory. While some theorists in modern cultural studies think the Frankfurt School is outdated, many sociologists and neo-Marxists find critical theory a useful starting point for deconstruction of society and culture.

Keywords Benjamin, Walter; Critical Theory; Culture Industry; Dialectic; Economic Determinism; Marxist Analysis; Positivism; Totalitarianism

Sociological Theory: The Frankfurt School of Sociological Thought

The Frankfurt School


The Frankfurt School is the name now given to both the theories and group of scholars connected to the Institute of Social Research, affiliated with the University of Frankfurt in Germany and Columbia University in New York. Known for the development of critical theory, the study of totalitarianism and mass culture, an interdisciplinary approach to subject matter and methods, and the integration of Freudian theories into neo-Marxist analysis, the Frankfurt School has influenced psychology, sociological theory, and cultural studies. Recent adaptations have applied the theories to new communications technologies and the modern crisis of legitimation.


The Frankfurt School is the name given to the theorists and theories associated with the Institute of Social Research which was founded by Felix Weil on February 3, 1923 at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. Weil and his circle of friends found the structure of contemporaneous German university departments too constraining for the social analysis they wished to conduct. They developed the idea of creating a semi-autonomous research institute and persuaded Weil's father Hermann, a wealthy merchant, to support the project. Some of the thinkers associated with the Institute were Friedrich Pollock, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal, and Walter Benjamin, as well as Jürgen Habermas, Erich Fromm, and Georg Lukacs, among others (Jay, 1973). They were sociologists, economists, psychologists, political scientists and philosophers with common interests in Marxism and the critique of culture. Horkheimer, Habermas, Adorno, and Marcuse are frequently seen as the core figures of the school (Held, 1980).

To understand the perceived need for the Institute, it is necessary to understand the political situation of the time. Germany, defeated in the First World War, was under the control of the unstable and often threatened Social Democratic government that came to be known as the Weimar Republic. The government was weakened by the onerous terms of the Versailles Treaty, afflicted with runaway inflation, and under attack from within by parties from both the extreme left and the extreme right.

German universities enforced rigid specialization and a long period of apprenticeship, and their disciplinary boundaries were far too structured for a group of scholars with such interdisciplinary interests. They also were not welcoming to the study of radical political theories, given the political instability of the times. The scholars who created the Institute were interested in revitalizing Marxist theory, yet highly suspicious of Marxism as it was interpreted under the Soviet regime. As they conducted academic research that was seen as radical (although few of them were actually involved with politics), to achieve their goals they needed the autonomy of a new space for research. Thus the Institute was born.

The first director was Carl Grunberg, who previously taught law and political science, and who steered the Institute into a traditional interpretation of Marxism. Max Horkheimer took over as director in 1931 after Grunberg's health failed, and he began to steer the Institute's focus away from orthodox Marxist analysis. Under his leadership the interdisciplinary interests of the members flourished, and insights from across the academy — in art, literature, music, psychology, and philosophy - entered as subjects of critique.

Nazis came to power in Germany in January of 1933. As Marxist theorists, many of whom were ethnically Jewish, the members of the Institute were obvious targets of the new regime. Nazis closed down the Institute and seized its library. (Luckily, the Institute had already removed its endowment from German banks the year before.) As its members left Germany quickly, the Institute moved to Geneva, also setting up small branches in London and Paris. Their residence in Geneva was short-lived, however, as Switzerland seemed a bit close to the expanding Nazi regime. When Nicholas Butler, president of Columbia University in New York, encouraged the Institute to move to his campus, the members accepted his offer quickly. In 1934, Marcuse, Löwenthal, Pollock, and Wittfogel moved to Columbia University; Fromm had already relocated to the United States and joined them. Despite the move to New York, the Institute did not become Americanized and continued to publish its work in German. This combined with its organization's independence from university departments and its isolation relative to the Columbia campus meant it never entered the mainstream of American sociology, even while it was located in the United States.

The Institute returned to Frankfurt in 1949 after the University of Frankfurt, trying to regain some of its prewar prominence, made compelling offers to get it back. Horkheimer and Adorno, homesick for German, were happy to return. When it returned to Frankfurt, the Institute left some members behind in the United States: Marcuse and Fromm, who were already distanced from it intellectually, remained in the United States, as did Löwenthal, who had married an American. Horkheimer retired in 1959 and Adorno (who was involved with member of the Institute for years before officially becoming a member in 1938 and co-director in 1955) took over the Institute.

Critical Theory

The Frankfurt school was composed of many theorists from many disciplines, so the work that came out of the school was broad in scope. Many members of the school were trained in philosophy and influenced by thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kant and Hegel. They shared an interest in Marx, but differed on many points of interpretation. There are unifying threads to their body of work: a desire to update Marxism, an interest in culture, an interest in interdisciplinary analysis, and a reluctance to codify their own output into a monolithic system (Jay, 1973).

The Frankfurt School created critical theory. As the name suggests, critical theory began as a critique of other schools of thought. Its aims are many: to bring materialist analysis into social analysis, to connect theory to action, to revive Marx's ideas, which had been reified and misinterpreted, and to analyze society and culture as a totality, rather than analyzing aspects in isolation. It is rooted in a critique of the trajectory taken by Marxist analysis after Marx's death, a critique aimed at improving Marxist analysis, not rejecting it. The main attack on Marxist thought dealt with what some saw as its economic determinism; the theorists of the Frankfurt School placed emphasis on culture as a driving force in society.

The Frankfurt School's theorists were also unified by their critique of the positivism of social sciences. Positivism is the idea that social sciences should use the methods of the "hard sciences" to analyze society. This drew fire from the critical theorists (and many others) for several reasons. First, the subject matter of the social sciences is quite different from that of the hard sciences. Humans attach meaning to their actions and exercise free will, which means that their subjective states are also open to study. This also means...

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