Introduction to Sociology

Theodor W. Adorno


2 May 1968

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Would you please close the door now; otherwise we shall lose too much time. – I should like first to answer a question which has arisen either from a misunderstanding, or from my haste during my closing formulations in the last lecture. It appeared to one of your fellow-students, who raised the matter and is much to be thanked, that in defining the links between positivist sociology and a pragmatic sphere, I wanted to sever the dialectical conception of sociology from praxis altogether. Obviously, that is not the case. On the contrary, I would say that a vigorous praxis, which relates to the total structure of society and not to isolated social phenomena, needs a total theory of society. In addition, a praxis of the total society, that is, a structure-related praxis, is only possible if it in turn analyses structural relationships. That is, it should analyse the tendencies and power constellations within the existing society in principle, and not remain within the framework of mere particular questions. I am anxious to correct that misunderstanding, to avoid giving the impression that the social theory of which I can, of course, give you only fragments in these lectures is quietistic. The appearance of quietism can easily arise because the difficulties of change naturally stand out far more clearly if one has the whole of society in view. They are less prominent – and this again is a kind of pragmatism – if they are seen within the scope of individual constellations, where structural relationships appear far more moderately and less harshly than in a theory of social structure. I should like to add one other thing which ought, perhaps, to be said at this point. Do not think that, because of the divergence I have pointed to, I undervalue particular improvements of the kind proposed by positivist sociology, when it is guided by pragmatism. It would reflect a damagingly idealistic form of abstractness if, for the sake of the structure of the whole, one were to trivialize the possibility of improvements within the existing framework, or even to accentuate their negative aspects, as has been done often enough in the past. That would express a concept of totality which disregards the interests of people living here and now, and would entail a kind of abstract confidence in the course of world history which, at least in this form, I simply cannot muster. I would say that just because the present social structure, for reasons which we cannot analyse properly in this context, has the character of something ill constructed, of a monstrously agglomerated ‘second nature’, even the most pitiful interventions into the existing reality can have a far greater importance – because it is almost a symbolic importance – than they might seem intrinsically to possess. I think, therefore, that we should be more sparing with the accusation of so‑called reformism than may have been possible in the last century and in the early part of this. How one views reform depends in part on how one evaluates the possibility of total structural change, and as this possibility no longer manifests itself with the immediacy it had in the middle of the last century, the question of reform is also seen in a quite different perspective. That is one point I wanted to make. However, I do not think that because we ruthlessly define the blocked state and disproportionate power relationships of the present situation, we should therefore be branded with quietism or resignation. For anyone who shrinks back from analysing the existing structure for the sake of a thesis to be demonstrated or a goal to be achieved thereby betrays both truth and theory; and that is quite certainly not what has ever been meant by the unity of theory and practice.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I should like now to talk in more detail about the central concept of sociology, the concept of society. As you may know, a number of sociologists consider that this term is no longer usable. The first thing to be said is that if you expect me to follow the custom of many other disciplines and offer you a definition of the term 'society', you will find yourselves bitterly disappointed, and not because I believe myself incapable of formulating such a definition. In the discussion of the concept of society I think I shall give you enough information to allow you to form a sufficiently clear idea of this concept. But such a concept is not a legal term definable once and for all, since it contains an inexhaustible wealth of historical reference. I should like here to quote a statement of Nietzsche's which also appears in the Exkursen: 'No concept in which a whole process is summarized semiotically' – which means, for those of you who have no Greek: no concept which is a sign or an abbreviation for an entire process – ‘can be defined; only that which has no history is definable.’ Later in these lectures I shall show you the central importance which history has for sociology, that it is not mere background for social knowledge but is actually constitutive of all social knowledge. Naturally, that applies also to the central concept of the discipline, the concept of society.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it was rightly pointed out to me at the last introductory seminar that Herr Schelsky's critique of the concept of society does not imply that one can actually do without such a theoretical concept. He argues that there are various types of society, some of which still exist side‑by‑side, and that such societies should not be simply subsumed or synthesized under a single concept. Of course, there is a difference between, for example, the society of capitalist countries and those in the Soviet or Chinese spheres of influence, or again, those of the Third World. And, naturally, I am far from wanting sociology to neglect these differences, which sometimes go very deep, or to replace them by a kind of 'hotel gravy' which can be poured indiscriminately over any dish [Laughter]. I hope you do not believe that. But I should like to remind you of what I referred to in the last two lectures as sociology's interest in the essential questions of society. And I would point out that if, in a certain kind of sociology which classifies various types of society, you come across terms such as the 'horde society' or the 'hunter or gatherer society', these terms mean something quite different to what we refer to when we talk of society in the strong sense which this concept took on in the nineteenth century. That is something entirely different. The terms for classifying different societies, some of which come close to the usage of ethnology and anthropology, really refer to different forms of communal living and of the production and reproduction of life by human beings. They refer to basic types of arrangement by which people gain their livelihood and which define the forms of their coexistence. However, when we speak of society in the strong sense – and here I am deliberately using an expression from so­-called 'bourgeois sociology', the sociology of Max Weber, which, in terms of its basic intentions, can be included among the positivist sociologies – we are referring essentially to the element of 'socialization', which does not apply in the same manner to the societies I have just mentioned. This latter use of the term implies that there exists between people a functional connection, which varies considerably, of course, according to the historical level of development of the society, and which leaves no‑one out, a connectedness in which all the members of the society are entwined and which takes on a certain kind o autonomy in relation to them. In the types of society I enumerated earlier, by contrast, the functional connection between people is much looser and the interplay between the individual people and the whole does not take place. In addition – and this is very important – different social groups exist more‑or‑less side‑by‑side in such societies, without there being between them any relationship important enough to shape these groups in a significant way. Let us consider a very primitive society of this kind, a gatherer society before hunting has been organized. Because of a certain uniformity of historical development which, curiously, is to be observed again and again in the most diverse countries, the situation is such that while all these people exist more-or‑less on the level of the gatherer, the different groups or – if I must use the term – the different societies of gatherers exist fairly independently, and take relatively little notice of each other. One result of this – and a very important one for sociology – is that, simply because these archaic forms of society exist side‑by‑side independently of each other and because their interests intersect relatively little, gatherer societies have a somewhat peaceable character; they do not attack each other in the way which is generally the case with developed societies. What Thorstein Veblen called the ‘peaceable savages’ are no doubt to be found here. 'Society' in the stronger sense, therefore, represents a certain kind of intertwinement which leaves nothing out; one essential characteristic of such a society – even though it may be modified or negated – is that its individual elements are presented as relatively equal, endowed with the same faculty of reason. They appear as atoms stripped of qualities, defined only by their self‑preserving reason, and are not structured in terms of estates in the original sense. Thus, as early as the nineteenth century, the Swiss sociologist Bluntschli described the concept of society – as Helge Pross tells us' – as an essentially bourgeois term, or a 'concept of the third estate'. In the state‑capitalist and socialist forms which developed later, this moment of the functional interconnectedness of the whole, and of the virtual equality of those comprising it, has been maintained, despite the consolidation of forms of domination and all the dictatorial features of these societies. This functional interrelationship, therefore, is what I mean first and foremost by society, and I have defined it in these terms on a number of occasions previously.

Now, Hans Albert, in his first polemical essay against Habermas, has criticized the concept of society I am advancing here as amounting to no more than the trivial observation that 'everything is connected to everything else', and as an abstract concept in the bad sense. Albert is the positivist sociologist who has conducted the argument against the dialectical theory of society most energetically in recent years? His standpoint is largely that of Popper; at least with regard to Albert's intentions there is clearly extensive agreement between the two. I should like to address Albert's criticism, as it does, indeed, represent a serious objection.

The reply I would give is that society, in its 'socialized' form, is not merely a functional interrelationship between the socialized people of the kind referred to by Albert, but is determined, as its fundamental precondition, by exchange. What really makes society a social entity, what constitutes it both conceptually and in reality, is the relationship of exchange, which binds together virtually all the people participating in this kind of society. It is also, in a sense, the precondition of post‑capitalist societies – if I may state the matter cautiously here – in which there can be no question that exchange will have ceased to take place. As for the charge of abstraction, it involves, it seems to me, one of those typical confusions between the subject of knowledge, the knower and the theory, on one hand, and the form of that to which the theory relates, on the other. The abstract element here is not an idea which is content with the trifling observation that everything is connected to everything else. It is something which I believe to be a central feature of any theory of society, and I would ask you to take this central feature very seriously and to note what I now have to say. Ladies and Gentlemen, the abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. If you want to exchange two objects and – as is implied by the concept of exchange – if you want to exchange them in terms of equivalents, and if neither party is to receive more than the other, then the parties must leave aside a certain aspect of the commodities. In discussing equal exchange, I must for the moment disregard the question whether a violation of equivalence is not implied in the concept of exchange itself; for the present we are concerned only with constructing the concept to the extent that it is constitutive of society. In developed societies the exchange takes place, as you all know, through money as the equivalent form. Classical political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labour time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labour time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded; instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the abstracting mode of thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. Or, if you will permit me to use this term once again, something like a 'concept' is implicit in society in its objective form. And I believe that the decisive difference between a positivist and a dialectical theory of society lies in this objectivity of the concept inherent in the subject matter itself; positivist sociology denies this process of abstraction, or at least relegates it to the background; its concepts are formed solely within the subject which observes, classifies and draws conclusions. I would ask you not to misunderstand this to mean that the process of abstraction, as we understand it, takes place within the individual subjects performing the exchange. Media such as money, which are accepted by naive consciousness as the self‑evident form of equivalence and thus as the self­-evident medium of exchange, relieve people of the need for such reflection. How far this reflection has ever consciously taken place, and how far the process of abstraction has always asserted itself over the heads of human beings through the simple necessity of exchanging like for like, need not concern us for the present, though I incline to the latter view. At any rate, once you grasp this functional exchange relationship as constituting the essence of socialization, with all the social problems which the elaboration of the exchange principle entails, the concept of society ceases to be the seemingly empty abstraction stating that everything is connected to everything else for which Herr Albert takes me to task. Such a concept of society becomes, through its very nature, critical of society, in that the unfolding of the exchange process it refers to, objectively located within society itself, ends up by destroying society. To demonstrate this was really Marx's intention in Capital. Society, therefore, if it is to continue to reproduce the life of its members – as we should have to formulate the matter today – must transcend the concept of exchange. The transition to criticism thus coincides with a perception of the way in which the objective structure is itself conceptually determined, whereas, were it not so determined, but merely an ordered agglomeration of facts, the notion of a critique of society would be nonsensical. You can see, therefore, that the concept of exchange is, as it were, the hinge connecting the conception of a critical theory of society to the construction of the concept of society as a totality. Perhaps I may sum up what I have just been saying with a few sentences from the discussion of the concept of society in the Evangelisches Staatslexikon, of which many of you are probably not aware. Such a concept of society would

take us beyond the trivial observation that everything is connected to everything else. The bad abstraction of that proposition is not so much a product of flimsy thought as a bad basic constituent of society itself: the role of exchange in modern society. Abstraction takes place objectively in the universal practice of exchange, and not merely in scholarly reflexion; in this abstraction the qualitative nature of producer and consumer, the mode of production and even the need which the social mechanism incidentally satisfies, are disregarded.

What is also disregarded, I should add for the sake of completeness, is the concrete form of the objects to be, exchanged.

The primary element is profit. Even humanity itself, the subject of needs, which is reduced to a mere 'clientele' <today>, is now socially preformed to an extent surpassing all naive imagining, not only by the technical state of the productive forces but also by the economic conditions, however difficult that may be to verify empirically. Prior to any particular social stratification, the abstractness of exchange value supports the dominance of the general over the particular, of society over its compulsory members. It is not, as the logic of the <scholarly> reduction to units such as the average social labour time makes it appear, socially neutral. The reduction of people to agents and media of commodity exchange conceals the domination of people by people. That remains true despite all the difficulties now confronting some categories of a critique of political economy. The form taken by the total interconnectedness requires that all subordinate themselves to the law of exchange if they do not wish to suffer ruin, quite regardless of whether they are subjectively <governed> by a <so‑called> 'profit motive' <or not>.

You will see from this how emphatically society is to be understood as a functional concept. In view of what I have told you, society cannot be regarded, as common sense suggests, as the sum total of all the people living at a particular time or in the same epoch. Such a merely quantitative agglomeration would fall to do justice to society as society. It would be really no more than a descriptive concept which did not define what Marx called the ‘inner connection’ holding society together. But ours is a functional concept in the additional sense that, by virtue of existing for others and being defined essentially as workers, human beings cease to be something existing in itself, a mere fact, but define themselves by what they do and by the relationship existing between them, namely that of exchange. The positivists argue that our central concept, that of society, is not something given, that one cannot put one's finger on such a concept, or say: This thing here is society; I can show it to you just as a doctor can point in a test tube to the pathogen causing an illness, if he has been able to discover it. To this we can reply that just because of that definition – because the concept of society is a concept defining, on a universal scale, relationships between elements, namely individual human beings who work, and not merely the agglomeration of these people – it is not enough to point to the individual elements. In other words, the positivist criterion of a significant datum, that one must finally be able to point to something physical in order to say that it is the substrate which is sought, is inapplicable to the concept of society. Brecht, with the gift of splendid simplification characteristic of him in his best moments, once expressed this situation by saying that the essential truth about society had 'slipped to the functional level'. This had gone so far, he said, that if one wanted to find out something about the Krupp conglomerate, for example, and then looked at the different Krupp factories, one would be able to discover absolutely nothing about the essence of this functional level, that is, about the processes of production and exploitation, and the consequences they had for human beings. Through his friendship with Karl Korsch, Brecht had formed a certain sympathy for positivism. He had probably not quite thought through the implications of the alternatives at issue here – and heaven forbid that I should criticize the poet for that – otherwise he would have realized that the functional concept of society that he himself had formulated actually negated in principle the positivists' criterion of the tangible datum. I would even say that in his formulation he had stated the difference between our position and that of positivism in a striking and conclusive way.

But what I have been saying to you has one further implication. It is that while the functional concept of society is not physically given, while it cannot be directly apprehended as a mere fact, it can certainly be ascertained and known, and not by some irrational mode of knowledge. It is knowable simply by showing the complications and contradictions to which the unfolding of this principle of socialization necessarily gives rise. This unfolding, however, cannot be pursued beyond the social facts, but only in its interaction with a determinate reality. I believe that will have become clear to you after these first four lectures. – Thank you. [Applause]

SOURCE: Adorno, Theodor W. Introduction to Sociology, edited by Christoph Godde, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), Lecture Four, 2 May 1968, pp. 27-34. (Footnotes omitted here.)

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