In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Frankfurt School

  • Introduction
  • General Works on the History of the Frankfurt School
  • Collective Empirical Studies of the Institute for Social Research
  • Friedrich Pollock
  • Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer
  • Leo Lowenthal

Sociology Frankfurt School
John D. Abromeit
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0189


Although it has gained widespread currency, the “Frankfurt School” is a somewhat misleading term that refers primarily to a group of scholars and intellectuals who worked with the Institute for Social Research under the directorship of Max Horkheimer. Founded with private funds in 1923, the Institute was based in Frankfurt, Germany, and affiliated with the J. W. Goethe University. Originally dedicated to research on the history of the European labor movement, when Horkheimer became the director of the Institute in 1931 the emphasis of its research shifted to interdisciplinary studies of contemporary society. Horkheimer did continue the original, non-dogmatic Marxist orientation of the Institute, but his new interdisciplinary model of materialist Critical Theory also drew upon psychoanalysis and advanced empirical social research methods. With the triumph of National Socialism in 1933, the Institute was forced to relocate to New York City, where it was loosely affiliated with the Columbia University Sociology Department. The Institute continued to publish its journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research) through 1941, and it continued to carry out empirical research projects throughout its period of exile in the United States, which came to end in 1949–1950 when the Institute was reestablished in Frankfurt. Horkheimer continued to serve as the director of the Institute until 1959, when Theodor W. Adorno took over the position, which he held until his death in 1969. The collective and individual work of the scholars affiliated with the Institute for Social Research had a tremendous impact on 20th-century intellectual life in a wide variety of areas, including philosophy, sociology, psychology, social psychology, sociology of literature, musicology, aesthetics, history, political and legal theory, cultural studies, economics, communication, and media studies. The influence of the Institute also extended beyond the academy, most notably perhaps in the impact of its writings on the protest movements of the 1960s in Western Europe and the United States. The purpose of the following bibliography is to provide the newcomer with an overview of the most important primary works of the central figures of the Frankfurt School, as well as a small sampling of the voluminous secondary literature. Primary and secondary works have been chosen based mainly on their significance, but a number of works have also been selected because they provide ideal points of entry for those unfamiliar with Critical Theory or any of its individual practitioners. The question of which individual theorists should be included in the “Frankfurt School” is open to debate. The emphasis here will be on the so-called “first generation” of scholars who were directly affiliated with the Institute under Horkheimer’s direction. These include core members, such as Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, Friedrich Pollock, and Erich Fromm, as well as more peripheral members, such as Walter Benjamin, Franz Neumann, and Otto Kirchheimer. The one indisputed member of the “second generation” of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, has also been included, in large part because of the substantial impact of his work and his direct ties to the first generation of Critical Theorists. I cannot address here the legitimate questions of whether or not the concept of multiple generations of the “Frankfurt School” overemphasizes continuities and effaces significant breaks that occurred between Habermas and the “first generation,” or whether Axel Honneth—the current director of the Institute for Social Research—and other theorists represent a “third generation” of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Due to space limitations, this bibliography will also include only works written in or translated into English.

General Works on the History of the Frankfurt School

Those seeking a broad overview of the history of the Frankfurt School should begin with Jay 1973 and Wiggershaus 1994. Jay 1973 was the first comprehensive study and it remains the best introduction, although it does not cover the period after 1950. Wiggershaus 1994 extends into the 1950s and 1960s. Those seeking an introductory conceptual and/or thematic introduction to Critical Theory, should consult Held 1980, Kellner 1989, and Bronner 2011. The latter is the briefest and most accessible.

  • Bronner, Steven Eric. 2011. Critical theory: A very short introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199730070.001.0001

    Written by one of the foremost scholars of Critical Theory and Western Marxism, this is probably the best place to begin for anyone who knows nothing about the Frankfurt School. Bronner succeeds in portraying clearly and succinctly the most important ideas of Critical Theory as well as the historical, social, political, and biographical force fields out of which it emerged. He also reflects astutely on how the tradition should be rethought in order to remain relevant today.

  • Held, David. 1980. Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    This study provides a generally reliable thematic overview of the most important theoretical concerns of the central figures of the Frankfurt School—with a particular emphasis on Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas—from the 1920s until the 1970s. Held attempts to refute some of the common criticisms of the Critical Theorists, such as, they abandoned Marx, fell back into an idealist position, were too distant from working-class politics, and focused too much on questions of aesthetics and cultural criticism.

  • Jay, Martin. 1973. The dialectical imagination: A history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Reseach, 1923–1950. Boston: Little, Brown.

    Based on extensive interviews with original members of the Institute, this was the first comprehensive scholarly study of the history of the Frankfurt School and remains the standard introductory work. Jay provides a balanced and richly detailed overview of the origins and development of the Institute for Social Research through 1950. He discusses its collective empirical projects, as well as the writings of its principal protagonists on a wide variety of subjects, including fascism, culture, aesthetics, and the philosophy of history. He also introduces the reader to a broad cast of supporting characters who worked with the Institute from the early 1920s until 1950.

  • Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and modernity. Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Kellner provides a clear, introductory overview of the main ideas and debates that shaped the Frankfurt School from the 1920s to the 1980s. He also attempts to move beyond a purely intellectual historical or philosophical approach, by examining how it is still relevant to critical social theory and radical politics. The latter discussion of Critical Theory and its relationship to postmodernism are dated, but the earlier historical sections of the book are still helpful.

  • Wiggershaus, Rolf. 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its history, theories and political significance. Translated by Michael Robertson. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    The first half of this study covers much of the same ground as Martin Jay, although Wiggershaus does provide more detail in certain places by drawing on published and archival materials that had become available between 1973 and 1985. The second half represents the first comprehensive history of the Institute for Social Research after its reestablishment in Frankfurt in 1950. Like Jay, Wiggershaus discusses both collective Institute research projects as well as the main works of its members, but he demonstrates a certain partiality for Adorno’s aesthetics and cultural criticism over Horkheimer and the Institute’s empirical work.

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