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 Geiger

Theodor Geiger (1891-1952) is regarded as an unsung classic of German sociology (Meyer, 2001). His work is not so well-known as the works of e.g. Weber and Luhmann. This mainly has to do with the fact that Geiger had to leave Germany because of his social-democratic ideas. He settled in Scandinavia; the publications he wrote from 1933 until 1945 were for a long time only available in Danish.

Theodor Geiger pioneered the analytical subdivision of society into social strata and groups according to (correlations of) characteristics such as education, job, standard of living, class consciousness, social status, denomination, political opinions and membership of clubs and organizations. Geiger's sociology of law is practically value philistine, avoiding value judgments.

Sociology of law
Geiger's best-known work is "preliminary studies of a sociology of law" (1947). The law, according to Geiger, is a social regulatory instrument which is, like any form of social order, susceptible to ideological manipulation. The legal system, as a system of order, creates the formal rules of the game of social competition in a socially negotiated manner (Holzhauser, 2015). 

Social competition 
Theodor Geiger contributed to a better understanding of the public sphere and its change.  He used social competition as a basic sociological concept and saw communication as a political and economic tool of power and domination, with ideology, propaganda and advertising as tools for establishing and clarifying competitive relationships between individuals and groups in both private and public space. According to Geiger, protection against suggestion and manipulation can only be afforded by immunization through intellectualization according to his political program of intellectual humanism (Holzhauser, 2015).

Society between pathos and sobriety

Geiger's 1952 book manuscript was published in German after his death by Aarhus University. It nicely summarizes Geiger's program of intellectual humanism. An excerpt:

"Only a good deal of intellectual self-discipline can prevent us from attributing objective general validity to our evaluations and consequently from wanting to shape the world in our image in association with like-minded people. (...)

An intellectual social discipline would mean:

1) that people do not expect the realization of a divine value idea from earthly society, but accept it for what it is: a structure of events for people to assert themselves against nature and a modus vivendi among them. A social order is not good or bad in a moral or any other value-philosophical sense, but functions more or less smoothly under historically given circumstances.
2) The members of the big society unite as the need arises in order to promote common, related or parallel interests through joint efforts in a rational assessment of the relationship between ends and means. Collective disputes and trials of strength are inevitable. On the other hand, society is spared the burden of inner struggles over chimerical value ideas, in the course of which a senseless, fanatical urge to destroy forever abolishes the possibilities of increased enjoyment of existence offered by the development of technology - and at times overcompensates for it.

What clever thought builds up in study rooms and laboratories, foolish words tear down from tribunes and pulpits. Mankind is standing still..."

Geiger's professional estate
Geiger died unexpectedly, aboard the Dutch passengership “Waterman” (a former US troopship, built in Portland, Oregon), returning from Toronto, where he had spent a year as visiting professor. Much of Geiger's work has been translated after his death. The very first issue of Acta Sociologica contained eight of his articles, a bibliography and a biography. Below are some excerpts from these articles; the references are listed below.

Adult education
Geiger was always looking for the truth. He wanted to help people think critically:

"New tasks have been set for education (...). Our educators still believe that by invoking human feelings of sympathy they can strengthen the cohesion of a society whose solidarity is either based on cool, intelligent insight into the fact of mutual dependence - or is irretrievably broken. The glue that can hold today's big society together is not a sense of community between man and man personally, but the factual integration into a common framework of existence. The highly rationalized way of life of the technological age is only possible in the long run if people allow themselves to be guided more by intellectual than by sentimental impulses in their political and economic relationships. Getting them on this path is the most important task of popular education in today's society. Where crowds of people charged with collective feelings and modern large-scale technology meet, social chaos or brutal dictatorship lurks at the next crossroads".

Sociology and Democracy 

In this article, Geiger sheds some light on his own experience as a sociologist fleeing Germany, on the function of sociology in different regimes, and on his own standpoint as an independent critical sociologist:

"Practically no sociologist remained in Germany after 1934. A few very old men kept outside Hitler's concentration camps by retirirng and living in utter solitude. (...)

An authoritarian society needs two things of social science: 1) glorification of the established order and 2) a technology of social engineering. But it certainly does not need an independent analyser of social phenomena. Such an analyser might and most assuredly would lead to questioning the absolute validity of the structural principles devised for society by a ruling clique.

You may well ask about Soviet Russia, where sociology is in bloom. Well, it is not. Marxism or rather authentic interpretation by Stalin is in bloom. Certainly Marx was one of the founders of sociology in his time, when his ideas and theories acted as criticism of contemporary society questioning its underlying structural pattern. But presentday Russian sociology is a Marxian theology. The basic truths are established beforehand. The only task left to the so-called sociologist is an interpretation, in detail, of the general doctrine and a glorification of the rulers and their activities.

In this sense you may say that sociology, properly understood, is the science of democracy and liberalism. As an independent analysis of social phenomena, it keeps awake the attitude of criticism which is essential for the maintenance of democratic "self-government". Sociology is the never relenting counterpart to political, social, and economic power. Some of you might think that the political system of democracy provides for such a counterpart within itself, giving free play to an opposition. I know, but the political opposition is not enough or, let me say, it is not the kind of counterbalance I have in mind. The "Outs" are not less powerminded than are the "Ins" and both are likely to distort the social facts to fit their claims. The appropriate medicines against an ideology is not an opposite one, but unadorned truth. Sociology as the seizure of social facts is the national counterweight not to this ruling group or another, but to power as such and its ideological camouflage. It is a safeguard of democracy.

On these grounds, I feel deeply disturbed by the decline of general sociology and the excessive growth of applied sociology. In our age of regulation and planning, social research centers are in increasing number established by the governments themselves and for governmental purposes. The day may come when sociology mainly is a means of social control and engineering. One instance only: the problem of public opinion is given much attention in our time. But not in the first place in the sense of finding out what the public thinks and devising means
to safeguard the intellectual independence of the citizen. The main idea seems to be studying how the public mind works and devising dever techniques for the making of public opinion. Government-sponsored sociological research will always be in danger of being government-directed in its results. It must never entirely replace and suppress independent critical sociology, which is unconcerned with its potential usefulness and applicability to practical purposes."

The Intellectual

Geiger also wrote extensively about the function of intellectuals in society:

"New academics I call those educated at the applied universities, the graduates of engineers, farmers, architects, mountain farmers, merchants, etc. The first universities of this type, the colleges, were creations of mercantileism. What sets them all apart from the universities is their deliberately pragmatic attitude towards useful knowledge. While the old academic upheld the noble tradition of science, at least in fiction, the new academic soberly regarded his studies as preparation for a practical profession. This shaped the studies, the student mentality, and also the class attitude as such.

Today's respect (for the intellectual) no longer originates in a shy reverence for higher spiritual values, but in what I called the rationalization of existence. The general public values ​​intellectuals because and insofar as they need them, i.e. insofar as they are involved in the process of technically and economically coping with existence. He is no longer an adept above the pro fanum Volgus, but a professional in the highest degree skilfully trained craftsman - I use that word consciously - a man to construct machines, to interpret the dark and intricate law, to cure diseases ; to build bridges, to rehabilitate a confused enterprise. The whole mechanism of existence is based on science. Society needs more and more theoretically trained experts, without whose insight this complicated apparatus of existence would come to a standstill or run wild. That we understand some part of this device better than others, that we can make it even more effective, that's what builds our reputation.
Most of us have easily become wage earners. As such, we are middle class. We were once an upper class, not because of our economic position, but because of a cultural function that has now expired.

From the height of his aimless erudition, the humanist, the philosopher, once looked down upon the new academics, these upstarts in the field of science. Today, the general public tends to take the opposite view. The new academic is exactly what she needs: master of his useful trade. Within the old faculty there is a similar shift in rank. The helpful doctor, the helpful business economist, and the sometimes indispensable lawyer have overtaken philosophers, philologists, historians, and other oracles of aimless learning. Here, of course, the public review makes a fatal mistake. Impressed by the knowledge that can be turned into usefulness, she views aimless research and knowledge as a superfluous luxury, not realizing that it is precisely the aimless curiosity of researchers that has often brought to light the most practical findings."


Geiger, T. (1955), Sociology and Democracy, in: Acta Sociologica, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 10-13.

Geiger, T. (1955), Der Intellektuelle in der europäischen Gesellschaft von Heute, in: ACTA Sociologica, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 62-74.

Geiger, T. (1955), Die Legende von der Massengesellschaft, in: Acta Sociologica, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 75-79.

Geiger, T. (1960), Die Gesellschaft zwischen Pathos und Nüchternheit, Aarhus: Universitetsforlaget.

Heinemeyer, W.F. (1953), Theodor Geiger (1891-1952), in: Sociologische Gids Vol. 1, Nr. 2.

Holzhauser, N. (2015), Konkurrenz als Erklärungsansatz im Werk Theodor Geigers - Untersucht am Beispiel der sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Konkurrenz als Triebfelder des Strukturwandels der Öffentlichkeit, in: Zyklos 1, pp. 195-222.

Meyer, T. (2001), Die Soziologie Theodor Geigers - Emanzipation von der Ideologie, Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag.


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