No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The self-description of sociology


Sociology has always been preoccupied with describing itself, starting with its classical period when research topics were closely linked to reflections on sociology as a field. Early sociologists grappled with defining the discipline when its recognition as a science was still uncertain, and many of its themes were already addressed by other fields.

In the post-war decades, sociology became more institutionally established, leading to a separation between research topics and reflection topics. This led to a concentration of reflection on a few key themes and alternatives, such as debates about functional versus causal methods and the later positivism debate. With this increasing specialization, sociology's self-reflection could no longer claim to provide an overview of the field's full complexity.

In recent years, sociology has faced challenges regarding its unity and coherence, with many research topics dominating over reflective themes. There are various conceptions of what sociology is, but this lack of consensus might not be a problem as long as there is growth in the discipline. But this may have led to an opaque mix of claims, results, and research questions, which could pose difficulties for students and young sociologists.

How should sociology adapt to these challenges? Should it rely on external criteria or develop its own? And how it can communicate effectively about its own nature and function?

A concept of self-description or self-reflection can be employed, allowing for a more comparative perspective on sociology and its place in the broader social and academic context.


Sociology attempts to describe social reality, but it is always surrounded by other descriptions. It must specify how its description of reality relates to primary descriptions, either by basing its own descriptions on the same distinctions as the primary descriptions or by seeking different distinctions to differentiate itself.

Many primary descriptions also have the nature of self-descriptions and belong to the same domain of reality they describe. Self-descriptions lack the independence that object knowledge has, as they change the object by running within it. They can't end on their own and require situational reference points and plausibility. This inclusion of description into the described is what sociology initially recognized in human consciousness, which was thought to have a monopoly on self-reference. But the concept of self-reference has been generalized beyond human consciousness in the development of science.

Sociology's self-description isn't limited to individual consciousness; it also extends to social entities. Social units, such as society, also engage in self-description, and sociology observes these descriptions. Sociology must clarify how it relates to the self-descriptions of other social systems.

The primary example of self-description within sociology is society itself, as all descriptions of society must be conducted within the society. Various subsystems within society, such as religion, law, or politics, have their own self-descriptions. Even sociology has a concept for the unity of its complexity - sociology itself.

In the context of sociology, self-description pertains to how sociology positions itself in relation to self-descriptions of other social systems and how it contributes to these reflection processes. Sociology can't reflect on itself without addressing its role in the reflection of other social systems. These other self-descriptions are not external; they are integral to sociology's self-description.

Sociology faces challenges in formulating its own self-description. Sociology should not merely observe itself from an external perspective. The themes of sociology's self-description are rooted in how it relates to the self-descriptions of other social systems and how it contributes to these reflection processes.

Kieserling distinguishes between reflection of subsystems and reflection of the entire society, and another between the reflection concepts of science and those of other subsystems. These distinctions help analyze the history of sociology's self-reflection, which includes conflicts over issues like value neutrality, positivism, and more recent disputes related to time diagnosis in contemporary society.


Sociology must define itself as a science, clarifying the sense in which it constitutes a scientific discipline. It also needs to distinguish its descriptions of areas such as law, religion, and morality from the self-descriptions of these areas without merely repeating what lawyers, theologians, or moralists have said. Sociology must contribute something new to these descriptions. To address these challenges, sociology must make a decisive choice: it must integrate itself into the scientific system and distance itself from other systems by referring to the theory of reflection within this system.

Sociological theory also employs a set of defense concepts against various tendencies, such as economism and scientism, and aims to maintain its distinctive perspective. This distancing from other fields has implications for discussions about the boundaries of political control and globalization.

The decision to define itself as a science and distinguish itself from other disciplines has been productive, allowing sociology to maintain a perspective that needs to convince only within the realm of science while producing novel perspectives on other systems. This leads to the creation of descriptions of other systems that differ from their self-descriptions, and these differences are not mere coincidences or errors but intentional and consistent. But this decision also comes with drawbacks. It binds sociology to a concept of science that isn't inherently specific to sociology, as the terminology it uses for science is borrowed from general scientific theory. The author acknowledges that this decision to align itself with the broader concept of science is problematic and might limit the discipline.

In the post-war period, this alignment with the general concept of science became more apparent, resulting in challenges, especially for sociology of science. The sociology of science was only able to address the social dimension of science, leaving the cognitive aspects and research programs unexamined. This limitation resulted from relying on the official self-description of science, which does not consider successful knowledge as a social phenomenon, preventing the sociology of science from analyzing the social identity and cognitive identity of science using sociological means.

As a result, structural-functional sociology of science experienced limitations because it could only examine error and ideological distortion, while the significant scientific achievements and their memorability were beyond its scope. These limitations can be traced back to the socialized reading of epistemological vocabulary within the self-description of science.


Sociology transitioned from a focus on external descriptions and reflections to a more comprehensive self-reflection. In the initial phase of this transition, sociology concentrated on making descriptions of external subjects, including its own self-description, which was done in a foreign language not shaped by sociological developments. In the second phase, this approach no longer worked effectively because sociology began to include the complete field of science, including its own theory, as objects for sociological description. This shift meant that sociology distanced itself not only from the theories of other subsystems but also from the self-description of the scientific system. This shift is both logical, as there's no reason to exclude science's self-description from sociological analysis of reflective processes within subsystems of modern society, and problematic, as long as sociology fails to offer its own interpretation of the epistemological vocabulary.

The transition into the second phase was triggered by the relationship between the theories of science and society. There are two interpretations of this relationship: one is a scientific-theoretical perspective that views society as one research subject among many, with society theories just being another scientific theory. The other is a sociological perspective that recognizes science as part of society and its theories as subjects for sociological analysis. Theodor W. Adorno argued that the prevailing scientific theory of critical rationalism, or what he saw as such, did not adequately represent modern society. This theory assumed a continuum of rationality in both the relationship between science and society and the various levels of aggregation of scientific statements. Adorno's perspective called for a sociological reflection of the science system.

Developments in the sociology of science sought to establish a sociological concept of science that goes beyond the previous limitations and distinguishes itself significantly from scientific theory. These endeavors aim for better science or research but are subject to varying interpretations. Both the sociological theories of science and the underdeveloped self-reflection of sociology need to be supported.


Science used to be a central point of reflection for sociology, but it has lost its significance. This shift is attributed to various reasons, including developments in post-empiricist history of science theory.

Sociology has undergone a transformation in its self-description. In earlier years, the field faced career-defining moments where precise ideas about the scientific claims of the discipline were questioned. Today, such questions have become less prominent, and many sociologists believe that the concept of science is outdated.

The self-description of sociology has shifted in two ways. First, sociology can attempt to reflect itself as part of another sub-system, similar to the way it dealt with the positivism conflict concerning the political system of society. However, this approach is less favored today.

The second approach is for sociology to understand itself as an integral part of society or engage in the dynamics of society directly. Many sociologists have ventured into global time diagnoses, which have become a central point of reflection for sociology. This shift places more emphasis on reflecting the concepts of the overall society when commenting on the field of sociology.

Sociology faces challenges in the context of time diagnoses. The debates surrounding concepts like the industrial society, information society, or risk society have sparked controversies about whether sociology can contribute to understanding and defining these terms. While some sociologists embrace these concepts, others argue that they conflict with the traditional concerns of the field.


Time diagnoses often lead to the oversimplification and misinterpretation of sociological concepts when they are communicated through mass media. Individualization is an example where sociological nuances can be lost in mass media, leading to misunderstandings.

Sociology should not entirely withdraw from the self-description of society but rather work on enhancing its relationship with time diagnoses and reflect the unique contribution of sociology to understanding contemporary societal issues. This way, sociology can maintain its role in shaping the understanding of modern society while respecting its boundaries and the complexities of its theories.


The self-description of sociology is structured around the alternative of whether it should contribute to the self-description of other social entities or not. Sociology could relatively easily distance itself from law, politics, and economics, as it’s affilliated with the science of society. But distancing from the self-description of science itself is more challenging because sociology is inherently connected to scientific discourse.

Is it even possible for sociology to abstain from contributing to the self-description of modern society, particularly in the context of time diagnoses? This dilemma raises concerns about whether sociology should give up on both time diagnoses and sociological theory. These are complex questions that do not have a uniform answer when it comes to sociology's relationship with self-descriptions of other systems.

The proposed concept provides the advantage that sociology does not need to have a consistent answer to its relationship with the self-descriptions of other systems. The response can vary depending on the specific system in question. In relation to society, sociology might find it challenging to avoid contributing to its self-descriptions but is not compelled to participate in self-descriptions of other sub-systems. This realization does not necessarily imply that sociology must engage with the self-descriptions of various societal sub-systems.


Kieserling, A. (1999), Die Selbstbeschreibung der Soziologie, in: Soziale Welt, 50. Jahrg., H. 4 (1999), pp. 395-412.