Systems Theory versus Critical Theory – Drama in the History of Sociology
This article places an episode in the history of sociological theory into intellectual history in the twentieth century. The perspective is chronological as well as contextual. The themes are two theoretical approaches, both embedded in both American and German history, Parsonian Systems Theory and “Frankfurt School” Critical Theory. The chronology shown spanned mainly from the 1940s to the 1960s. The context of the two theories is a period that is crucial in twentieth century history. The protagonists of the two approaches were, in the 1940s, Americans and Germans exiled in the United States. In the 1950s, both approaches were affected by McCarthyism in different ways. The 1960s, however, were the culmination. The dynamics of the two approaches led into a schism which came into the open on the occasion of the 1964 German Sociology Conference in Heidelberg celebrating Max Weber. The article shows the stages in the evolution of the schism, emulating three acts in a drama. The final split was over whether Weber or Marx should be the classic whose oeuvre was to influence sociological thinking today. My aim is to exemplify how these two authoritative approaches in sociological theory, far from escaping the vagaries and vicissitudes of their times, were embedded in twentieth-century history.