What happened to social theory in the Sixties?

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The sixties brought with them the moral dilemma of United States hegemony and race relations. What moral authority does an overtly divided society have to rule the industrial world? Social movements fomented somewhere around the advent of rock and roll, critical scholarship and political moral entrepreneurship. The German Frankfurt School’s critical theory had begun transforming American social theory on the heels of the Cold War, and more specifically, a previous decade of McCarthyism. Through a discourse of morality and critical scholarship Sociology contributed a powerful critique of Functionalism.

Critical theory is based on several fundamental concepts dealing with the alternative narrative that all advancement in society is positive. For example, why do we generally consider all technological advancements progress for the better? Given the twentieth century’s obsession with industrial development in the western and northern hemispheres the dynamic has shifted from the majority of humans living in rural to urban areas. Another more thorough way of asking, what changes occur to society when the majority of human experience moves from agrarian communities, extended kinships and informal economies and social controls to a largely governed and urban existence? Critical theorists began asking these questions and uncovering the latent failures in structural processes that had gone largely unexamined since the Enlightenment began.

Major figures in this paradigm include Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse who made big impacts on American sociology. These were all German social theorists that asked difficult questions centered on earlier concepts like Marx’s species being and modernity’s alienation. While each of these thinkers have their own interests and happenstances for entering social theory, their prolific convergence occurred at the University of Frankfurt. Ultimately, critical theory argues against the epistemics of the philosophy of positivism. Furthermore critical theory analyzes the nuances missed by empirical sciences and the dismissal of latent rather than measurable outcomes of the functions of social structures. Critical theorists frame questions by being aware and examining the unintended consequences of collective behaviors rather than just the estimated outcomes.

During World War II, many fled Germany including Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer who migrated to the United States. Each German theorist found himself working in a different capacity. Marcuse left the academy to work for the U.S. government deriving means of portraying foreign enemies in media and film in California. Eventually Horkheimer and Adorno both made their way to the west as well. All were prolific during this time and one very important book was produced that made a significant impact on social theory.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment brought to the table some important considerations. One such consideration that the “Age of Reason” had brought with it was a dialectical conundrum of sorts, the ‘irrationality of rationality.’ The book’s translation into English brought with it a realization that resonated with an American audience. The key chord struck, according to Appelrouth and Edles (2011: 80), “Their claim that the Enlightenment, instead of fostering individual autonomy, is ‘totalitarian’ struck a chord with those challenging the legitimacy of the existing social order.” This claim is explained in the preface to Dialectics of Enlightenment and stated as follows:

If public life has reached a state in which thought is being turned inescapably into a commodity and language into elaboration of the commodity, the attempt to trace the sources of this degradation must refuse obedience to the current linguistic and intellectual demands before it is rendered entirely futile by the consequence of those demands for world history. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1950: 15)

A constructed and shifting perception of legitimacy between public life and security for social order is where, often, public perception exists.
Out of the Frankfurt scholars perhaps Marcuse was the most popular during the sixties. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man was widely read among advocates for social change during the 1960’s (Applerouth & Edles, 2011: 110). In it he states that:

Contemporary industrial civilization demonstrates that it has reached the stage at which the ‘free society’ can no longer be adequately defined in the traditional terms of economic, political, and intellectual liberties, not because these liberties have become insignificant, but because they are too significant to be confined within the traditional forms. (2011: 112).

This quote, perhaps, represents the acumen of critical inquiry. Instead of a myopic acceptance of modernity, critical thought is important to expose weaknesses, victims, failures and oversights by subscribing to the progress of civilization and technology whole stock.

Herein lies the importance and function of critical thought. Ultimately weighing the pros with the cons of any given social subject requires historical, political and sociological components for a more contextualized position. Seldom will dialectic epistemic produce an easily measurable difference. Suggesting alternatives or contextualized nuances as a heuristic, however, can help clarify latent social phenomena. Often, these latent, or unintended consequences of the social order are where we learn most about what does and does not work as anticipated. The 1960’s introduced the ironic contradictions of a US foreign policy through the lens of the Frankfurt School of critical social theory.

Edward Green
Kansas State University


Appelrouth, Scott & Laura Desfor Edles. (2011). Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era: Text and
Readings. Sage: Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/ Singapore/ Washington DC.

Horkheimer, Max & Theodor W. Adorno. (1940-50/trans. 2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford University Press: Stanford, Ca.

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