The Frankfurt School and Models of Interdisciplinarity


This entry considers one of the key interdisciplinary social scientific research institutes of the twentieth century, the so-called Frankfurt School or Institut für Sozialforschung, which was founded in Frankfurt, transplanted to Paris and Geneva and eventually to New York during the reign of National Socialism in Germany, and reestablished following World War II, in 1950, again in Frankfurt.  After its initial six years of existence under the directorship of the labor historian Carl Grünberg, Max Horkheimer became the director in 1930 and gave the Institut its practical and theoretical leadership for the next four decades.   Before and after World War Two, on the European continent and in exile in the United States, this unique team of philosophers, historians, economists, social psychologists, political theorists, literary scholars, and sociologists pursued a critical social knowledge that they believed could help shed some light on a dark time and could only be grasped from multiple disciplinary perspectives converging on a set of key questions.

I’ll offer some topical observations about its conception of interdisciplinary research and its relation to interdisciplinary research in the humanities and interpretative social sciences today.  I want to suggest that while the American reception of the Frankfurt School, particularly in the humanities and in cultural studies, has been extensive, this reception has been one-sided and based on the prestige of a relatively small number of English-language translated texts by three major individuals within the larger group: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse.  The reception has been one-sided not merely because it has not taken up the larger matrix of social research within which Benjamin’s, Adorno’s, and Marcuse’s thought was developed.  More saliently, the Institut für Sozialforschung itself represented at least two distinct models of interdisciplinary research, which were more held in tension than actually resolved or synthesized into a unitary framework.  Only one of these models, to the exclusion of the others, has had any significant impact on the shape of present-day Humanities research.  Though I don’t question the productivity of that interdisciplinary paradigm, I want to recall the other dimensions of interdisciplinarity that characterized the Frankfurt School’s research activity and consider whether they might have any value as alternatives within our discussions and debates about disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in the contemporary university.

The Institut für Sozialforschung was centered on its director and his inner circle of about six to eight close collaborators, a kind advisory and editorial circle, which included representatives of several specialized disciplines.  This inner circle then made assignments and assessed the written studies of the next, outer layer of affiliated contributors.  Finally, there was a much wider circle of scholars friendly to their project with whom they remained in looser contact, mostly through the extensive review section of the journal, and through occasional collaboration and consultation in particular studies and projects.  Among the Frankfurt School’s principle scholars, however, there developed two major analyses of the limits of specialized disciplinary knowledge in the modern age and two models of how to go beyond these limits and practice interdisciplinary research.  These two models were held in tension in the operation of the Institut: on the one hand, there were topical, problem-based ventures into interdisciplinary criticism by individual scholars, and on the other hand, the larger group-oriented interdisciplinary research activity represented by the Institut as a collective, embodied most importantly in the editorial practice of its journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.

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The first model of interdisciplinary criticism, in which the individual scholar deploys a variety of disciplinary materials and frameworks in a unique, singular constellation in order to analyze and criticize a particular object of study, for example the influence of recording and radio listening on the social meaning of music, has proven very influential in the Humanities.  Recent scholarship has carried the thought of the cultural journalist and free-lance historian Walter Benjamin and the philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno into a wide range of otherwise diverse approaches, including much of cultural studies, film theory and criticism, visual culture studies, and historicist literary criticism.  Harvard University Press has in recent years issued five beautiful volumes presenting Benjamin’s complete work in translation and in chronological order; others are chipping away at presenting Adorno’s multi-volume German complete works in translation to English-reading scholars.

Martin Jay aptly describes the Benjamin-Adorno model as deriving from a preliminary acceptance of the irreducible multiplicity of disciplines and disciplinary knowledge, so that there is “no methodological remedy to the fragmentations of knowledge expressed in the chaos of competing disciplines.  The goal of a fully integrated interdisciplinary project [is] thus unattainable at present.”  Rather than striving towards a reconstructed totality by developing a new, holistic interdisciplinary paradigm, Benjamin and Adorno proceeded provisionally and essayistically; in their view, Jay concludes, “the dissonant juxtaposition of disciplines rather than their smoothly integrated harmonization was more genuinely critical in this time of social and cultural detotalization.” Benjamin’s use of this model for writing his massive, uncompleted cultural history of 19th-century Paris was closely related to his outsider position as an independent researcher and journalistic writer who made very little use of academic writing and who felt no necessity to conform to disciplinary protocols of the German university that excluded him, first as an individual who failed his a key phase of his university credentialing and after 1933 as a leftwing intellectual and as a Jew.  Adorno, in a sense, brought Benjamin’s more outlaw methodology partially back into the fold of the academic institution.  Indeed, one might say that if Benjamin’s version of this paradigm was fully extra-academic, more closely linked to avant-garde artistic procedures of collage and montage in his handling of historical material, Adorno evolved a complex, micrological, almost cubistic style of philosophical interpretation—examining a problem such as the relation of music and ballet through the prisms of philosophy, Freudian psychoanalysis, analysis of musical form, anthropological and political analogies—that had a tense, but definite relation to the academic approaches and knowledge of his day.

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If the approach of Benjamin and Adorno, already back in the 1930s, was premised on a crisis of the hierarchy of social science and humanistic disciplines and on loss of a master discourse of totalization, which had once been provided by philosophy or an economistic Marxism, this sense of fragmentation, loss of authoritative frameworks, and discrediting of metanarratives has returned in intensive ways in postmodernist and poststructuralist-influenced interdisciplinarity in the Humanities since the 1980s.  For those scholars who have wanted to hold onto a way of lending their research relevance with respect to social and political contexts, Benjamin’s and Adorno’s example has offered a crucial point of reference. Arguably, this has been quite fruitful in opening up the thematics and social awareness of humanistic criticism; it has increased communication among disciplines such as literature, art history, film, and media studies; and it has given scholars interpretative tools for relating individual works of art and culture to emancipatory interests, ideologies, and agents.

This model of interdisciplinarity as practiced by an individual scholar, we should note, has also been encouraged and well-rewarded by Anglo-American university institutions since the “theory boom” began in the late 1970s.  The work of Benjamin and Adorno has been well absorbed by the most prominent stars of the theory circuit—we need only think, for example, of Terry Eagleton or even more so of Fredric Jameson, whose critical essays on everything from novels to architecture, video, and film, taught the work of the Frankfurt School to a whole generation of literary scholars, myself included.  One might also single out the work of Martin Jay, who moved organically from being a disciplinary intellectual historian writing about the interdisciplinary research of the Frankfurt School to himself practicing a breathtakingly erudite interdisciplinary scholarship in a book such as Downcast Eyes, which in turn has played a foundational role in the development of “visual culture” as a new interdisciplinary field with its own journals, conferences, and programs, and even departments.  Such qualities as breadth, scope, and range–understood in terms of this individual interdisciplinary paradigm—are for many Humanities departments essential in defining new positions and evaluating new hires; they are also crucial to demonstrate if one is to succeed in publishing in the most prestigious journals and university presses.

There is, however, another model of interdisciplinarity to which I’ve been alluding, a sort of “road not taken,” at least within the Humanities in the United States, where group projects, research teams, and independent research institutes with defined, collectively executed and authored projects remain marginal to the production of knowledge in the university.  I’d like first to give a very brief taste of the kind of vision of interdisciplinary research that Max Horkheimer pursued both theoretically and practically through the Institut für Sozialforschung, and the concrete expression of that programme in publications such as the serial publications “Studien über Autorität und Familie” and above all the journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in the years between 1932 and 1941.

In his inaugural address entitled “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research,” delivered upon his assumption of the directorship of the Institut in 1930, Horkheimer evoked a situation in which the accumulation and differentiation of disciplinary research had outstripped the capacity of any individual researcher.  Yet he retained an orientation towards the social totality as the context within which the data and results of disciplinary research would take on their social meaning and value and could be assessed for its contribution to social emancipation. As Horkheimer said:

the question today is to organize investigations stimulated by contemporary philosophical problems in which philosophers, sociologists, economists, historians, and psychologists are brought together in permanent collaboration to undertake in common that which can be carried out individually in the laboratory in other fields.  In short, the task is to do what all true researchers have always done: namely, to pursue their larger philosophical questions on the basis of the most precise scientific methods, to revise and refine their questions in the course of their substantive work, and to develop new methods without losing sight of the larger context.  With this approach, no yes-no answers arise to the philosophical questions.  Instead, these questions become integrated into the empirical research process; their answers lie in the advance of objective knowledge, which itself affects the form of the questions.  In the study of society, no one individual is capable of adopting such an approach, both because of the volume of material and because of the variety of indispensable auxiliary sciences.

Horkheimer believed that this function could be carried out by social research only if it moved beyond disciplinary limits, but also only if it moved beyond the capacities of the traditional individual scholar in a new organization of knowledge that would be not only interdisciplinary, but also trans-individual.  The new “subject” of social knowledge would be a research team, bringing together individual disciplinary expertise within planned projects, in which group discussion would clarify the problems to be pursued, the methodologies, the disciplinary contributions and their limits, and the synthetic outcomes of the collaboration.

In the remainder of this post, I’d like to exhibit the contents of a couple of instances of collective research from this period.  The first is from the table of contents of the Studien über Autorität und Familie, subtitled a “research report” from the Institut für Sozialforschung.  It is divided into three sections, the first part devoted to theoretical discussions of the problem of authority and family, with the “general part” written by Max Horkheimer, the social psychological part authored by the well-known psychologist Erich Fromm, and the History of Ideas section written by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse.  The second division of the book reports on empirical survey and interview research among workers and white-collar employees, experts, youth, and the unemployed, as well as a topic on sexual morals.  The last division covers individual studies on specific topics as well as surveys of the literature in different countries and within different disciplinary foci from sociology to intellectual history to pedagogy.


This interdisciplinary group work was even more dramatically represented by the Institut‘s journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.  The commissioning of articles followed from the theoretical presuppositions of the group and the editorial collective’s decisions; all articles were read and discussed by the core group as well.  Here are the major essays from the first year, 1932, which represented an impressive range of specialized topics contributing to the synthetic picture of the social situation of the age.

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Even more important for the practical implementation of interdisciplinarity, however, was the book review section, which took up more than half the space of the journal and averaged more than 350 reviews a year.

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As Jürgen Habermas remarked in an essay about the Zeitschrift:

The literature deployed and discussed in the book review section provided the difficult material that fits almost naturally into the theoretical framework; it provided a test for the organizing power of the central research interests. The book review section was divided into Philosophy, General Sociology, Psychology, History, Social Movement, Social Policy, Specialized Sociology, and Economics.  Subdivisions of Specialized Sociology included political science, cultural anthropology, and theory of law.  Never again have both disciplinary and national distances been bridged so strikingly in the social sciences; never again has the unity of the social sciences been so convincingly portrayed as here, from the perspective of an unorthodox modified “Western Marxism”.

I’ll end by offering a few tentative conclusions about these two models of interdisciplinarity that were represented by the Frankfurt School and held in a kind of unresolved tension in its ranks and activities.

First, I think that the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung demonstrates how much is required to achieve this latter, more comprehensive and multi-perspectival interdisciplinary view.  The  was the focal point of group activity, with an editorial collective totally involved with all of what appeared in the journal, and at least two concentric circles of contributors sustaining its very extensive range of studies and reviews.  At the same time, as a focal point of a vast amount of social science theory and research in several specialized fields, the journal was also the pedagogical instrument for developing the interdisciplinary competence of editors, contributors, and ulterior readers.

Second, I think it was not accidental that the Institut für Sozialforschung, though associated with universities, was autonomous in its funding and animated by a communitarian spirit driven by concerns to resist fascism and anti-semitism, and to advance the goal of social and political emancipation.  A journal of this sort required a tremendous amount of work and personal sacrifice, and for a time, the scholars involved set aside to a substantial degree their individual professional ambitions in pursuit of these loftier collective aims.

Finally, in the legacy of the Frankfurt School in the present-day American academy, this collective model of interdisciplinary research has been throughly eclipsed by the individual model I described earlier, which, as I’ve suggested, is more in tune with the evaluation and reward system of the contemporary research institution.  Although I think that we should continue to discuss ways in which the Frankfurt School experience might provide alternative models for interdisciplinarity, without the motivating ideology and the institutional autonomy that marked its early years, we are not likely to achieve much change in this picture any time soon.

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