Animated Introductions to Three Sociologists: Durkheim, Weber & Adorno

Is soci­ol­o­gy an art or a sci­ence? Is it phi­los­o­phy? Social psy­chol­o­gy? Eco­nom­ics and polit­i­cal the­o­ry? Sur­vey­ing the great soci­ol­o­gists since the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, one would have to answer “yes” to all of these ques­tions. Soci­ol­o­gists like Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno con­duct­ed seri­ous schol­ar­ly and social-sci­en­tif­ic analy­ses, and wrote high­ly spec­u­la­tive the­o­ry. Though it may seem like we’re all soci­ol­o­gists now, mak­ing crit­i­cal judg­ments about large groups of peo­ple, the soci­ol­o­gists who cre­at­ed and car­ried on the dis­ci­pline gen­er­al­ly did so with sound evi­dence and well-rea­soned argu­ment. Unlike so much cur­rent knee-jerk com­men­tary, even when they’re wrong they’re still well worth read­ing.

Hav­ing already sur­veyed Marx in his series on Euro-Amer­i­can polit­i­cal philoso­phers, School of Life founder Alain de Bot­ton now tack­les the oth­er three illus­tri­ous names on the list above, start­ing with Durkheim at the top, then Weber above, and Adorno below. The first two fig­ures were con­tem­po­raries of Marx, the third a lat­er inter­preter. Like that beard­ed Ger­man scourge of cap­i­tal­ism, these three—in more mea­sured or pes­simistic ways—levied cri­tiques against the dom­i­nant eco­nom­ic sys­tem. Durkheim took on the prob­lem of sui­cide, Weber the anx­ious reli­gious under­pin­nings of cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­o­gy, and Adorno the con­sumer cul­ture of instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion.

That’s so far, at least, as de Bot­ton’s very cur­so­ry intro­duc­tions get us. As with his oth­er series, this one more or less ropes the thinkers rep­re­sent­ed here into the School of Life’s pro­gram of pro­mot­ing a very par­tic­u­lar, mid­dle class view of hap­pi­ness. And, as with the oth­er series, the thinkers sur­veyed here all seem to more or less agree with de Bot­ton’s own views. Per­haps oth­ers who most cer­tain­ly could have been includ­ed, like W.E.B. Dubois, Jane Addams, or Han­nah Arendt, would offer some very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

De Bot­ton again makes his points with pithy gen­er­al­iza­tions, num­bered lists, and quirky, cut-out ani­ma­tions, breezi­ly reduc­ing life­times of work to a few obser­va­tions and moral lessons. I doubt Adorno would approach these less-than-rig­or­ous meth­ods char­i­ta­bly, but those new to the field of soci­ol­o­gy or the work of its prac­ti­tion­ers will find here some tan­ta­liz­ing ideas that will hope­ful­ly inspire them to dig deep­er, and to per­haps improve their own soci­o­log­i­cal diag­noses.

Note: For those inter­est­ed, Yale has a free open course on Soci­ol­o­gy called “Foun­da­tions of Mod­ern Social The­o­ry,” which cov­ers most of the fig­ures list­ed above. You can always find it in our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

Theodor Adorno’s Rad­i­cal Cri­tique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Viet­nam War Protest Move­ment

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • James says:

    Its fun­ny how this post wants to empha­size these soci­ol­o­gists as sci­en­tists who relied on evi­dence. What evi­dence did Adorno draw on? He was just obsessed with Cap­i­tal­ism as an evil state. His prej­u­dice did­n’t allow him to under­stand Jazz music prop­er­ly. His claim that lis­ten­ing to Schoen­berg will lead to rev­o­lu­tion or lis­ten­ing to Jazz would pre­vent it shows clear­ly that he was well out of the bounds of rea­son. Many of the things he said were against our demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, but because it is dis­guised under the title ‘elit­ism’ peo­ple cher­ish him. The type of soci­ol­o­gists intro­duced here are actu­al­ly bad philoso­phers and con­fused psy­chol­o­gists. nev­er­the­less it has become fash­ion­able for the left to drawn itself in stu­pid thoughts rather than engag­ing with real issues and help peo­ple. Enjoy your opi­um for the intel­lec­tu­als on this post peo­ple!

  • Sam says:

    I con­sid­ered writ­ing a more lengthy reply to this, but instead I’m just going to quote the arti­cle itself: “Unlike so much cur­rent knee-jerk com­men­tary, even when they’re wrong they’re still well worth read­ing.”

  • James says:

    Please do give a response because I dont know what is your cri­te­ri­on for “still worth read­ing”.

  • Josh Jones says:

    I’m not going to engage with your broad swipes at “the left,” but as far as Adorno goes, I agree: much of his crit­i­cal the­o­ry is not at all evi­dence-based, much of it is elit­ist (par­tic­u­lar­ly his jazz polemics), and some of it (Aes­thet­ic The­o­ry), is damn near unread­able. That said, Adorno was a soci­ol­o­gist who did empir­i­cal research. See, for exam­ple, this:

    Or his work in the influ­en­tial Author­i­tar­i­an Per­son­al­i­ty:

  • sukhjeet singh says:

    I have already read in my high­er study all these writer’s the­o­ries ‚all are dif­fer­ent from their’s views.

  • Alex says:

    They are worth read­ing to the extent that they are wrong. Ideas that are wrong are not any less worth read­ing, The two best exam­ples I can think of off the top of my head are Mein Kampf and The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo. Both books are essen­tial read­ing for under­stand­ing how bil­lions of peo­ple were/are influ­enced. Now, the three soci­ol­o­gists above might have out­dat­ed ideas but they give us a lens by which to analyse today’s soci­ety and offer us an under­stand­ing of the soci­ety in which we live.

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