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)

Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) was a social philosopher from the (critical) Frankfurt School, which also included Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse. Adorno was notoriously famous for his critique of the capitalist system, science and art in which uniformity (standardization and variations on only one theme) sets the tone, to the detriment of the other, the unknown and uncontrollable of human and non-human nature . The culture industry creates the demand for what capitalism offers, and sensemaking disappears from the scene, Adorno wrote. Together with Horkheimer, Adorno drew attention to the failing project of enlightenment: its espoused values of rationality and progress turned into a compulsion to control.

Sociology of Art

The Frankfurt School's approach to the sociology of art differed from that of more traditional Marxist thought in that it viewed art not just as a reflection of existing social trends, but also as a means through which people could express their desire for an alternative society. According to the Frankfurt School, true art serves as a way for people to express their interests in their own happiness and serves as a source of utopia in a world that has lost its sense of transcendence. The Frankfurt School also recognized that art is always tied to the social conditions under which it is produced and, as such, can be critical of the existing reality. In their analysis of mass culture, the Frankfurt School argued that the products of the culture industry, including artificial art, are stripped of their use value and become commodities that are subject to the laws of capitalism. They argued that this results in the production of an emasculated art that is unable to serve as a source of protest and instead serves to confirm the existing reality.

The Autoritarian Personality

A study conducted in the wake of World War II, 'The Authoritarian Personality' investigated the connections between personality traits and political culture in post-war American society. Using a blend of clinical and social psychology methods, it examined the emergence of authoritarianism.

The research addressed the formation of authoritarian and democratic attitudes within education, family, and social interactions. The study revealed antisemitism as part of a broader ideological framework influenced by psychological needs and social climates.

Adorno and colleagues emphasized that persistent tendencies aren't solely tied to innate factors but also to social circumstances, but, personality structure does impact susceptibility to antidemocratic propaganda. Self-awareness and self-determination were seen as important to counter manipulation. Adorno wrote that societal changes are integral to combatting authoritarian structures.

Adorno developed the F-scale to measure subjects' susceptibility to authoritarian, anti-democratic, and fascistoid tendencies (stemming from the fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable). Some critics might view the study as reductionist because it focuses on a specific set of personality traits and attributes and suggests that these traits are the primary determinants of an individual's political beliefs and behaviors. This could be seen as reducing the complexity of human psychology and social behavior to a single set of characteristics, rather than considering the multiple factors that may influence an individual's beliefs and actions. Additionally, the study was conducted using a sample of subjects that may not have been representative of the general population, which could also contribute to a perception of reductionism. Despite these criticisms, the work is foundational due to its focus on cultural variables, refinement of measurement techniques, and attempt to integrate the quantitative and the qualitative.

Individual and Organization

Adorno was concerned about society being completely ruled by bureaucracy, rationalization and technology: "Supremacy of a dehumanized apparatus up to the consequences of complete inhumanity", "a moment of rigidity, coldness, externality, violence", "the organizational hardening of the world" or the central "thesis of the inevitability of organization."
Adorno saw nothing in humanization projects for organisations: "It cannot be a question of incorporating the human, the immediate or the individual into the organization. Such installation would make it self-organizing and deprive it of the very quality one hopes to preserve. Likewise, the nature conservation park does not save nature and sooner or later turns out to be just a traffic obstacle in the social hustle and bustle" (1954; p. 33).

Adorno's critical theory can be used to analyze and criticize the ways in which power is exercised and how it affects the people within the organization. Adorno's critique of the mass media which reinforce dominant ideologies and values can be applied to the ways organizations communicate and present themselves to the public. Adorno's work can also be used to examine the ways in which organizational structures and practices reproduce and reinforce inequalities, for example through the use of hierarchical power structures or discriminatory practices. By applying a critical lens, it is possible to identify and challenge these systems of domination and work to create more just organizations.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1954): Individuum und Organisation. In: Neumark, Fritz (Hg.): Individuum und Organisation. Darmstädter Gespräche. Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, S. 21 – 35.
Adorno, Theodor, Frenkel-Brunswik, Else, Levinson, Daniel, Sanford, Nevitt (1993) [1950]. The Authoritarian Personality. Studies in Prejudice Series. Vol. 1. New York City: Harper & Row and W. W. Norton & Company.

Kühl, S. (Ed.; 2015), Schlüsselwerke der Organisationsforschung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
Weyns, W. (2017), Inleiding tot de sociale wetenschappen, Antwerp: Universiteit Antwerpen.

By clicking the button below, you can read my summary of Adorno's essay bundles "Interventions" and "Catchwords".

Below you can see a couple of video clips from a 3sat tv program with Adorno and Horkheimer.