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)

Discomfort (Unbehagen)

Nassehi, Armin (2021), Unbehagen - THEORIE DER ÜBERFORDERTEN GESELLSCHAFT, Tübingen: C.H. Beck.



Armin Nassehi explores the idea that social and cultural development comes at a cost, a concept that has been present since the beginning of modernity. The term "late capitalism" exemplifies this skepticism, as it reflects the idea of the impossibility of the modernization process. Nassehi emphasizes the idea that the discomfort in culture can be traced back to the tension between the individual and the culture with its development. He refers to Freud's "The Uneasiness in Civilization," which describes the tension between the individual and the culture as a result of the development of culture in increasingly abstract forms. These forms require more norm fulfillment, and the individual may feel overwhelmed, leading to guilt and a need for compensation. Overall, Nassehi suggests that the development of culture leads to a demand for greater conformity and a rise in individual self-control, which may come at a cost to the individual. Certain perspectives have the tendency to accentuate the individual and their suffering while oversimplifying society as a phenomenon. Ehrenberg's concept of an exhausted self illustrates this point. Such diagnoses often suggest an underlying idea of successful subjectivity, which is seen as corrupted by the world. The nature of society in these diagnoses is underdetermined, with the focus remaining on the individual. Such diagnoses inevitably lead to political appeals that do not fully account for the complexity of society. Nassehi aims to provide a society-theoretical diagnosis of overburdening, rather than a rehashing of classic discussions on the subject. The main focus of the book is to examine the process by which modern society responds to self-generated problems. Society has the knowledge, resources, and means to solve many of the world's problems, yet it often fails to do so. Nassehi explores the reasons behind this failure, addressing questions such as why society allows so much suffering and problematic issues to persist despite having the means to address them. Problems can be self-generated, as they are the result of societal practices, and society's attention to certain problems is often determined by the institutions and systems that govern it. It’s important to examine society's response to self-generated problems and how it can better prepare itself for future challenges.

Nassehi discusses the conventions of theory-building in sociology. Theory should not be understood as a fixed body of knowledge, but rather as a methodologically controlled form of constituting the object of inquiry. The construction of theory is about making explicit decisions about the object of inquiry, and these decisions can be contested. Theory can be seen as a dialogue between texts, which can be reconstructed through the self-movement of conceptual structures. Theoretical arguments should be able to make the constitution of the object of inquiry contingent on explicit decisions, such as the relationship between concepts and objects, or the nature of the object of inquiry itself. The construction of scientific instruments involves making decisions about what information can and should be made available, which is also a form of theory-building.

The subtitle of the book (THEORY OF THE OVERSTRESSED SOCIETY) reflects its focus on society's overwhelming demand for self-reflection, resulting in a crisis narrative. The structure of society contains the restrictions that lead to the permanent overloading of self-generated problems. Society can only work with the means available to it. Order is established within systems and the internal differentiation of society shapes the processing of information and possible actions. How does such a society imagine problems that it can solve and how does it deal with more indeterminate challenges? Nassehi takes a risk by attempting a theoretical analysis of the subject and controlling the empirical statements by themselves. His hypothesis is that modern society is mainly overwhelmed with self-generated crises, which is the main point of entry for subsequent analyses.


What to do?

Nassehi concludes his book by stating that despite the knowledge and insight available, society is overwhelmed and unable to solve the problems of the world. The concept of crises is examined and found to be misleading, as society is constantly in crisis due to its own structures and processes. There is no escaping this overwhelm and overburdening, but it’s both a problem and a solution in itself. Nassehi discusses the idea of visibility and invisibility in modern society, particularly regarding the decentralization, division of labor, and differentiation of problem-solving tools in modern societies.


The Enlightenment's emphasis on the irrelevance of differences such as race and gender is misguided because these differences have practical implications in society, despite their lack of inherent meaning. The functional differentiation of society is indifferent to gender distinctions, but traditional gender roles persist due to the practical organization of family and work. The persistence of gender roles is further reinforced by the ways in which visual perception routines create practical occasions for gender coding. Similarly, the perception of racial differences is often created through aesthetic means, such as the repetition of stereotypes in art and propaganda. Current societal obsession with gender and race is not due to insignificant differences, but because these differences are used to create identities and roles. The promise of equality is unrealistic given the persistence of differences that serve practical purposes, and challenges to these roles will inevitably lead to conflicts over the established order.

Structural conflicts and challenges arise in a functionally differentiated society. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the limitations of the political system to control and manage society, and the extent to which each functional system is limited by its own logic. It’s important to understand the different problem constellations faced by each field and functional system in addressing crises. Effective problem-solving requires the consideration of both social and problem-specific dimensions. The resolution of conflicts between interest groups and power asymmetries is essential in achieving effective solutions.

Industrialized societies face societal problems. A risk society emerged. The increased complexity and dynamism of modern societies, characterized by factors such as technological advancement, inclusivity, democratization, education, media pluralism, and specialization, make centralized coordination difficult. However, the resulting risks can be turned into opportunities through social arrangements that make risks manageable. This transformation from danger to risk is made possible by the establishment of institutions and regulations, such as social security and insurance, that enable individuals to make decisions that shape their future. Pre-existing forms and alternatives are important in decision-making. So is the need to find ways to make the trade-offs between competing societal objectives manageable.


Jürgen Habermas' concept of an ideal speech situation is not meant to be an empirical phenomenon but rather a model for discourse that presupposes certain conditions for participants that must remain latent in order to work effectively. Habermas believes that a counterfactual agreement among speakers about the conditions of discourse binds them in advance, such that an understanding should not be necessary. This idea fits into concepts of society that focus almost exclusively on the social dimension and that is one of Habermas' great strengths. However, if one were to propose an ideal speech situation today, it would likely involve bringing together those who do not usually come together in decision-making or risk-taking situations, given the increasing complexity of contemporary issues. The fundamental idea is not consensus, but rather the ability of each side to operate within an institutional arrangement according to its own rules. Examples are hospitals, ethics committees, and refugee aid organizations where such solutions emerge under pressure.

The relationship between medicine and society is changing, particularly in relation to death and dying. Medical progress has led to longer lives and improved treatment options for patients. However, this progress has also led to a shift in societal attitudes towards medicine, with patients becoming more informed and critical of medical practices. Palliative care, which involves interdisciplinary medical, nursing, and psychosocial care for patients with serious illnesses, provides an example of the changing relationship between medicine and society. Palliative care highlights the need for professionals from different fields to work together and collaborate to address the complexity of patient care. The public discussion around dying and death is largely influenced by palliative care, which has led to the idea of making the dying person a communication partner who is aware of their fate. Successful societal integration requires transparency in communication, negotiation processes, and the creation of consensus.

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