This book deals with the history of sociology in Germany from late nineteenth century to the present day. Starting with the sociology in the German Reich, the processes of institutionalization in the Weimar Republic, and the deep rupture caused by National Socialism, the following history focuses especially on the period after 1945. It presents the intellectual, institutional, and conflict-laden courses and trends of the history of sociology in Germany in its economic, political, social, and cultural contexts.

However, this book presents only a brief history of sociology in Germany. Given the long, complex, and extremely influential tradition of sociology in Germany, it would actually may require a multi-volume project. Therefore, this book provides more of an introductory overview, which nevertheless deals with the most important institutional developments, controversies, actors, theories, and methods of post-war sociology in Germany. Crucially, this book does not deal with “German sociology,” a phrase used in the literature to characterize a specific kind of sociology, which has served National Socialism.

My presentation is based on the methodology for the history of sociology developed by Lothar Peter in his 2001 contribution to the Jahrbuch für Soziologiegeschichte (Yearbook on the History of Sociology). Taking Wolf Lepenies’ introduction to the four-volume edition of Geschichte der Soziologie (1981; The History of Sociology) and Dirk Kaesler’s (1984) study of early German sociology as his point of departure, Peter (2001, 2015) outlined a methodological research design geared specifically to history-of-sociology analyses. At the heart of such analyses is the analytical distinction of three major dimensions of research in the history of sociology: the cognitive dimension, the social dimension, and the dimension of its history of impact and discourse. The general framework for research on the history of sociology first of all involves contextualizing, by reference to historical reality and social history, the ideas, theories, methods, instruments, institutions, actors, and history of impact to be analyzed. In other words, the object of research must first be considered in the broader context of the societal (economic, political, social, and cultural) processes at the time of its emergence. This framing is to account for the fact that ideas do not surface in a historical and social void but are historically and socially situated or, rather, because of their “existential determination” (Seinsverbundenheit; Mannheim) are only possible at a specific point in time. My own starting point is that I understand sociology as a specific modern response to social problems and crises and thus a scientific and intellectual way of perceiving, interpreting, and solving social problems. Accordingly, a study on the history of sociology or of ideas would have to take contemporary society into consideration as an essential point of reference for the concrete relevance of sociological ideas.

The cognitive dimension, as the first level of analysis, therefore consists in exposing the historical contexts of research and in an analysis of ideas, contemporary paradigms, theories, methods, empirical research, and discourses that embed the development of and provide the backdrop to what constitutes sociological thinking. Investigation of the cognitive dimension is followed by examining the social dimension. In the social dimension, Peter distinguishes between the analysis of actors and the analysis of institutional processes. The analyses of institutionalization can involve several levels: group formation, constellations, schools of thought, specialist journals, or professional organizations. Lastly, analyses at the level of the history of impact and discourse inquire how sociological knowledge enters into and is used in social discourse. Which position do theories, methods, controversies, and ideas occupy in sociological discourse, and what role do techniques and relations of power play? Another dimension of Peter’s methodology that is often neglected in the study of the history of sociology and closely tied to the history of discourse is sociology’s history of impact, particularly its (intended or mostly unintended) impact on the future course of the discipline, neighboring disciplines, and society in general. Investigating the impact and imprint of sociology on discourse in society would merit a study of its own. It is obvious that in a short history of sociology one cannot treat all dimensions exhaustively. Yet an attempt has been made to take them into account as far as possible.

According to the methodology just outlined, each chapter begins with a historical contextualization, in which the central economic, political, social, and cultural processes of German history are described. In Chap. 2 the beginnings of sociology in Germany are discussed, dealing with the pioneers, first professional organizations, and early controversies. Also, this chapter presents both the interwar period, when sociology became established at universities, and the years of National Socialism, which brought sociology as an institutionalized discipline to an end.

Chapter 3 focuses on the two decades after 1945, the period of the “post-war society” (1945–1967). After World War II Germany was undergoing a profound process of change. Just as society as a whole, sociology had to be rebuilt. Journals were refounded or newly founded, the German Sociological Association was restored and sociology was reestablished as a university subject. Different “schools” and regional centers of sociology emerged. By the end of the 1950s, an institutional and generational change can be observed. The so-called “post-war generation” assumed central positions in organizations, editorial boards of journals, and universities.

Chapter 4 discusses the ups and downs of sociology from 1968 to 1990. The student movement brought sociology into the limelight. Some sociological “schools” became closely connected with it. As a university subject, sociology gained enormously in importance, which was connected with a growing need for social reflection in all areas of life. A characteristic feature of sociology in this period was an increased differentiation into specialized subfields. The number of academic positions for sociologists and the number of students increased, partly as a result of the founding of new universities and of reforms in higher education policy. The increasing number of non-university research institutions complemented sociological research at the universities. This expansion, which came together with a highly visible public sociology, also led to counter-movements and anti-sociological effects. The “planning euphoria” of the 1960s and 1970s faded, and many looked at 1968 with disappointment and turned away from sociology. This changed a little bit in the 1980s, which was the heyday of sociological theory in Germany.

Chapter 5 takes a short look at sociology in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). GDR sociology did not emerge until the 1960s and could not develop in the same way as in West Germany, not only because it was largely overshadowed by Marxist-Leninist philosophy and political economy but also because it was in the service of economic policy. The connection to economic policy and historical materialism promoted the tendency to economic reductionism in GDR sociology. Only when the social processes and dynamics could no longer be adequately described within the conventional ideological framework did certain changes occur, as could be observed in the 1980s.

As is shown in Chap. 6, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification shaped the development of sociology in the 1990s. The triumph of capitalist society fostered globalization theories and a brief comeback of modernization theory. But as the system change came along with severe social problems, since the mid-1990s theories and research projects focusing on social exclusion, precarious work, and xenophobia moved more and more to the center stage of sociological thinking. In addition there was a boom of gender studies and of various subfields of cultural studies. The landscape of sociological theories in Germany was changing: Whereas before grand theories were dominant, nowadays we can observe a trend toward rapidly alternating sociological diagnoses of contemporary society.

How do these presentist trends correlate with the history of sociology? Why do we need a history of sociology (cf. in general Dayé and Moebius 2015)? For reasons of identity formation (cf. Lepenies 1981)? Just to inform present and future sociology about its history and, thus, to ensure not to reinvent the wheel? In my opinion, the history of sociology is important because it is a reflection of society and an analysis of society’s professional self-descriptions (Nolte 2000, pp. 19–21, 244). It is a critical undertaking because it analyzes the social effects and developments as well as the related ideological perspectives, struggles, and antagonistic power relations within the sociological field. “In this way […] not only the changes, progress or setbacks inherent in the discipline can be reconstructed in their significance for the further development of sociological discourse, but society itself, to which the theoretical, methodological, and empirical efforts of the discipline in the past referred, can be better recognized in its historical particularity and thus placed in plausible and comparable contexts with the present” (Peter 2001, p. 57). Reconstructing the history of sociology can, thus, “strengthen the capacity for critical sociological analysis of modern contemporary society” (Peter 2015, p. 142). In this way, the sociological analysis of the history of sociology uncovers the dynamics of the social within the science of the social and thus contributes to an increased orientation, self-reflection, and enlightening of the discipline.