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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Mannheim, Karl

core definition

Károly (Karl) Mannheim (1893–1947) was one of the founders of classical sociology and, in particular, the sociology of knowledge.

explanatory context

Brief biography of Mannheim

Mannheim was born in Budapest and was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Budapest. He attended lectures by Georg Simmel in 1914 and during the Hungarian Soviet in 1919 his friend Lukács secured a teaching post for him. Mannheim did not share Lukács' Communism. Mannheim moved to Germany in the wake of the establishment of the Kingdom of Hungary. He worked in Heidelberg in the 1920s under the German sociologist Alfred Weber, brother of Max Weber. In 1930 he became professor of sociology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and his assistants included Norbert Elias, Hans Gerth and Greta Kuckhoff. He joined the latter at the London School of Economics in 1933 to get away from the Nazi regime. In January 1946 he took up the full-time chair of education at the Institute of Education in London. He dies a year later at the age of 53.


Mannheims' sociology of knowledge: views on ideology and history

Manheim, although neither a Marxist historicist nor a hermeneutic historicist, has had some considerable impact on the sociology of knowledge and it is appropriate to assess his model of the production of scientific knowledge as it falls squarely within the historicist tradition. Mannheim lies between Marxist and hermeneutic historicists in that he reflects hermeneutic concerns in his attempted revision of Marxist metascience.

Of importance here is the basic distinction Mannheim draws between natural and social science. In his sociology of knowledge Mannheim seeks to analyse the relationship between knowledge and existence, and the impact this has had on the 'intellectual development of mankind'. In so doing, Mannheim adopts an anti-relativistic position, and argues that sociology of knowledge, by seeking a solution to the problem 'of the social conditioning of knowledge' will provide a non-relativistic account of the production of knowledge.

Mannheim notes that the apriori view of knowledge is changing as intellectual ideas change; i.e. internalist history of ideas is not tenable given current (1940) empirical investigation. Indeed, three points emerge that Mannheim takes as central to his perspective.

First, that every formulation of a problem is made possible only by a previous actual human experience which involves such a problem. Second, that in selecting from the multiplicity of data there is involved an act of will on the part of the knower. Third, that forces arising out of living experience are significant in the direction that the treatment of the problem follows.

Mannheim places a primacy on consciousness although recognising that the living forces and actual attitudes to which he refers are not simply of an individual nature. On the contrary they, 'arise out of the collective purposes of a group which underlie the thoughts of the individual, and in the prescribed outlook of which he merely participates'. (Mannheim, 1960, pp. 240–1)


Mannheim thus rejects the 'isolated genius' notion of intellectual advance; 'genius' is just the visible tip of 'group mind'. But 'group mind' is not just a unitary 'complex of collective experience with one exclusive tendency' rather the world is known simultaneously through mutually contradictory orientations struggling against one another, i.e. through competing conflicting groups. These competing groups are not, however, reduced to class antagonisms but include, for Mannheim, successive generations.

Mannheim, in trying to go beyond the limitations he sees in vulgar Marxism, which links the spiritual products of mind with economic class interest contends that the determination of social and cultural science by social factors is mediated by Weltanschauung. He thus 'seeks to avoid a direst association between classes and knowledge', between interest and consciousness. Mannheim, like Goldmann, is influenced by Lukacs' interpretation of Marx, particularly his construction of historical materialism and the Weltanschauung, or positive, view of ideology.

Mannheim argues that 'the sociology of knowledge is closely related to, but increasingly distinguishable from, the theory of ideology' (Mannheim, 1960, p. 238). He regards ideology in the sense of deliberate distortion generated by human interest groups, notably political parties. The study of ideologies, then, for Mannheim is the unmasking of these distortions. The sociology of knowledge is concerned with the various ways in which objects present themselves to the subject according to the differences in social setting. Mannheim adopts a Weltanschauung frame for the sociology of knowledge, and replaces 'ideology' by 'perspective'. Perspective is the subjects' whole mode of conceiving of things as determined by his historical and social setting.

Mannheim has, in outlining a sociology of knowledge, proposed a model of knowledge production that dispenses with the negative, critical view of ideology and concerns itself with the identification of the historically specific cultural factors influencing world views, which in turn directly effects the production of knowledge.

Ideology is equated with error and the theory of ideology is limited to the analysis of falsity manifest in particular ideologies. The'total conception of ideology' is conceptualised as the overarching 'world view' or 'total mental structure' of different eras and social groupings. The total conception of ideology refers to a phenomenon concerned 'with the characteristics and composition of the total structure of the mind', of either a social group or a temporal epoch. This operates at a sociological level and is the basis for confronting alternative Weltanschauungen.

The generation of a detached perspective Mannheim suggests may be gained as follows: by a member leaving his or her social position, or by a group shifting its basis away from its traditional norms and institutions, or by two or more modes of interpretation within a society criticising each other and rendering one anotherís perspectives transparent. Mannheim says that this latter alternative is the primary process for the genesis of the sociology of knowledge.

Total conception, because it challenges the 'whole outlook of the social group' and not the partial ideas of individuals entails a radical critique. Mannheim sees Marx's conception of ideology as only a special formulation of the total conception of ideology. Special because, according to Mannheim, it is concerned with analysing only the opponent's ideas, not its own. Mannheim's general formulation incorporates 'self analysis'.

Socialism no longer has ideological analysis as its own exclusive weapon. Given that all social knowledge is determined by social structure any group can use ideological analysis to discredit opponents. The general formulation shifts ideological analysis from what Mannheim sees as a party weapon to a scientific method of research.

The sociology of knowledge is concerned to examine world views as evolutionary structures. It aims, first, to describe how social relations influence thought and, second, to enquire into the problem of validity in regard to the relationship between social relations and thought. The first aim involves the construction of a theory of the social or existential determination of critical thinking. This does not imply a mechanistic determination, indeed Mannheim leaves the relationship open and comments that empirical investigation will 'show us how strict is the correlation between life- situation and thought-process' (Mannheim, 1960, footnote 1, p. 239).

Mannheim shows that the socio-historical (existential) factors affect content and form of knowledge and are therefore more than mere conditioning factors but are integral to the concrete development of knowledge. He demonstrates this by arguing that, like art products, one can 'date' knowledge. One can locate it as the product of a particular epoch. Its content and form are determined by that epoch. Mannheim goes on to argue that the approach to a problem, the level of formulation and the extent of the abstraction are all bound up with social existence.

Mannheim argues that traditional epistemologies (or dominant ideologies as he comes to refer to them, notably those reflecting inductivist concerns) that advocate the primacy of natural science as a model of knowledge production are themselves only partial and limited for sociology of knowledge, as they ignore qualitative elements of the knower's Weltanschauung. Further, these dominant epistemologies are socio-historically determined. They are constructed to elaborate some ideal of 'truth', which itself serves some group interest.

'The idea of truth arises out of the concrete modes of obtaining knowledge prevailing at a given time.... The exact physiognomy of the concept of truth at a given time is not a chance phenomenon. Rather is there a clue to the construction of truth at that time... from which a conception is built up of the nature of truth in general. We see, therefore, not merely that the notion of knowledge in general is dependent upon the concretely prevailing form of knowledge and the modes of knowing expressed therein and accepted as ideal, but also that the concept of truth itself is dependent upon the already existing types of knowledge' (Mannheim, 1960, p. 262).

So epistemology, the dominant forms of knowing and the social-historical moment are inextricably interwoven. The main task of this sociology of knowledge method is to find the factors in the social context that determine the thought of each social group. This in itself relativises thought, and Mannheim's proposal of an evaluative and a non-evaluative conception of ideology is problematic.

Larrain suggests that a non-evaluative ideology, within Mannheim's frame, is not possible, and that only an evaluative analysis can be carried out. 'Norms and values are socially and historically determined; therefore they permit the judgement of ideas only with reference to a particular situation' (Larrain, 1979, p. 110).

Mannheim supposes that his methodology will make possible a non-evaluative analysis. It relies on identifying and overcoming three types of distortion, ethical attitudes divorced from practical action, myths, and non-materialist speculation.

Mannheim's methodology requires an imputation of Weltanschauung achieved through seeking out a basic intention or 'perspective', this is the inner core that determines the character of the style of thought, and the construction of hypotheses derived from this Weltanschauung, which provide a vehicle to examine various authors and articulated theoretical statements. The second stage of the methodology is a more precise imputation that seeks to produce the 'concrete picture of the course and direction of development of thought' that has taken place. This involves documenting the history of the style of thought and the struggle it had with other styles.

The third stage traces back styles of thought to determining social forces, be they classes or groups. The focus is on the composition of these classes or groups and the historical development of the structure within which they are located.

Mannheim insists that natural science methods cannot be used to treat cultural objects. He maintains the Geisteswissenschaften-Naturwissenschaften distinction. But, in so doing, Mannheim 'absolutises the distinction so as to divide human consciousness into two separate worlds. This dualism leads to epistemological idealism in the field of natural sciences and encourages relativism in the field of social science.' (Larrain, 1979, p 103).

This raises severe problems for his view of free-floating intellectuals as mediators of knowledge as the relativisation of thought is inconsistent with the notion of detached authors. This is compounded by Mannheim's positive view of ideology, which restricts the ability of his metascience to distinguish error from ideology.

Manheim argues that 'Sociology of Knowledge' replaces relativism by 'relationism'. This latter is the consequence of the resolution of competing ideologies. Different points of view, according to Manheim, may engage and invalidate each other by revealing each other's social roots and consequent ideological characteristics. Thus one is able to slip out of the relativism impasse by replacing the unattainable notion of ahistorical and asocial eternal truth by one of permanently developing truth that should not be judged in absolute terms.

[Mannheim seems to have a positive view of ideology]

However, Manheim is not really resolving the dilemma because his framework of analysis involves an assessment of the degree of adequacy of knowledge. For him, more adequate knowledge is achieved through synthesis. The result for Manheim is an ever more complete knowledge base. The problem with this mutual expose and synthesis approach is that it presupposes an identifiable germ of knowledge underlying the perspectivised manifestation of knowledge. There is an implicit assumption of a real world against which 'situational determinants' can be identified.

The designation of intellectuals as mediators reflects this implication, for it is this group who Mannheim sees as able to apprehend more of the 'real world' than others. As Craib (1977, p. 27) has pointed out, Manheim's attempt to engage relativism and provide a metascientific thesis relapses into empiricism. 'It is no surprise that Manheim reaches the point of advocating 'a direct observation of the facts' in order to choose between different points of view. This is in direct contradiction to the earlier assertion of the perspectivistic nature of all truth that, moreover, Manheim has taken to its logical conclusion in asserting that in an important way 'facts' are constituted by conceptual structures.

Other formulations such as the argument that the superior point of view is the more fruitful or comprehensive of the alternatives are even less satisfactory: the earlier formulations would imply that the terms can have no absolute meaning apart from the perspectives in which they occur, and they will of course have different meanings in different perspectives.'

analytical review

Encyclopædia Britannica (2013) says of Mannheim:

His sociology of knowledge broadened Karl Marx’s notion that the proletariat and bourgeoisie develop different belief systems. In Mannheim’s view, social conflict is caused by the diversity in thoughts and beliefs (ideologies) among major segments of society that derive from differences in social location. Ideas and beliefs are rooted in larger thought systems (Weltanschauungen), a phenomenon Mannheim called relationism. He elaborated on these concepts in Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (1929). In the posthumously published Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning (1950), Mannheim tried to reconcile his dislike of totalitarianism with his growing belief in the need for social planning. Mannheim’s relationism never adequately confronted charges that it verged on relativism; it also failed to explain how scientific knowledge arises.

Oxford Reference (2013) under the heading 'Karl Mannheim' stated:

A Hungarian sociologist who emigrated to Germany and finally to England shortly after Hitler came to power. His most enduring contribution was to the sociology of knowledge, which he defined as a theory of the social or existential conditioning of thought. Mannheim viewed all knowledge and ideas as bound to a particular location within the social structure and the historical process. Thus, thought inevitably reflects a particular perspective, and is situationally relative. Mannheim was influenced by both Marx and Weber, and in most of his writing, he conceives the different social locations of ideas mainly in terms of class factors or status groups. For example, he contrasts utopian thought rooted in the future hopes of the under-privileged, with ideological thought propounded by those benefiting from the status quo. However, Mannheim also gave special attention to generational differences in relation to ideas. A person's generation, like their social class, gives an individual a particular location in social and historical time and thereby predisposes them to a certain mode of thought.

Although Mannheim saw all thought as relative to social position, he rejected total relativism. All thought is an authentic expression of a group outlook, but this does not make it false or distorted knowledge. He sought for a method through which each partial truth could be synthesized into a larger, and more objective, picture.

Some of his central and most important ideas can be found in Ideology and Utopia (1929), Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (1928), and Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1935).

The University of Keele has a unique source of material on Mannheim, Karl Mannheim Papers:

Mannheim was born in Budapest in 1893. He held academic posts in Heidelberg and Frankfurt but, as a recently naturalized citizen and a Jew, he was suspended by one of the first National Socialist enactments of 1933. Invited to Britian by Harold Laski, Mannheim spent the next ten years as a lecturer at the London School of Economics. Then, in the middle of the war, he was appointed Professor in the Sociology of Education at the University of London. The last of the founding fathers of classical sociology, Mannheim died in 1947 at the age of 53.
The material at Keele consists of some 35 files deposited by Professor W.A.C. Stewart, a former vice-chancellor of Keele University and a former research student of Mannheim. These working papers include notes and lecture outlines prepared by Mannheim for his courses in structural sociology at the London School of Economics and in educational sociology at the Institute of Education, University of London. There is also a certain amount of correspondence between Mannheim and others relating to the period 1940-1945.


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See also





Craib, I., 1977, 'Lukács and the Marxist Criticism of Sociology', Radical Philosophy, 17 (Summer).

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013, 'Karl Mannheim' available at, updated 24 October 2003, accessed 21 May 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Larrain, J., 1979, The Concept of Ideology. London, Hutchinson.,

Mannhein, K., [1928] 1952, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, edited by Kecskemeti, P., London, Routlege and Kegan Paul.

Mannhein, K., [1929] 1960, Ideology and Utopia, translation of Ideologie and Utopie, London, Routledge & Kegan. First published in 1936 in the International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method.

Mannhein, K., 1935, Man and Society: In an Age of Reconstruction,A version published by Harcourt Brace, April 1967.

Oxford Reference, 2013, 'Overview: Karl Mannheim', available at, accessed 21 May 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

University of Keele, undated, 'Karl Mannheim Papers', available at, accessed 21 May 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

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