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Classical Sociological Theory, 4/e
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Karl Mannheim
Classical Sociological Theory

Chapter Summary

Mannheim, Marx, and Ideology

Although he never produced a systematic grand theory of society on the scale of Marx or Weber, Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) is an important figure in sociology because he invented the field called the sociology of knowledge. Mannheim credited Marx for creating the beginnings of this field through his theory of ideology; however, Mannheim was critical of Marx's notion that ideologies involve the conscious intention to distort reality. According to Mannheim, ideology "has no moral or denunciatory intent." Mannheim also questioned Marx's belief that ideologies emerge only from social classes. While Mannheim believed that the most significant source of ideology originated from class stratification, he acknowledged that all social groups produce ideologies, such as generations. In contrast to Marx, Mannheim attempted to study the social sources of distorted thinking in a scientific manner rather than exclusively focusing on the political sources of ideology. This, according to Mannheim, was one of the premises of the sociology of knowledge.

Mannheim's Sociological Approach

Mannheim's sociology of knowledge is empirical because he was interested in studying how social relationships influence thought; but he was neither a determinist nor a positivist. In fact, Mannheim was highly critical of positivism because it allowed no role for theory and, by focusing solely on material reality, neglected the importance of understanding and interpretation. Mannheim was also critical of phenomenology because it focused too much on mental or cognitive phenomena without addressing how these related to the material world. Mannheim viewed the task of the sociology of knowledge as one of integrating the empirical orientation of positivism with the cognitive orientation of phenomenology. He also argued that the sociology of knowledge should be informed by relationalism rather than relativism.

Mannheim believed that the sociology of knowledge could emerge only during an historical period characterized by social instability and lack of agreement over worldviews. Increasing social mobility was one factor that resulted in the lack of unity over worldviews. Mannheim distinguished between two types of social mobility: horizontal and vertical. The latter tends to lead to a democratization of thought. Another factor that encouraged the creation of the sociology of knowledge was the emergence of a socially unattached intelligentsia. The free intelligentsia first created epistemology and psychology as methods to investigate and understand the social world, but both approaches failed to integrate the individual mind with the larger community. The creation of the sociology of knowledge corrected this failure.

Ideology and Utopia

Mannheim discussed ideology and utopia as systems of ideas, or types of Weltanschauung, in Ideology and Utopia. According to Mannheim, an ideology is a set of ideas that "conceals the present by attempting to comprehend it in terms of the past," while a utopia is a set of ideas that "transcends the present and is oriented towards the future." In order to judge which ideas are ideological and which are utopian, one needs an objective point of view, or what Mannheim called "adequate ideas."

While Mannheim was concerned about the progressive disappearance of both ideologies and utopias in modern society, he viewed the demise of the latter as most problematic because it brought about a "static state of affairs." According to Mannheim, a utopia can emerge from a single individual. However, this individual's ideas must be translated into action by a collectivity to bring about social change. Four historical ideal types of utopia are identified by Mannheim: orgiastic chiliasm (carried by the lower strata), liberal-humanitarian (carried by the bourgeoisie and intellectuals), conservative (carried by the status quo), and socialist-communist (carried by the proletarian).

Rationality and Irrationality

Like Weber, Mannheim argued that a process of rationalization was coming to dominate all sectors of society. However, he believed that during his lifetime the irrational continued to thrive. Mannheim differentiated between substantive rationality and irrationality, which dealt with thinking, and functional rationality and irrationality, which dealt with action. He also discussed the systematic control of human impulses, self-rationalization, and the highest, most extreme form of rationalization: self-observation. Mannheim argued that industrialization led to an increase in functional rationalization and the irrational decline of substantive rationality. It also led to the creation of mass society, which Mannheim viewed as a threat to democracy.

Democratic Planning and Education

In order to protect society from irrational threats, such as the rule of the masses, Mannheim advocated democratic social planning. He viewed this as the best alternative compared to other forms of planning, especially totalitarianism and laissez-faire systems. Mannheim believed that democratic planning could promote freedom, social justice, and cultural standards, and that it could balance the centralization and dispersion of power, as well as encourage the growth of personality. Reforming the educational system was another way to help people cope with societal crises. Mannheim argued that education should not be separated from everyday life, and he criticized the over-specialization of academic disciplines. He thought that the fundamental problem with the educational system was that if failed to teach "social awareness" and emphasize sociological perspectives of the real world.

Critical Analysis of Mannheim's Work

Mannheim has been criticized for several reasons, including the fact that although he is credited for inventing the sociology of knowledge, he never offered a clear definition of the concept of knowledge in his work. He has also been criticized for obscuring the relationship between knowledge and society and for failing to solve the problem of relativism. Furthermore, Mannheim's fear of the masses has led many to claim that he was elitist and conservative.