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)

Ralf Dahrendorf

Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009) grew up in a social-democratic home. His father Gustav was a member of the Reichstag until the Nazis seized power and the SPD was banned; he had to go into hiding as a politically persecuted person.

Ralf d
eloped an enormous urge for freedom when, as a fifteen-year-old, he spent ten days in solitary confinement in a police cell in Frankfurt an der Oder and eight weeks in a labor camp in Schwetig, near Kunersdorf (now called Świecko and Kunowice, respectively) after he had distributed pamphlets against the SS state as a member of the 'Freedom Association of Higher Students in Germany'. 

In his 1984 autobiography, Dahrendorf writes: "When the Gestapo came, the shock was still great. At the beginning of December (1944, MF), they took us first to the police prison in Frankfurt an der Oder, then to the Schwetig labor camp in the area of the Kunersdorf battlefields. After eight weeks, we were kicked out, while, how could it be otherwise, being handed a few completely irrelevant certificates; the cannon thunder of the Russian advance was approaching; we made our way home in refugee trains. My mother and brother were back in Berlin. There we awaited the end, in the basement mostly."

His autobiography is divided in four parts: (1) The intellectual has his problems with power; (2) seeks to understand the fragile course of time; (3) suffers from his difficult fatherland; and (4) finds all his questions again in the world.

Below, you can see an interview Harry Kreisler from the Institute of International Studies of the University of California, Berkeley had with Dahrendorf about his life and work on April 4th, 1989. 


Dahrendorf's PhD research into Marx's understanding of justice was followed by a scientific and political career in Germany and England. Dahrendorf, as a liberal, proceeded from Isaiah Berlin's twofold concept of freedom: protection of the individual against often arbitrary restrictions by the state; and ensuring opportunities for individual growth and realization of individuals' talent. All citizens had to have an equal starting position and have the greatest possible freedom to make choices and to develop. ‍He was in favor of education tailored to the individual. Equality was for him a means to achieve freedom, not an end in itself.

The role of the state

Dahrendorf saw the state as an active guarantor of social citizenship rights, whereby individuals are stimulated by the inequality in outcome to bring out the best in themselves. Because people are always striving for more, different and better, there can be progress in a society as far as Dahrendorf was concerned. As an illustration of this position, regarding work, read the excerpt below from a 1959 radio speech.

Functional change in work and occupation in an industrial society (first broadcast February 5th, 1959)

"Work seems to be a nasty compulsion that everyone naturally tries to avoid. Even for the Protestant/Puritan ethics, in which Max Weber saw the basis of the capitalist-industrial conception of a profession, work and profession are still a burden. Early Protestants conceived of a dichotomy between (1) ordered, meaningful labor and (2) chaotic, unbridled laziness. Today, for individual self-image and government policy, a third alternative has been pushed between the alternatives of labor and laziness, which is enshrined in the ambiguous term (3) leisure. That would make us think that the uncomfortable, compulsive nature of work is more apparent than ever: Work and profession turn out to be annoying restrictions on the allowed laziness of free time.
When you ask workers if they are satisfied with their work, most say that they are indeed satisfied with their work and would rather do no other work. Should we conclude from this that the presumption that no one likes to work is incorrect? What their statement means, however, we cannot deduce from it. What moves workers to affirm their positive job satisfaction? There are several possible answers.

The conservative theory advocated by Elton Mayo and Peter Drucker says that the positive self-image of industrial workers corresponds to the objective work situation. This would be provided by the social labor network, which help individuals to develop and earn money. The person who says he is not happy with his work would then be an outsider, a psychologically defective deviant, who must be convinced of a "more reasonable" positive attitude. This theory may sound naive, but it has some prestige in both public opinion and academia. This can be explained: developed societies are mobile societies in which people can develop themselves through their work. A sustainable economy with rising wages also binds the individual with his consumption wishes and consumption options to the profession.

Yet the conservative theory is demonstrably incorrect. If it were correct, then employee satisfaction should extend beyond work and, for example, to working conditions. However, this is not the case. In the same companies where the majority of workers say they are satisfied with their work, 40 to 70 percent believe that the salary is bad, only a third do not fear losing the job, and only between 10 and 20 percent believe that promotion in their work is possible. In the same companies where the majority of employees indicate that they do not want to do any work other than their current job, more than two-thirds indicate that it is difficult to find another job. If there was that opportunity, more than two-thirds would take it.

If we are looking for an explanation for the difference between job satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the conditions of work, we can turn to George Friedman's The Future of Work, which is based on Marx's concept of the alienation of work. However, that dog just doesn't hunt: not all labour is alienating.

A third theory is historical in nature: the function of current labor is understood as the result of historical function changes. Since the beginning of Industrialization, we have experienced stages of development of labour: the first extends to the Industrial Revolution; until then, working at home was the life content of a craftsman. The harmony between profession and life was subsequently broken: factory labor no longer had creative possibilities. The worker earned meager wages for repetitive work as an accomplice to an industrial production process. In a third period there were unions, better wages and working conditions. The shortening of working time meant that consumption became central to man, while labor became a necessary evil. Work no longer brought much satisfaction. Helmut Schelsky and David Riesman worked from this theory.

However, their distinction between forced labour/occupation and leisure/consumption, in which real life only begins after leaving the factory, is misleading. The person who renounces freedom in one area (work) soon finds himself in a world where he/she is also unfree in leisure and consumption. The chance of freedom diminishes if the separation of work and leisure becomes a social principle. Free choice of work and profession influences the consumption possibilities of the individual through income, time schedule and prestige. For many today, work is a welcome change from difficult leisure time. To find a profession that one can support is still a commandment of self-preservation through self-respect. In the past, people worked almost their entire vigilant life. The work was hard and hard and they earned little. There was often no question of self-development. Work and leisure are now in balance. Man needs the opportunity to develop through doing. The profession offers this possibility in the first instance. If people can find a profession of their choice, people can not only be satisfied with their work, but they can enjoy doing it." 

Conflict Theory

Dahrendorf built his conflict theory based on the work of Karl MarxGeorg Simmel and Max Weber. While functionalism assumes that all parts of a system work together as a functional unit with a certain degree of internal consistency, conflict theory is based on conflicting perspectives within and between systems and groups and on the imposition of order by people in authoritarian positions. Conflict theory assumes that happiness for everyone is an unachievable goal that should therefore be avoided. Dahrendorf studied the authority associated with social positions or roles. His role theory describes that an individual behaves according to the relevant role expectations in society. He distinguishes between can, should and must expectations. The individual can end up in an intra-role conflict, because the expectations of different reference groups differ. For example, an inter-role conflict exists when someone in the professional role has to work overtime while he/she is expected in the partner role at home. Dahrendorf distinguished three kinds of groups: quasi-groups whose members have a latent interest; organized interest groups that have a manifest interest; and conflict groups that organize to overthrow a rival group. The authority structure (above and supposition with opposing interests) of coordinated groups, which define rights and duties, and regulate sanctions and enforcement, inevitably leads to the formation of interest groups and potential conflicts contained therein.

The significance of Ralf Dahrendorf's work today

Dahrendorf saw a science willing to critically assess previous scientific knowledge and a representative democracy as preconditions for progress for the world of freedom and thus the goal itself, for the sake of which we pursue science and politics. His proposal for interdisciplinary problem-oriented empirical research is highly relevant because of today's complex problems such as climate change.

His work focuses on the politics of regulated conflict and the social economy of maximizing individual life chances. Economic growth is not a panacea for solving social problems, not even because employment development has separated itself from economic development. A majority class in the rich countries of the West excludes the lower class (the unemployed and incapacitated) and immigrants from other cultures, instead of choosing the advancement that comes with diversity. According to Dahrendorf, the key to actively taking advantage of life's opportunities is education for all and an unconditional general citizen's income, whereby people also have to be paid for services that are not traded in the market. He warned on the one hand against a conservative insistence on inviolable institutions and ever-increasing (distant, arrogant) bureaucratization, and on the other against a completely unbridled reformism, in which reliability becomes the victim.

Dahrendorf saw an unacceptable tendency in large parts of society (at the political left and right) to curtail the basic order of the free democratic market economy in the wake of political events such as the admission of refugees, the challenge of Islamist terror, the influx of higher earners in inner cities (by sending refugees away, enabling extensive secret service operations in one's own country, encroaching on the property system). Dahrendorf takes the view that citizens have a duty not to be afraid but to be ready to stand up and fight when fundamental values ​​such as e.g. the right to privacy are threatened rather than succumb to pressure from a moralizing outsider.

According to Dahrendorf, the utopian position of people who merge into the community deprives them of individual life chances, because it is embedded in the ideology of the ultimate abolition of all discord and all conflict in an ideal future of order and peace; a restriction of diversity and freedom.

According to Dahrendorf, socialism as an intellectual invention is by no means completely dead, but has been revived in the critique of capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization and free trade. However, this critical opposition to the present circumstances is robbed of (neo-)Marxism's utopian power.

Dahrendorf analyzed the basic liberal order as being threatened from those who are economically and politically excluded, and from "self-disability" in response to the increasing complexity of the world. Dahrendorf was for a rich and diverse civil society in a lean and effective state constitution, in which a few but understandable and enforced rules serve the legitimacy of state existence, instead of a large number of sometimes incomparable and unintelligible regulations that are ignored by large sections of the public, whether out of anomie, ignorance or civil disobedience. In doing so, he declared civil movements and non-governmental organizations to be beacons of hope, not only for human rights and the state of the environment, but for society in general.

The civil society that Dahrendorf stands for is not a return to Tönnies' Gemeinschaft, but a society in which people are no longer pigeonholed, endowed with exclusive and fixed social identities, but live in conditions in which the possibilities of choice and change, i.e. free choice of career and the opportunity to continue learning are offered.

Application to the management of safety

According to Dahrendorf's conflict theory, society is characterized by ongoing conflict between different groups, such as classes, races, and genders, who are competing for resources, power, and status. Dahrendorf argued that these conflicts are an inherent and necessary part of society, and that they can either be resolved peacefully or lead to social change. Conflicts are an inherent and necessary part of an organization too, and they  potentially lead to positive outcomes, such as improved safety practices or greater transparency. Actively addressing conflicts as they arise is important. Possible means are negotiation, mediation, or collaboration.

Let's end with a quote: 

"The assumptions of yesterday's world will not help us face tomorrow's problems. Tomorrow is not the continuation of yesterday. Tomorrow is also not the opposite, certainly not the return to a renewed day before yesterday. Tomorrow will be different."

That's a short overview of Dahrendorf's work.


Beaufort, F. de, Een claustrofobische drang naar vrijheid - Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009), in: Liberaal Reveil, vol. 50 (2009), nr. 3.

Dahrendorf, R. (1959), Homo Sociologicus. Ein Versuch zur Geschichte, Bedeutung und Kritik der Kategorie der sozialen Rolle, Köln: Opladen Westdeutscher Verlag.

Dahrendorf, R. (1984), Reisen nach innen und außen - Aspekte der Zeit, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

Kühne, O. (2017), Zur Aktualität von Ralf Dahrendorf - Einführung in sein Werk, Wiesbaden: Springer.

You can read a summary of Dahrendorf's book "homo sociologicus" (sociological man):

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