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)

Introduction to Sociology

In "Introduction to Sociology", a paper from 1989, Ralf Dahrendorf explores the nature of sociology and the challenges faced by sociologists.


“What sociologists do”

Dahrendorf argues that sociology is defined by what individuals who identify as sociologists do, rather than a tangible entity. He deems the pursuit of a singular definition metaphysical. Dahrendorf notes the lack of a core discipline or internal unity within sociology, with many practitioners experiencing identity crises. Describing the disillusionment among sociologists, there is a loss of charm and influence in the field, leading to debates about its role in society. Some authors express frustration with the state of sociology, citing a disconnect between research traditions and the discipline's impact. Dahrendorf highlights the struggle for recognition within sociology and the potential consequences of a lack of cohesion, such as the threat of mediocrity, charlatanism, and insignificance. Dahrendorf suggests that the field faces challenges in maintaining quality standards and avoiding a descent into anomic conditions where everything becomes equally valid and significant.


"The Path to Anomie I"

Dahrendorf reflects on changes in sociology over time. Leopold Rosenmayr's characterized sociology as "Enlightenment" and it was associated with societal improvement during the German student revolt of the 1960s. Despite optimistic views on the future of the discipline, Dahrendorf notes that sociology has undergone transformations. He emphasizes the diversity of heroes within sociology, and urges caution against generalizations. He explores the evolving relationship between sociology and other disciplines, such as political science, economics, and anthropology. The discussion also touches on the specialization and autonomy of these disciplines. Dahrendorf critiques the shift in sociology's focus from institutional analysis to subinstitutional realities, emphasizing the loss of institutional grounding. He concludes with a personal reflection on his past attempts to contribute to the anti-institutional trend in sociology, acknowledging the limitations and suggesting a more strategic reform approach. The term "Lebenswelt" (lifeworld) is introduced, representing the entinstitutionalized world in contemporary sociology. Dahrendorf highlights Reinhard Bendix's distinction between "Sozialwissenschaft" (social science) and "Soziologie" and expresses a sense of being situated between David Hume and Max Weber in the realm of social science.


"The Path to Anomie II"

Dahrendorf discusses the contemporary challenges faced by sociology. The focus is on the current state of sociology in relation to societal changes. The anniversary publication of "Soziale Welt" prompts a discussion about whether sociology can still be relevant given the transformations in social structures.


Dahrendorf explores the conventional belief that sociology emerged with the breakdown of feudal orders in the 18th century. A new theory suggests that the sociological method, relying on describable social structures like class and role structures, becomes problematic in the face of increasing individualization in modern societies. The dissolution of traditional sociological facts, according to this theory, challenges the old rules of sociological methodology and necessitates the formulation of new rules to address individualization and subjectivization in functionally differentiated societies. Dahrendorf critiques this perspective, and considers it a peculiar and concerning thesis. The idea that sociology, as traditionally understood, is no longer applicable due to societal changes implies an unsettling connection between the fate of sociology and the evolution of industrial societies. Dahrendorf raises questions about the relationship between science and society, and suggests that sociology is seen as an epiphenomenon that rises and falls with industrial society.


Drawing on Karl Popper's distinction between scientific theories that explain regularities and those that deal with unique events, the author argues against the notion that sociology, as a predictive science, is rendered obsolete by contemporary societal shifts. Dahrendorf emphasizes the importance of improving sociological methods rather than abandoning the discipline or seeking "new rules." He contends that the challenges faced by sociology call for better sociological approaches rather than a departure from the field.


"What Sociologists Would Like to Do"

The discussion revolves around the relationship between sociology and practical applications. "Soziale Welt" is acknowledged as a journal for social research, emphasizing the exploration of empirical aspects of social innovation, political action, and practice.


Ulrich Beck and Wolfgang Bonß have referred to the "utilization contexts of social scientific research results," arguing that social science knowledge is superior to other forms of knowledge and provides a basis for rationalization and consensus-building in society. Dahrendorf reflects on the challenges faced by sociology during the 1980s, a decade marked by political leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher, emphasizing the dominance of economic and deregulatory policies over social science research outcomes.


Dahrendorf questions whether sociology, as a practice, tends to act as a decelerator rather than an accelerator of social change. The 1980s are described as a period in which sociology lost public esteem and research funding. Dahrendorf explores the complex relationship between sociology and practice, emphasizing that this connection is not necessary, indispensable, or straightforward. He invokes Max Weber's notion that factual judgments and value judgments are distinct, and their mediation is inherently fractured, even when individuals are exposed to both theory and practice.


Dahrendorf challenges the idea that applying sociology to politics is inherently beneficial and suggests that politics has its own conditions and timing, making it largely non-scientific. While experience in politics may help avoid mistakes, it does not necessarily enhance understanding of social processes. Dahrendorf concludes by highlighting the modern societal figure of the "straddler" who acts as a bridge between theory and practice, navigating the complexities of identity and serving as a catalyst in the interaction between sociologists and policymakers.


"What Sociologists Should Do"

Dahrendorf reflects on the exceptional expansion of sociology in the 1960s and 70s, characterizing it as a mistake that led to compromised quality standards and diluted disciplinary boundaries. He criticizes sociology as a major subject of study, stating that it generated unfulfilled expectations.

He also argues against the notion of an "inner unity" of disciplines and the concept of interdisciplinary studies, emphasizing that disciplines are irrelevant for research. Instead, he suggests that in both research and teaching, the focus should be on problems rather than preserving the identity of a specific field.


The discussion explores the diverse directions in which sociology should evolve. It recognizes social research as a valuable method with applications ranging from market research to historical social reporting. The text acknowledges the importance of understanding social dimensions in various fields, such as medicine, law, and social policy.


Dahrendorf also mentions the need for a space where grand theoretical endeavors, akin to the Luhmann-Habermas tradition, can exist without being overly specialized. He concludes by acknowledging the difficulty in defining what sociology should be but suggests embracing the interdisciplinary nature of social research and maintaining a space for a broad understanding of social phenomena, even if it defies disciplinary categorization.



Dahrendorf, R. (1989), Einführung in die Soziologie, in: Soziale Welt, 40. Jahrg., H. 1/2 (1989), pp. 2-10.