A Short History of Sociology in Germany

by Gábor István Bíró

The rise of the so-called ‘social question’ (soziale Frage) marked a milestone in thinking about society in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. Society was getting increasingly complicated and traditional ways of talking about society were unable to address this complexity. Contractarian theories had been designed to explain society as an autonomous system based on the free association of independent individuals. But they could not really explain either the constraints on this autonomy (an increasing need to adapt to an international order) nor the increasing differences between the individuals constituting society (social classes based on a global division of labour). Meanwhile, the science of the state (Staatswissenschaft) had been designed to be a discipline that covers legal, financial, law enforcement and social studies, that is, every field of knowledge that was needed to govern a country. But it could not really explain social dynamics that did not originate from top-down social policies. A new discipline was needed that would study society as a separate subject and not as a consequence of the state. The science of society (Gesellschaftswissenschaft) was born.

Stephan Moebius’s Sociology in Germany: A History (Palgrave 2021) starts from this defining moment and presents the fascinating consecutive episodes of the history of thinking about society in Germany. From the establishment of the German Reich in 1871 to the contemporary trends of sociology in Germany, this little book addresses the history of the analysed discipline over a surprisingly long period. One of the chapters addresses how the 1968 generation of students and young professionals managed to induce large-scale social changes, among others giving a boost to sociology. Another discusses what happened to sociology in Germany in the Reconstruction era after World War II. A third engages with the history of sociology in West Germany during the Cold War, a fourth deals with the hostile attitude against sociology in the German Democratic Republic. The last chapter examines sociology in the unified Germany from 1990 until today and offers insightful discussions of what is going on and what to expect.

One of the dangers of writing disciplinary history is that it becomes too internalistic, that is, limiting itself only to the sequence of results of the studied discipline without paying much attention to the external factors underlying the practices of making science. Stephan Moebius brilliantly avoids this common mistake. The narrative of the volume is a skillful amalgamation of various strands. The complex topic of the history of sociology in Germany since World War II is presented from multiple angles. Inquiries into political, social and intellectual history complement inquiries concerning specific sciences, mostly sociology and its perceived ‘anti-sociologies’ resulting in a well rounded, socially sensitive and interpretative historical account of the period. Geographical and institutional strands, too, are present in this sociology of the history of sociology in Germany. The most relevant cities, universities, research centres, journals and their specific contexts are discussed to the degree it is necessary for this endeavour.Yet the whole narrative feels simple, clear-cut, accessible and exciting. The volume gives an introduction to the topic without being too reductionist or dry. It manages to present both the political and the disciplinary tensions and conflicts, as well as their perceived stakes in specific settings, and by doing so, developing a ‘feeling’ for sociology in the sense Evelyn Fox Keller (1983) used the term. The narrative also stays critical and provides disclaimers where necessary without discouraging novice readers of sociology or intellectual history by including too many layers to follow. It is rich but easy to read.

If two things could be considered missing from the book, then these are not flaws because both would lay outside the well-defined scope of the volume. The first would be a more extended discussion of the prehistory of sociology. Several fascinating organic or vitalist theories of society were developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that might be seen, perhaps in an anachronistic way, as precursors to later theories of society as an organism. Kant’s organism, Hegel’s geistiger Organismus, Fichte’s state, Müller’s nation, Roscher’s volk, Knies’ life force, Lilienfeld’s social neurons, Schäffle’s social tissues. While some of these theories were not developed in Germany (e.g., Paul Lilienfeld’s), they might be relevant for understanding the early evolution of social thought in Germany. The second thing that is missing is a more systematic treatment of the co-development of science and technology studies (STS) and sociology. The author does briefly mention the interdisciplinary field and even addresses some slight changes in the most popular theoretical approaches of younger scholars engaged with STS, but he does not thoroughly explore the tensions and conflicts between the various schools within the field. Science and technology studies faced serious challenges and perhaps even an identity crisis from the 1970s onward. This disciplinary coming-of-age story might come handy either as a foil to emphasize the uniqueness of the road taken by sociology in Germany, or by emphasizing the similarity of the challenges these fields faced and the similarity of the solutions they delivered.

Stephan Moebius’ skillfully written and engaging book can be recommended both for undergraduate and postgraduate students who seek an accessible introduction to the history of sociology in Germany. The exciting and easy-to-read narrative, the surprisingly comprehensive, socially engaged and critical nature of the volume and the fact that the book is (currently) open access suggests that it will be read by many. It is reasonable to expect that this charming little book will shortly find its way into the syllabi of sociology courses not just at German universities but in higher education all around the world.

Stephan Moebius (2021)
Sociology in Germany: A History
Palgrave Macmillan: Cham.
ISBN 978-3-030-71866-4
222 pages, Hardcover, 32,09€

Dr. Gábor István Bíró, PhD, is a member of the MTA Lendület Morals and Science Research Group and an assistant professor at Budapest University of Technology and Economics.