The “Problem of Generations” Revisited: Karl Mannheim and the Sociology of Knowledge in International Relations



Karl Mannheim is a ubiquitous reference in scholarly work on generations, yet the usefulness of his essay “The Problem of Generations” as a basis for social scientific research is highly contested.2 For some, it is an “undervalued legacy,” one that demonstrates the importance of generations in social life and offers invaluable guidance to their proper conceptualization.3 But for others, Mannheim fails to define the generation with any great precision. He thus conflates the impact of generations with age- and cohort-effects,4 leaving underspecified the links between generations and other social factors, including class.5 Political scientists have also shown that generational membership and generational shifts do not always predict political views with great accuracy, placing further doubt on the appropriateness of a generational account of political change.6 As a result, while he is widely acknowledged as the father of generational analysis, Mannheim’s essay is frequently cited, but just as frequently ignored.7


Political Science Foreign Policy International Relation Generation Unit Rockefeller Foundation 
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© Brent J. Steele and Jonathan M. Acuff 2012

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