Arbeitsgruppe Sozialwissenschaftliche Theorie


The work of this research unit follows two lines: the development of theory and the comparison of different theories and theoretical strands. Our hypothesis is that the field of sociological theory as such is much less diverse than generally claimed. By comparing different theories systematically, we outline the common ground of even those approaches which seem quite different at first sight. The two dominant paradigms of current sociologial theory, namely Action theory in the tradition of Simmel, Weber, Schütz and Mead and Systems theory in the tradition of Parsons and Luhmann, are a case in point and thus are specifically taken into account. Our approach allows us to make visible those theoretical assumptions which have been hitertho implicitly shared. Our goal is to work out a meta-theoretical framework which can be used as a "tertium comparationis", and therefore allows for giving a rational description of similarities and differences of different sociological theories.

For several decades, the development of theory was understood as an ongoing process of interpreting the classics. We think that another approach might be fruitful, too: the confrontation of theory with empirical data. Even highly abstract concepts may be refined by confronting them with empirical data. A theoretical focus is concentrated mainly on abstract foundational concepts, whereas empirical research is guided by problematizing these concepts. Such an emphasis on reconciling empirical research with theorizing brings important ethical and legal-political issues into attention, because the empirical research in question is concerned with elementary borders of the social world. For example: One of the core concepts of sociological theory is the interaction of social actors. From an empiricial perspective, a question and thus a problem arises which is not known to theoretical approaches on interaction as such: who has to be interpreted and recognized as a social person in the first place? This question leads into the field of anthropological border questions (human-animal-difference, human-machine-difference etc.).

1. The Comparison of Theories

A rational theory comparison requires distinguishing between different levels of sociological theory:

1. Social theory

2. Theorie of limited range / middle range theories

3. Theorie of society.

Social theory determines what, in general, is to be understood by social phenomena and which concepts are to be focused on: e.g., action, interaction or communication and system. Theories of limited range are those dealing with delimited social phenomena. By contrast, theories of society are those which refer to encompassing historical formations such as: modern society, capitalistic society, or the functionally differentiated society.

Ad 1

Social theory consist of assumptions which describe the basic properties of the object. Furthermore, it entails methodological concepts that should be adopted in order to observe the object properly and in order to interpret empirical data. Social theory constitutively determines what and how something may appear as sociological empirical data in the first place. Social theories have various implications concerning social actors: How is the actor conceived of as a subject? Which anthropological and/or ethical assumptions are crucial? Etc. Generally, such conceptual implications remain implicit and therefore unchallenged. A critical and systematic comparison of foundational assumptions uncovers these hidden dimensions of sociological theory. Making the implicit explicit requires a highly reflexive style of theoretical reasoning. The "Philosophical Anthroplogy" of Helmuth Plessner offers an appropriate framework for such an endeavor, and thus it has become an integral part of our work.

Ad 2

Theories of limited range presuppose certain observation-guiding assumptions. Limited sectors of social reality are investigated from a specific theoretical perspective. As a result, a theory may arise about modern organizations or about decision-making processes in organizations. It is reasonable to question these theories by confronting them with empirical data. The established form of doing this is falsification. Whether this is the only possibility or whether there should be other possibilities to question theories by empirical data is open to question. Different theoretical approaches may construct different modes of being questioned by empirical data. For it is only then that a theory like the "Theory of social systems" has a fair chance to be evaluated properly. In any case, a comparison should examine how the relationship between social theory and empirical data is organized, in order to produce theories of limited range.

Ad 3

Theories of society are based on theories of limited range. Theories of society claim to extrapolate an exhaustive description of particular social formations from empirical findings. Until the 1980s, Marxist theories of society dominated. But in the course of the 1990s they were replaced by a theory of functional differentiation. This development had consequences within the discipline of Sociology as well as external implications. Within the discipline, the acceptance of the theory of functional differentiation is consistent with ignoring a central aspect of societal theory: The normative question of how to make sense of societal developments was increasingly neglected. Thus, a dimension of sociological theory was abandoned which had belonged to the core of the discipline since Simmel and Weber. Here, the task of theory comparison is to reconstruct the (forgotten/neglected) state of the art. Regarding theory development, it is important to find the conceptual relation of social theories and theories of society. Concerning the dimension of normative evaluation, as embodied in classical societal theories, we follow the idea that ethics have replaced a central function of societal theory, namely to offer normative evaluations of social developments which are practically relevant. Until the 1980s, this has been the domain of societal theory, but sociology has been increasingly replaced by philosophical ethics (including bio-ethics) in this field. Now it is our task to reestablish the normative dimension of sociological thinking.

2. The Development of Theories

In the field of developing theory one can distinguish between self-referential theory development and empirically oriented theory development. Following the self-referential method, theory is developed on the basis of the reception of other theories. This has been the only accepted method in sociological theory formation for some decades, and it has resulted in separating general sociological theory formation from empirical research. This holds especially true for social theory and societal theory. An empirically-oriented development of sociological theory is currently restricted to theories of limited range. In terms of methodology, this implies a nearly exclusive orientation towards the difference between verification and falsification. Our research-unit neglects the further development of theories of limited range, because such research is already done within various sociological sub-disciplines, and it is in the focus of the other units of our Institute like the "Methodenzentrum Sozialwissenschaften" and the research unit "Social Structure". Instead, we focus on a empirically-oriented development of social theory and theories of society.

2.1 Social theory

The presently accepted social theories deal with an analytical elementary model of the social within which two levels can be distinguished: (1) a dyadic ego-alter relation in which the participants interpret their mutual expectation-expectations and thus coordinate their actions; (2) this relationship gives rise to an emergent order that cannot be traced back to the actions of a single participant.

Within this constellation of social emergence at least three open research problems can be identified:

1. How is the circle of those entities delimited which have to be recognized as an alter ego?

2. What are the anthropological and ethical implications of a particular social theory?

3. How can one understand the "Sachverhalt"[1] of emergence?

Ad 1

In sociological theory formation, the first question is treated as already answered, insofar as living and consciously acting people are exclusively considered to be such entities which may be social persons. Without further reflection, this affirms the consensus of modern societies according to which only living human beings can be recognized as acting persons. Such assumptions have already been questioned by prominent sociologists (e.g., Luckmann) and currently it has been questioned by scholars of social studies of science and technology. The unquestioned presuppositions concerning the circle of social persons can be systematically challenged, if empirical research is driven by basic social theoretical problems, and if empirical research is designed to provide a rationale for theorizing. A promising field to work out such problems are modern anthropological border problems. It is taken for granted in modern societies that merely living human beings have to recognize each other as alter Ego. If so, the question of how the circle of social persons is delimited gives rise to expounding the problems of how the borders of being a human are constructed: When does human life begin? When does it end? Moreover: How are practical decisions made concerning the onset and end of life? What about the legal, the political, and the scientific institutional framework of such decisions? Concerning anthropological borders, further questions may arise: How are the borders constructed between humans and machines or between humans and animals?

Ad 2

Questioning how the circle of social persons is closed, it is necessary to investigate the anthropological premises of sociological theory and empirical research. Which concepts of the actor and agency are used? Which type of rationality is assumed in particular social theories? Etc. Being aware of such conceptual assumptions is crucial, because they steer empirical research.

Ad 3

The third question, "How to describe the emergence of elementary social order?", is concerned with the schism of sociological theory, i.e., the distinction between action theory and systems theory. Actually these approaches are not considered to be irreconcilable any longer. Nevertheless, a synthesis has not yet been reached. Theorizing the problem of emergence will hopefully provide an answer to the question whether a synthesis is feasible, or whether it is more adequate to search for a third way beyond the established options. Our conceptual design especially highlights the problems of the dyadic Ego-Alter-relation, concretely the question of whether this relation provides a foundation sufficient for an understanding of emergence. Our hypothesis is that it is necessary to start analytically with a triadic relationship. Not only Ego and Alter but also Tertius, the third actor, has to be grasped as a necessary element of the emergence constellation.

Social theories are highly abstract because they are supposed to be useful tools for the analysis of all kinds of societies. Nevertheless, abstractness of social theory and its claim for universality has been under attack since the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) and the social sciences have been established. German historicism (W. Dilthey, G. Misch) has already revealed the cultural embeddedness of knowledge in the 19th century. During the 1970s sociological theory was criticized, because its concepts were not as neutral in terms of gender as it was claimed, instead it was marked out as being ladden with a "male bias" Last but not least, the idea that western modernity should serve as a model for the development of non-western countries was attacked. Such critique of abstract theorizing must be taken seriously. Therefore, the design of our research is comparative in nature. It is necessary to prove whether the above-mentioned border questions are relevant on a practical level not only in Europe but also in the USA and other technologically developed countries like Israel, Japan, China, India and Brazil. Simultaneously, we investigate the problem of emergence of social order from a comparative perspective. Only if research is aware of socio-cultural differences, it is possible to work out a general theory of emergence, which is not hampered by euro-centrism, which may even be an obstacle to understanding American societies.

2.2 Theory of Society (Gesellschaftstheorie)

Societal theories refer to the characteristics of grand social formations as a whole, such as functionally differentiated society or bourgeois-capitalist society. Extrapolating general characteristics from concrete social phenomena helps to understand the meaning of social change. Against this background the meaning of the above-mentioned anthropological border problems can be described from a societal theory's perspective. This leads to the question of how to grasp the impact of life sciences, including neurosciences, on social life in modern societies. Science frames answers to questions such as how the status of a person is defined and validated.

Pursuing anthropological border questions from a societal theory's perspective opens up a four-fold-structured area of research.



                     Beginning of life                                                             End of life


The empty space in the middle of this four-fold delimited field is that which is only determined by its contested borders: the identification of being a person with being a living human. These border constructions are factual as well as normative by nature. The border construction is factual, because being a person is similar in every detail to the fact of being identified as a living human being. The border construction is normative, because it is not necessary to present oneself as a self-conscious being with intentions, in order to be recognized as a human person. In other words, personhood of human beings has to be recognized even if they are comatose, without being able to show the simplest cognitive reaction.

Corresponding to the four border constructions we investigate four empirical fields, in order to understand the status of being a social person in modern societies. Each field is to be analyzed from the perspective of social theory and societal theory. Sociological research is not primarily concerned taking side in political and ethical discussions on anthropological problems. Rather, sociologists have to investigate the relationship between normative and factual aspects within the practical process of drawing the borders of the social. This includes empirical state of the art research on research practices of neurosciences, in robotics, and practices of research and therapy in medicine.

In terms of societal theory, our research follows two directions: (1st) The differentiation between living human beings and other entities is crucial for modern societies, therefore it is highly probable that institutions like human rights are of particular relevance for an understanding of the structure of modern societies. Therefore it is necessary to have a closer look on the historical formation of the anthropological difference and its relationship to the fundamental guarantees of individual human rights. (2nd) Closely related to these topics we are doing research on how socio-technical developments will change our everyday-life and society as a whole. In a less ambitious way we try to take up the tradition of societal theory to evaluate the development of societies. We understand our prospective normative statements as a theoretically informed contribution to the emerging field of "Empirical Ethics". Empirical ethics combines the sociological insight that norms and values emerge from interactions with sometimes abstract ethical reasoning. According to this approach, normative evaluation should be based on a cooperation of diverse disciplines, for example the history, natural sciences, theology, philosophy, and sociology.

Such research will lead to an ethical expertise which will be useful not only for policy makers but also in the in the field of medical practice.


[1] The German word Sachverhalt is hard to translate. In this context the word "fact" is somewhat appropriate, but a Sachverhalt is not restricted to the factual. It can also be hypothetical or unreal. For example: "I have 100 Euros" is a Sachverhalt. I can treat the Sachverhalt as a hypothesis, which can be tested, for example, by looking into my wallet. If the test fails, the Sachverhalt that I have 100 Euros is not factual. But it can become an integral part of a wish: I would like to have 100 Euros. And then it can become part of a plan: I apply for a job in order to earn money so I can have 100 Euros. After having realized my plan, I can again perform the wallet test. Now the hypothetical will probably turn out to be true, i.e., to be a fact.