Critical Theory on Morningside Heights *: From Frankfurt Mandarins to Columbia Sociologists

By Wheatland, Thomas | German Politics and Society, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Critical Theory on Morningside Heights *: From Frankfurt Mandarins to Columbia Sociologists


Wheatland, Thomas, German Politics and Society


The Frankfurt School's first years on Morningside Heights progressed very smoothly. Based on the group's activities and accomplishments, it is clear that its members had not misrepresented themselves to Columbia's sociologists and administrators. The emphasis that had been placed on scientific social research had not been an empty marketing scheme. Members of the Institute for Social Research were heavily engaged in social research throughout the 1930s. This was never more true than during the first five years on Morningside Heights. Although members of the Horkheimer Circle later played up stories of their anonymity and isolation at Columbia, evidence suggests that such claims were greatly exaggerated.

Although little was accomplished during 1934 due to the logistics of moving across the Atlantic, the Horkheimer Circle renewed its many research projects in 1935. Throughout the mid- to late 1930s, the institute completed many of the major studies initiated in Europe by Erich Fromm. The first order of business was the study on authority and the family, which "attempted to analyze the actual role of the family in Western Europe in educating the individual for the acceptance or rejection of authority in society." (1) In March 1936, Horkheimer reported to Columbia's president that Studien uber Autoritat und Familie was completed and ready for publication. (2) The other project carried over from Europe was the study of the German working class. Fromm remained the principle architect of and caretaker for the project, which had been abandoned by nearly all of the institute's other members shortly after the move to Geneva. The data, consisting of 750 questionnaires had not been properly organized and had not even begun to be analyzed, but Fromm convinced Horkheimer that something could be salvaged. From 1935 until his 1939 departure from the Institute for Social Research, Fromm painstakingly subjected the workers' questionnaires to intense psychoanalytic scrutiny and would have published his findings had he not left the group.

Two new, extensive studies were also formulated and directed by Fromm during the late 1930s. One, conceived as an American accompaniment to Studien uber Autoritat und Familie, focused on unemployment and family life in Newark. Since the majority of the institute's members spent most of the 1930s preparing theoretical work for the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, Fromm turned to Columbia's faculty and students for help, as well as bringing in Paul Lazarsfeld to assist with the study's direction. (3) Based on his experience with the previous two European projects, Fromm provided the research team with expert guidance in creating the interview protocols and in analyzing the case studies. Despite his significant involvement with the project, the actual task of writing up the results was passed on to Mirra Komarovsky, who published the study as The Unemployed Man and his Family. (4) Although no individual member of the Horkheimer Circle was credited with the project, all of those familiar with it understood the institute's involvement and credited the Institute for Social Research with publishing the work.

The second original study suffered a similar fate. Begun as a project under the direction of Fromm, the analysis of post-adolescent attitudes regarding authority was never completed nor credited to the Institute for Social Research. The study took place at Sarah Lawrence and was conducted in conjunction with the college's reevaluation of the purposes and functions of education. Fromm offered to teach the Sarah Lawrence researchers to organize and produce case studies and other projective tests. (5) While much of the project concentrated on establishing new goals for collegiate education that would help develop the "whole student," it also uncovered attitudes regarding authority by examining student-teacher relationships. As Horkheimer explained to President Butler in March 1937,

   [t]he object of our study of the attitude of students in a women's
   college in New York towards the authority of teachers and of the
   college, is the fixation of definite types of attitude and the
   accomplishment of an understanding of the relations between this
   typical attitude, on the one hand, and the social and cultural
   situation and the family background of the student, on the other,
   and further, of the relations between this attitude and a
   distinctive characterological structure. 

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