“Another world is possible”

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The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (IfS) has stood for a critical analysis of social conditions for 100 years. According to the current director, the sociologist Stephan Lessenich, the intellectual legacy of its protagonists Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse or Freud still shapes the work today.

Professor Lessenich, for a year and a half you have been at the helm of a house that can look back on a long tradition in critical social theory. What does the legacy of Horkheimer and Adorno mean to the IfS, is it a burden or an incentive?
The legacy not only of Horkheimer and Adorno, but the intellectual heritage of the protagonists of critical theory in general, is the institute’s greatest asset – a constant source of analytical and diagnostic inspiration. The critical attitude of the “Frankfurt School” to the prevailing conditions, their reference to the fact that – as one might say today – another world is possible, that the social constraints that we encounter everywhere in our everyday lives are ultimately self-imposed constraints: All of this still applies today and also inspires current research at the institute. And yet: In a certain sense, the tradition of the house is also a mortgage that has to be paid again and again: the task of asking the big questions that many don’t even want to hear – let alone that they would look for answers to them.

What are the current tasks and research priorities?
The tasks of the institute are, on the one hand, the same as ever: Critical theory of society, fed by empirical research into its circumstances and developments. Research focuses – as in earlier times – on questions of socialization of and through work, the possibilities and limits of democratic participation, the contradictory configuration of the migration society, the dynamics of gender relations. And of course we are still dealing with a critical social philosophy of modernity.

What development opportunities do you see?
The institute’s future research program will certainly make two perspectives stronger than has been the case so far. On the one hand, a critical theory of society today has to be a »global« one, it has to address the interdependence of the local and the global. Last but not least, this also means that it must take more notice of critical social analyzes that arise from the conditions in other regions of the world and include them in its own analyses. On the other hand, the material reproduction of society in the narrower sense is a central theme of the future: its natural conditions, its energy regime, its material prerequisites. And these questions are also global, which is why a clear line of approach for the institute will be to actually think of critical theory on a global scale.

Read more about this in our print edition on Thursday.

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