Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Frankfurt School

core definition

The Frankfurt School is the popular name of the Marxist Institut fur Sozial Forschung at the University of Frankfurt, which developed critical theory.

explanatory context

The Frankfurt School is the more common name given to the Institut fur Sozial Forschung which was formed at the University of Frankfurt in 1926, Essentially a Marxist research institute it moved to the United States (via Paris and London) during the repressive Fascist era before returning to Germany in the 1950s (minus some members who stayed on in the United States).


The Institut was seen as a contemporary application of Marxist thought to the problems of the Weimar Republic. In the view of the founder members of the Institut the difficulties experienced by the Weimar Republic had not been resolved by the application of traditional theories of liberal and social democracy to politics. Equally neither the application of orthodox economic measures nor the alleged innovations of contemporary 'theory' had produced a solution.


When Horkheimer became director in 1929 following the retirement of Grunberg the Institut became more concerned with the necessity to forge 'a new unity between philosophy and science, science and criticism, fact and value'. In Horkheimer's opinion an interdisciplinary approach was required.


Accordingly they proposed a new initiative: a method of dialectical enquiry, a critique, which paid attention to the problems besetting the Weimar Republic and which, by using a dialectical method, would in their opinion provide a more adequate 'critical' analysis of the contemporary situation and therefore enable an adequately founded practice to be introduced.


The Frankfurt School is now seen as synonomous with a style of social enquiry which has become known as critical theory.


What was quite clear to the founders of critical theory was that passivity in the face of impending doom rendered critical theory imperative. Only by freeing human beings from their passive acceptance of the world could they act as if they were actively engaged in the world. Active engagement in the world is inherently both theoretical and practical.

analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'Frankfurt school' as:

The group of neo-Marxists that formed around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. They rejected Marx's economic determinism, criticized Stalinism, integrated Freud's theories and focused on culture.

associated issues

The Aesthetic Theory of the Frankfurt School (Martin Jay)


George Steiner (1967) argues that Marxist aesthetic criticism proceeds along two separate lines.

The first, derived from Lenin and set out at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 by Zhadanov, is ‘socialist realism’. This is explicitly politically partisan. Such partisan literature is seen as combating aesthetic formalism. Steiner argues that this culminated in the ‘sterile orthodoxy of Stalinist socialist realism’.

The second line, usually more acceptable to Marxists (particularly the Para-Marxists, as Michel Crouzet calls them) derives from Engels. Engels valued art for its inherent social significance rather than the political intentions of its creator. The objective social content of a work does not necessarily re-present the artist’s desires and may transcend the artist’s class origins. This second approach is evident in the work of Goldmann and the Frankfurt School (and also Sartre).

Lukacs falls into both camps. He attempts to bridge the gap between Engels and Lenin (whilst remaining loyal to the Soviet perspective). He does it by pointing to the distinction between naturalism and realism. The dichotomy as he sees it places Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac in the realist camp. Realism attempts to reconcile the objective world with subjective imagination. Naturalism, on the other hand, is a mechanical reflection of the artists unassimilated phenomenal environment. Zola is Lukacs’ prime example of naturalism. Lukacs regards the royalist Balzac as a superior writer to Zola because the former imaginatively portrayed the historical totality.

The naturalist-realist distinction is ignored by orthodox Zhadanovists.

However, Lukacs was essentially a Lenininst. He objected to the formalism, irrationalism and subjectivity of modern writers like Kafka, Proust and Joyce. Lukacs preferred the ‘masterpieces of bourgeois culture’. He was rather uncritical of socialist realism, and stuck tenaciously to the (Leninist) view that class conflict was the root of history and the generator of cultural forms. By comparison to the Frankfurt School, Lukacs was critically inflexible. Nonetheless, his work was important to the Frankfurt School not least because it was among the early work to focus on reification and to draw on the naturalist-realist distinction.


The Frankfurt School’s Aesthetic Theory

The Frankfurt School is a diverse group including Horkheimer, Lowenthal, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and on the fringes Benjamin. This analysis will concentrate on Adorno.

As a confirmed dialectician Adorno’s writings tend to be difficult to reduce to fundamentals because he saw each sentence as part of a totality and therefore as needing to be mediated through the whole.

The following ‘tenets’ underly the Frankfurt School approach: 1. Critical analysis should be dialectical. 2. The social world contains contradictions and thus a ‘negative’ critique is essential. 3. The ‘goal’ of critique is freedom and happiness.

The Frankfurt School refused to treat culture as a separate realm within society, as operating in a social vacuum. (The danger with this, although one mostly avoided by the Frankfurt School, was that art is projected as simply reflecting social trends).

The Frankfurt School were opposed to evaluation of artistic phenomena as mere expressions of individual creativity. Works of art expressed objective social tendencies unintended by their creators. (This reflects the Engelian position). This means that, ironically, artistic freedom is an illusion. This illusion is two- pronged. First, although spontaneous subjectivity is necessary for ‘genuine art’ it must ‘realise itself through objectivation’. Objectivation is materially grounded in a given social milieu. Artists are ‘limited’ by the objective materials available within a given milieu. Secondly, objectivation has intellectual boundaries. No artist, however ‘great’ can ever totally transcend the social milieu and must inevitably reify some elements of social relations in the work of art.

The Frankfurt School, similarly saw the reception of works of art as social and not simply a product of individual taste.

The Frankfurt School objected to the reduction of cultural phenomena to an ideological reflection of class interests.

The task of criticism must be not so much to search for the particular interest groups to which cultural phenomena are to be assigned but, rather, to decipher the general social tendencies that are expressed in these phenomena and through which the most powerful interests realise themselves. Cultural criticism must become cultural physiognomy. (Adorno, ‘Prisms’).

The emphasis of the Frankfurt School on dialectics and negation prevented its analyses of art from becoming exercises in decoding class references, (which is essentially how they saw Lukacs).

For the Frankfurt School, art was the expression and reflection of existing social tendencies and ‘genuine’ art acted as the last preserve of human desire for an alternative society. On this latter point, the Frankfurt School diverged from the Leninist critics and from Lukacs.

‘Genuine’ (‘true’ or ‘authentic’) art, for the Frankfurt School was the repository of utopianism that had formerly resided in [Pre-Reformation ?] religion. True art was an expression of future happiness.

Thus, paradoxically, the claim of culture to transcend society was true in one sense! The Frankfurt School maintained that art did not constitute an autonomous realm and was therefore materially grounded, yet on the other hand ‘true’ art proposed an alternative ‘reality’ (through critique and imaginative projection) and thus transcended the social milieu.

Thus for the Frankfurt School, not all art was a ‘bourgeois swindle’, the repository of false consciousness or (bourgeois) ideology.

The Frankfurt School saw successful art as that which embodies contradictions in a pure and uncompromised way in its innermost structure rather than attempting to resolve contradictions into a spurious harmony.

So, until social contradictions are reconciled in reality art must contain an element of protest in its harmonious structure.

However, Adorno’s main focus of interest was on music. For Adorno, music was becoming a commodity dominated by exchange value rather than use value. An important dichotomy for Adorno was between market-oriented and non- market-oriented music. The former, he regarded as reflecting the ‘affirmative’ culture [fn1] of bourgeois society, the latter as having ‘alternative’ potential. Bourgeois, affirmative culture, had appropriated culture and ‘defused it’. The vision of an alternative society had been systematically eradicated from the emergent bourgeois affirmative culture, Adorno claimed. That did not mean that no non-affirmative culture remained. (In this respect, the work of Kafka and particularly Brecht were exemplars of ‘authentic’ literature for the Frankfurt School).

Adorno use this distinction to compare Schonberg and Stravinsky. Schonberg encapsulated aesthetic principles of which Adorno approved, notably the ‘atonality’ that refused to compromise with the ‘unresolved discrepancies of contemporary society’. The contradictions became ordered in the twelve-tone row [and later reified by, e.g., Schonberg’s students, notably Webern]. The twelve-tone row was a dialectical product of Schonberg’s earlier work produced by withdrawing into the logic of the music itself. So it provided a critical negation but was also codified into a musical form (i.e., was not simply destructive).

Stravinsky, on the other hand, Adorno argued, embodied neo-classical objectivism, which ignored the alienation and contradiction of modern society and returned to pre-bourgeois forms such as the dance. Unlike the romantics who used these earlier forms imaginatively, Stravinsky merely incorporated this ‘folk’ culture’ undialectially, adapting it to current needs and therefore (unwittingly) aiding fascism.

Thus, Adorno maintained that genuine aesthetic reception involved praxis. (I.e. the viewer/listener etc. is not a passive receiver but engages actively in the reception of ‘true art’.)

Adorno saw no ‘alternative’ projection in jazz (which he hated), seeing it essentially as part of the hollow sham of the mass culture industry. Not all art, then, contains the negative moment.

Critique of mass culture

The Frankfurt School was concerned with happiness. Unlike conservative critics of popular culture, the Frankfurt School did not defend high culture as an end in itself apart from material concerns. For Horkheimer, the struggle against mass culture was about pointing out the connection between social injustice and mass culture. To do, as many conservative critics did, namely to segregate cultural life from the material base, was an ‘affirmative’ act, it served to reconcile people to the inequalities of the social world through its idealisations.

The Frankfurt School disliked mass culture because they saw it as non-democratic. The idea of ‘popular’ culture, they argued, was ideological. For them, mass culture was an industry. It was a non-spontaneous, reified and phony culture. There was a subliminal message in all forms of art (as appropriated by bourgeois affirmative culture) of conformity and resignation. (Tragedy, for example, once meant protest, now meant consolation, according to Marcuse). Adorno and Horkheimer found the notion of popular culture as mere diversion as suspect. For them, leisure was ‘the continuation of labour by other means’.

In short, the Frankfurt School came to see the culture industry as a subtle tool of domination. ‘The false harmony of particular and universal was in some ways more sinister than the clash of social contradictions, because of its ability to lull its victims into passive acceptance.’

This dominating potential was accentuated by the development of technology (e.g., radio, as used by the Fascists) and the decline of ‘mediating forces’ in the process of socialisation (e.g., the family).

Affirmative culture

Marcuse (1968, p. 95: Negations) ‘By affirmative culture is meant that culture of the bourgeois epoch which led in the course of its own development to the segregation from civilisation of the mental and spiritual world as an independent realm of value that is also considered superior to civilisation. Its decisive characteristic is the assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better, and more valuable world that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual for himself ‘from within’ without any transformation of the state of fact’.

Adorno argues, furthermore, that orthodox Marxism is unable to transcend affirmative culture because it sees happiness as a function of economic well being and eternalised the base-superstructure distinction. The Frankfurt School saw this distinction as apposite only to a single moment of bourgeois productive relations. An ‘alternative’ society would integrate the base and superstructure; economy and culture would be integrated. This was admittedly ‘utopian’, but clearly opposed to the idea that social contradictions could be reconciled at the level of popular culture.

Nonetheless, the Frankfurt School, despite its Marxist traditions, valued tradition. (Adorno saw traditional elements in Schonberg’s music). Mass culture, Lowenthal argued, by devaluing tradition ‘deprived man of his duree’.

However, Jay argues that the notion of tradition so important to the Frankfurt School was not the same as the post-Enlightenment notion of the ‘continuation of progress’. Tradition meant an integrated experience (Erfahrung) which so-called ‘progress’ was destroying.

related areas

See also

critical theory

critical social research


Researching the Real World Section


McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

Steiner, G., 1967,‘Marxism and the Literary Critic’ in Language and Silence. New York

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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