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Austrian Sociology

The Austrian Legacy of Public Sociology

Textile factory in Marienthal, 1914. Archives for the History of Sociology in Austria, University of Graz.

November 01, 2015

The Third ISA Forum’s theme, formulated by the Forum President Markus Schulz, reads, “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and Struggles for a Better World.” The Forum’s location is an apt setting for this theme: Austrian sociology has long sought to combine scientific impact with social commitment.

In the 1930s, after the roaring ’20s had bandaged the pain of the First World War, the Depression hit Austrian society. Together with statistician Hans Zeisel, Marie Jahoda and Paul Lazarsfeld conducted the famous “Marienthal Study,” which examined the impact of mass unemployment in the village of Marienthal after a factory shutdown. In the introduction to the study’s first German edition, Marie Jahoda explained the researchers’ intentions: first, to contribute to solving the problem of unemployment in Marienthal, and second, to offer an objective analysis of a societal situation – in this order. These intentions still guide Austrian sociology: systematic scientific endeavors dealing with societal problems.

Marienthal Museum commemorating Marie Jahoda, Hans Zeisel, Paul Lazarsfeld and Lotte Schenk-Danzinger. Archives for the History of Sociology in Austria, University of Graz.

In the foreword to a later edition, Paul Lazarsfeld noted that in addition, the researchers had also sought to develop new methods in the Marienthal study: they measured villagers’ walking speed, distributed time sheets, asked pupils to write essays on their wishes, used statistical data of the library on rented books and had families keep records of their meals.

In the context of the Forum theme, it is worth noting that the Marienthal researchers did not make any value judgments about the future, nor did they invent alternative futures. But the study offers one model of how to “struggle for a better world”: it provided a clearer understanding of a social problem which needed to be solved. Showing the consequences of unemployment for individuals as well as for the community, the study detailed the destruction of patterns of daily life and the path to resignation. The detailed account of this societal issue made policymakers’ responsibility unmistakable.

The scientific community in Vienna was also shaped by another group, the Vienna Circle. Rudolf Carnap and other advocates of logical positivism, including the statistician Otto Neurath, were influential in spreading sociological knowledge to the public – a common pattern in Austrian sociology. Together with the artist Gert Arntz, Neurath invented pictorial statistics, and founded Vienna’s “Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum” (Museum of Society and Economy), to disseminating social statistics to the public. The museum still exists today.

The Vienna Circle’s logical positivism is only one thread running through Austrian sociology, however. Karl Popper’s critical rationalism added another perspective. His famous book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, was an energetic polemic against “closed” communist societies. Leaving aside some of the book’s outbursts, Popper’s political argument is very clear: societies have to remain open to the future, but they all have, and will have, history. Any endeavor to close societies against external influences and build an ideal world – however humane the intention might be – leads to totalitarianism. That cannot be one of the “futures we want.”

The twentieth century’s two world wars had a tremendous impact on Austrian science and that of Central and Eastern Europe. After World War II Austrian sociology started from scratch, and it was not until the 1960s that a sociological department was founded at the University of Vienna. Initially, most sociologists explored social problems such as urban housing, the situation of youth and generational relations as their main research areas. Austrian sociologists researched and coordinated reports for the government on the situation of the family and care in an aging society. From the 1970s, more researchers analyzed the problems of migration, advising policymakers on new approaches. Social structural analysis about inequality and stratification were essential fields of research. Sociological studies continue to receive a great deal of public attention, and are often discussed in newspapers.

In recent decades, perhaps the defining characteristic of Austrian sociology has been a broad commitment to studying social problems, systematically applying scientific sociological methods. I expect the future of Austrian sociology to be very much in this tradition as can be seen in the blog of the ISA Forum: http://isaforum2016.univie.ac.at/blog/

The integration of scientific knowledge with social impact raises questions closely connected to the theme of the third ISA Forum: What futures do we want? And how can we struggle for them?

I begin with the second question: How do we struggle? It is my personal opinion that sociologists should struggle as sociologists: systematically, scientifically, analytically, with the emancipatory interest once claimed by Jürgen Habermas. For sociologists, struggles for a better world have to involve struggles for improving sociological methods and theories, in order to understand social problems.

This leads to the first question: What futures do we want? While we can name social problems of our current society – extensive inequality, and disparities or differential access to resources, to name just two – it would be dangerous to describe an ideal future free of such problems. Ideal societies are always totalitarian, especially when a group of people – even sociologists – claim to know the truth.

Rather than asking for specific futures, perhaps sociologists should declare, as Karl Popper might have said, we want futures that are open to change, societies that have a continuing history.

Rudolf Richter, University of Vienna, Austria and Chair of the Local Organizing Committee of the Third ISA Forum of Sociology, Vienna, 2016 <rudolf.richter@univie.ac.at>

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