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 himself deloped 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.

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.

Dahrendorf saw the intellectual invention of socialism by no means as completely dead, but as revived in the critique of capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization and free trade. But 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 practice 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 some of Dahrendorf's books and papers: