Karl Mannheim Research Paper

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As a classic of sociology, Karl Mannheim is the author of one book, with three lives. Ideologie und Utopie (Mannheim 1929) was the most widely debated book by a living sociologist in Germany during the climactic years of the Weimar Republic; Ideology and Utopia (Mannheim 1936) has been a standard in Americanstyle international academic sociology; and the quite different German and English versions of the book figure in reappraisals of Mannheim initiated by new textual discoveries (Mannheim 1980, 1984) and republications (Wolff 1993, Mannheim 1952, 1953, 1956), fostered by a reopening of questions the discipline of sociology had once deemed closed. Mannheim’s sociological theorizing has been the subject of numerous book-length studies, evidence of an international interest in his principal themes (e.g., Endreß and Srubar 2000, Gabel 1987, Kettler and Meja 1995, Santambrogio 1990). As a living social thinker, Karl Mannheim was not in fact the author of any work he himself considered a finished book, but rather of some 50 major essays and shorter treatises, many later published in book form.

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Born on March 27, 1893 in Budapest, the son of prosperous Jewish parents, Mannheim studied in Budapest, Berlin, Paris, and Heidelberg, held academic posts at Heidelberg, Frankfurt, the London School of Economics and the University of London, and died January 9, 1947 in London. His biography, one of intellectual and geographical migration, falls into three main phases: Hungarian (to 1919), German (1919–33), British (1933–47). Among his most important early intellectual influences are Georg Lukacs, Oscar Jaszi. Georg Simmel, Edmund Husserl, Heinrich Rickert, and Emil Lask. Mannheim was also strongly influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Alfred Weber, Max Scheler and Georg Dilthey. Through these and other authors, German historicism, Marxism, phenomenology, sociology and—much later—Anglo-Saxon pragmatism became decisive influences upon his work.

Mannheim spent his first 26 years in Budapest, where he graduated in philosophy and precociously participated in the intellectual life of the ‘second reform generation’ born a decade earlier. The advanced thinkers of the time were divided between proponents of modernization oriented to French and English social thought and prophets of radical cultural rebirth inspired by Russian and German models. Mannheim did not think that his dedication to the latter group, led by the philosopher Lukacs, entailed a blanket rejection of the former, under the sociologist Jaszi. Lukacs’ wartime Sunday Circle in Budapest may have devoted its meetings to Dostoevski and Meister Eckhardt, with Mannheim in eager attendance, but Mannheim was also proud of his acceptance in the Max Weber Circle when he was in Heidelberg, and during a visiting semester in Berlin in 1914 he attended the lectures of Georg Simmel, the subtle mediator between cultural philosophy and sociology.

Mannheim lived in Germany from 1919, when he fled the counter-revolutionary regime in Hungary, until 1933, when National Socialist decrees forced him out of the university and he left Germany for England. Within a few years of his transfer from the Budapest intellectual scene to German university life, Mannheim began work in Heidelberg on a habilitation thesis in cultural sociology under Alfred Weber. Mannheim’s sociological interpretation of the rise and self-differentiation of conservatism was subtitled A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge, and its submission coincided with Mannheim’s publication of an article devoted to his critical encounter with Max Scheler, who recently had brought the concept of the sociology of knowledge into discussion. Mannheim’s inaugural address as university instructor at Heidelberg set out the parameters of ‘the contemporary state of sociology in German,’ dealing with Weber, Troeltsch, and Scheler. Sociology, he believed, provided the frame of reference for twentieth century thinking as a whole.

Mannheim’s aloofness, however, from the specialized ‘state of sociology’ question, as well as his equation of the main currents of contemporary thought with the leading sociological theories, indicate that his move from philosophy to sociology cannot be understood as a simple change of academic specializations. Sociology, in his view, was a more comprehensive undertaking than the academic discipline still taking form. Goaded in 1929 by a charge of ‘sociologism’ against Ideologie und Utopieby the noted literary scholar, Ernst Robert Curtius, Mannheim (in Meja and Stehr 1990) again invoked the heritage of Weber, Troeltsch, and Scheler against the literary scholar’s accusation of treason to humanism, presenting these sociologists as modern German classics, as ‘a great heritage, a tradition that must be built upon.’

The novelty in Mannheim’s approach to the sociology of knowledge is epitomized in three distinct claims. First, and most controversial, is the contention that boundaries between manifestly ideological and ostensibly scientific modes of explaining the cultural as well as the social world are porous, with sociology of knowledge emerging in the border region, as a reflexive therapy for both domains. Second, is the concomitant conception of ideologies as cognitive structures that are variously flawed, limited, perspectivistically onesided, subject to correction from other perspectives, and nevertheless productive of knowledge. The third claim, then, is that the sociology of knowledge bears on the answers to substantive questions addressed by ideologies, consequently contributing directly to political orientation. It does so not because knowledge of social genesis can determine judgments of validity, but because systematic pursuit of such knowledge fosters a comprehensive synthesis and renders particularistic ideologies obsolete.

Mannheim’s strategy involves two steps. First, the variety of ideas in the modern world is classified according to a scheme of historical ideological types, in keeping with his thesis that the ideological field has moved from atomistic diversity and competition to concentration. Liberalism, conservatism, and socialism are the principal types. Second, each ideology is interpreted as a function of some specific way of being in the social world, as defined by location within the historically changing patterns of class and generational stratification. Liberalism is thus referred to the capitalist bourgeoisie in general, and various stages in its development are linked to generational changes. Similar analyses connect conservatism to social classes harmed by the rise to power of the bourgeoisie, and socialism to the new industrial working class. Each of the ideologies is said to manifest a characteristic ‘style’ of thinking, a distinctive response to the issues that systematic philosophy has identified as constitutive of human consciousness, such as conceptions of time and space, the structure of reality, human agency, and knowledge itself. The political judgments and recommendations of purely ideological texts must be taken in that larger structural context. The style of thinking is most apparent in the way concepts are formed and in the logic by which they are interlinked. Each style expresses some distinctive design upon the world vitally bound up with the situation of one of the social strata present in the historical setting.

Sociology of knowledge seeks to give an account of the whole ideological field, in its historical interaction and change. To have a method for seeing this means to see in a unified way what ideologically oriented viewers can only see in part. Mannheim draws on Marxism for a conception of politics as a process of dialectical interplay among factors more ‘real’ than the competing opinions of liberal theory. But neither the proletariat nor any other socio-political force is bearer of a transcendent rationality, historically destined to reintegrate irrationalities in a higher, pacified order. The contesting social forces and their projects in the world are in need of a synthesis that incorporates elements of their diverse social wills and visions. Syntheses in political vision and in the social sciences are interdependent. Sociology of knowledge foreshadows and fosters both.

Mannheim’s call to a professorship in Frankfurt followed the remarkable recognition earned by his further work in sociology of knowledge. In his presentation on ‘Competition’ at the Sixth Conference of German Sociologists in 1928 (in Wolff 1993), Mannheim audaciously used the value-judgment controversy in recent sociology to illustrate his theses about the connectedness to existence (Seins erbundenheit) of social thought and the operations of socially grounded competition to generate syntheses that transcend intellectual conflict. Ideologie und Utopie, consisting of three essays on ‘politics as a science, ‘utopian consciousness,’ and an explication of the concepts of ‘ideology’ and ‘utopia,’ generated great excitement that launched Mannheim in his new setting, recognized in the wider intellectual community as a significant and controversial personality. Questions about varieties of knowing and about the ways in which new knowledge depends on authentic grounding in the contexts of existing knowledge are the major themes of much of Mannheim’s work during this period. His seminal paper on The Problem of Generations (1927), which continues to have a lasting impact in sociological research and analysis (especially by way of cohort analysis and the sociology of the life course), also belongs here.

The sociology of knowledge dispute about Ideologie und Utopie (Meja and Stehr 1990) was mainly philosophical and political, with the focus, first, on Mannheim’s hope of overcoming both ideology and political distrust through sociology of knowledge; second, on his conception of the intelligentsia as the social stratum uniquely equipped and even destined for this task; and third, on his activist conception of sociological knowledge, as a mode of mediating between theory and practice. In Science as a Vocation (1922), Max Weber had distinguished between words in politics and in science, likening the former to weapons for overpowering opponents and the latter to ploughshares for cultivating knowledge. Mannheim offers the sociology of knowledge as an ‘organon for politics as a science,’ as a way of bringing about the biblical transformation of swords into pruning hooks prophesied by Isaiah. His proposals were widely canvassed in the leading periodical reviews and subjected to intense criticism, but his reading of the intellectual situation was almost universally applauded. In the cultivated Weimar public and among the participants in the ‘Weimar conversation’ about social thought after Nietzsche and Marx, Ideologie und Utopiefigured as the representative book of its time, whether as symptom of cultural crisis or as promise of a way out.

During his five semesters as professor in Frankfurt, however, Mannheim declined the role of public intellectual, He separated the professional aspects of his activities from his public reputation. While he drew close to Paul Tillich and his circle of religious socialists, celebrated and embattled as an ‘intellectual,’ he nevertheless increasingly defined himself as a professional sociologist. Never having exposed himself politically, he was caught unaware by the Nazi measure that deprived him of his professorship on grounds of his foreign birth and Jewish ethnicity. Ideologie und Utopie had been favorably treated in the Socialist periodical, Die Gesellschaft, but the four articles published there (by Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Hans Speier, and Paul Tillich, were all more critical than the reception that his work received in Die Tat, a periodical of the activist Right. The hard Left treated him as a betrayer of Marxism. Soon Mannheim was a refugee in Amsterdam. Neither his sociology nor his politics had anything to do with his exile from Germany.

In the summer of 1933, Mannheim was appointed to a special lectureship at the London School of Economics. Neither the times nor his situation were conducive to pursuing sociology of knowledge studies, however. Mannheim saw it as his mission to diagnose the general crisis he held responsible for the German disaster and to promote prophylactic and therapeutic measures in Britain. His sense of urgency and his grand theoretical ambitions enthused students, but they estranged the professional sociologists led by Morris Ginsberg, who were engaged in a difficult fight for academic respectability of a discipline still widely dismissed by the English university establishment. Although marginalized at the London School of Economics, the only British institution with a chair in Sociology, Mannheim made a place for himself as a public intellectual, especially after his acceptance by a circle of Christian thinkers that included T. S. Eliot and whose periodic discussions and publications centered on a theme of cultural crisis hospitable to Mannheim’s sociological interpretations.

In Britain Mannheim continued to focus on the relationship between knowledge and society, his lifelong topic. Writing in Man in Society in an Age of Reconstruction, a work no less influential in the postwar years than Ideology and Utopia, he now claims that the sociology of knowledge has lost its strategic centrality with the demise of ideological competition (Mannheim 1940) and calls for ‘a new experimental attitude in social affairs,’ in view of the ‘practical deterioration of the ideals of Liberalism, Communism, and Fascism.’ The National Socialist dictatorship, Mannheim argues, exploits a socially unconscious mass response to a worldwide crisis in the institutions of liberal civilization, involving the obsolescence of its regulative social technologies—from markets to parliaments to elitist humanistic education. He pleads for planned social order that strategically utilizes the new social technologies that undermine the spontaneous self-ordering of the previous epoch. A consensual reconstruction could save human qualities and diversities earlier privileged by liberalism, unlike the violent homogenization imposed by communist or national socialist control through command. Timely action guided by awareness of the impending crisis by leading strata, notably the English elite of gentlemanly professionals, can tame the processes that would otherwise destroy liberal civilization and condition mass populations for dictatorial domination. ‘Planning for freedom’ presupposes a reorientation among traditional elites, their acceptance of a sociological diagnosis of the times, and their willingness to learn prophylactic and therapeutic techniques (Mannheim 1943). Mannheim now claims for sociology the ability to ground and coordinate interdisciplinary approaches in planning. His lectures and writings on ‘planning’ won him an interested audience, especially during the war and immediate postwar years, and his conception of a post-ideological age was never altogether submerged by the Cold War (Mannheim 1950). As his wartime slogan of ‘militant democracy’ justified German measures against leftists during the middle decades of the century, his slogan of the Third Way is heard at the beginning of the new millennium in support of political designs he would have found familiar.

Among sociologists, however, Mannheim’s standing was defined by the reception of Ideology and Utopia. In his preface Louis Wirth casts the work primarily as a contribution to objectivity in social science. The professional consensus is formalized in R. K. Merton’s authoritative essay in 1945 on ‘The Sociology of Knowledge’ (in Merton 1957). Merton includes Mannheim in a group of social theorists from Marx to Sorokin whose diverse approaches to ‘the relations between knowledge and other existential factors in the society and culture’ he relates to questions and alternatives that provide an agenda for the theoretical clarification and empirical research required to build sociology. Merton’s ‘paradigm’ for the sociology of knowledge sets out five key issues: the existential basis of mental productions, the varieties and aspects of mental productions subject to sociological analysis, the specific relationship(s) between mental productions and existential basis, the functions of existentially conditioned mental productions, and the conditions under which the imputed relations obtain. Crediting him with having sketched the broad contours of the sociology of knowledge with skill and insight, Merton nevertheless finds Mannheim’s theory loose, burdened with dubious philosophical claims, and insists that the relations between knowledge and social structure can be clarified only after they are ‘shorn of their epistemological impedimenta, with their concepts modified by the lessons of further empirical inquiry’ (Merton 1957, p. 508).

The condition for Mannheim’s acceptance as deserving sociological pioneer was the discarding of the concept of total ideology and his way of questioning both social science and social knowledge. The editors of three posthumous collections of Mannheim’s essays, his intimate friends and noted social scientists, Paul Kecskemeti and Adolph Loewe, reinforced the consensus view. As Mannheim became acquainted with Anglo-American social science, they argued, empirical social psychology displaced continental philosophies as the theoretical framework for his thinking, and his early writings merit consideration primarily as brilliant anticipations of later developments. In Merton’s sociological theory classes during the 1950s, Ideology and Utopia often followed Machiavelli’s Prince in the syllabus, as source material for an exercise in transmuting suggestive ideas into testable propositions. Mannheim’s work had joined the list of historical authorities celebrated as legitimating precursors of a settled way of defining and doing sociology.

We can trace the renewal of attention to the historical social thinker, Karl Mannheim, to renewed conflicts about the subject, method, and attitude of sociology. The connection is not simple, since the attack on the disciplinary consensus, where historical models were involved, was more likely to call on Marxist writers or on figures like Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, who had been among Mannheim’s harshest contemporary critics. The effect, nevertheless, was to relegitimate questions about the historicity of social knowledge, the problem of relativism, and the paths of reflexivity open to social thinkers—the issues filtered out of Mannheim’s thought in his American reception—and to provide a new point of connection for those sociologists (e.g., Wolff 1993) who had continued puzzling over the issues debated when Ideologie und Utopie first appeared. Berger and Luckmann’s influential phenomenological reformulation of the sociology of knowledge in The Social Construction of Reality (1966) represents a departure from Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge. All knowledge, both objective and subjective (and including ideology, propaganda, science and art), is now seen as socially constructed. Berger and Luckmann examine how forms of knowledge are maintained and modified by the institutions and individuals embodying and embracing them.

In the newly fluid state of questions appropriate for sociological theory, Mannheim’s famous Ideology and Utopia no longer stands alone among his writings, and his insistence on essayistic experimentalism is no longer ignored. There are no propositions to be distilled out of Mannheim’s work; there is just the thoughtful encounter with it. Mannheim’s prediction about the consequences of uncovering the ‘massive fact’ of knowledge in society and society in knowledge has been borne out. Yet we are not beneficiaries of any ‘progress’ in thought, as post-modernists paradoxically often suppose: we may well have to think deeply about old texts, however we class them.


  1. Berger P, Luckmann T 1966 The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Doubleday, New York
  2. Endreß M, Srubar I 2000 Karl Mannheims Analyse der Moderne. Jahrbuch fur Soziologie. Leske und Budrich, Opladen, Germany
  3. Gabel J 1987 Mannheim et le Marxisme Hongrois. Meridiens Klincksieck, Paris
  4. Kettler D, Meja V 1995 Karl Mannheim and the Crisis of Liberalism: The Secret of These New Times. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ
  5. Mannheim K 1929 1953 Ideologie und Utopie, 3rd enlarged edn. Schulte-Bulmke, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (1995 8th edn. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, Germany)
  6. Mannheim K 1936 Ideology and Utopia. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London
  7. Mannheim K 1940 Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London
  8. Mannheim K 1943 Diagnosis of Our Time. Wartime Essays of a Sociologist. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London
  9. Mannheim K 1950 Freedom, Power and Democratic Planning. Oxford University Press, New York
  10. Mannheim K 1952 Essays in the Sociology of Knowledge. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  11. Mannheim K 1953 Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  12. Mannheim K 1956 Essays on the Sociology of Culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  13. Mannheim K 1922–24 1980 Strukturen des Denkens. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, Germany [1982 Structures of Thinking. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London]
  14. Mannheim K 1925 1984 Konser atismus Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie des Wissens. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, Germany [trans. 1986 Kettler D, Meja V, Stehr N (eds.) Conser atism. A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London]
  15. Meja V, Stehr N (eds.) 1990 Knowledge and Politics: The Sociology of Knowledge Dispute. Routledge, London [1982 Der Streit um die Wissenssoziologie. 2 Vols. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, Germany]
  16. Merton R K 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. The Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  17. Santambrogio A 1990 Totalita e Critica del Totalitarismo in Karl Mannheim. Angeli, Milano, Italy
  18. Weber M 1919 1922 Wissenschaftslehre. J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tubingen, Germany
  19. Wolff K H (ed.) 1993 From Karl Mannheim, 2nd extended edn. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ
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