MWI History

In over a century of development at the University of Heidelberg, the discipline of sociology as it is now understood only found institutional expression in recent decades.

The first phase

Max Weber

The first chapter of this history began when Max Weber was appointed Chair of National Economy and Public Finance in the summer of 1897. He succeeded Karl Knies, the subject’s sole remaining professor at the university’s Faculty of Philosophy following the changes of the 19th century. During his tenure, Weber managed to establish a seminar in economics and a second full professorship. The seminar produced sociologically oriented dissertations, and the second chair, which Weber had long hoped to see occupied by Werner Sombart, was finally given to the Japan expert Karl Rathgen in 1900. After Weber resigned from his position for health reasons in 1903, he was succeeded by the cultural and economic historian Eberhard Gothein. In 1907, Max Weber’s brother Alfred Weber succeeded Karl Rathgen in the second professorship. Alfred Weber’s center of interest was cultural sociology, and he understood national economy as belonging to the social and political sciences in a broad sense. He consequently sought to convert the economics seminar founded by his brother into an Institute of Social and Political Sciences (1924) and to extend the title of his professorship to include sociology (1926). This was the first time that the term “sociology” came into formal use at the University of Heidelberg.

From a substantive point of view, however, Heidelberg had long been established as an internationally renowned center of sociological research through the efforts not only of the two Webers but also of Emil Lederer, the later dean of the “University in Exile” at the New School in New York. While Max Weber was seen as the “myth of Heidelberg”, Alfred Weber fostered the institution’s development. Marianne Weber should also be mentioned, as she ensured the preservation of Max’s work after his death in 1920. During the Weimar Republic, the Institute for Social and Political Sciences became a well-known center that attracted young researchers from home and abroad – notably Karl Mannheim, who laid the foundations of the sociology of knowledge while at Heidelberg, and his colleague Norbert Elias, whose investigation of the civilizing process was later to gain worldwide renown. Talcott Parsons, who introduced Max Weber’s work to the English-speaking world and himself became one of the world’s leading sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s, also attended Heidelberg as an exchange student and earned his doctorate here.

When the National Socialists seized power, it was a critical turning point for sociology in Heidelberg, too. Karl Mannheim and Emil Lederer, who had already left Heidelberg, were forced into exile; and following the famous flag dispute, Alfred Weber retreated into an inner exile. After the collapse of the Nazi regime, it was he who revived sociology in the old framework, albeit without managing to keep abreast of the international developments that had taken place in the interim. In honor of his outstanding services to the University of Heidelberg, the old Institute of Social and Political Sciences was renamed the Alfred Weber Institute of Social and Political Sciences.

Ernst Topitsch

The second phase

The second chapter in the history of sociology at Heidelberg began with the founding of the Institute of Sociology and Ethnology in 1960. Wilhelm Emil Mühlmann, whose work combined sociology with ethnology, was appointed Chair; a second chair was created in 1962 for Ernst Topitsch, a social philosopher engaged with sociology. Topitsch left the institute in 1969 and Mühlmann retired in 1970, both in reaction to the virulent student movement taking place in Heidelberg at the time.

The departure of the two professors was followed by six years of contention over their succession. Indeed, it proved particularly difficult to find a suitable successor for the combination of disciplines – either the responsible bodies could not agree on a list of candidates or the candidates approached declined the university’s offer. In 1975, the Institute itself was at risk. The Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences made one last effort to solve the personnel problem, drawing on the expertise of the University of Mannheim, which had produced a sociology congruent with international developments over the course of the 1960s.

The third phase

Wolfgang Schluchter
M. Rainer Lepsius

This opened the third chapter in the history of sociology at Heidelberg – the endeavor had succeeded, albeit only partly. In 1976, Wolfgang Schluchter assumed the first chair, but after the first-choice candidate for the second professorship declined the appointment, Schluchter had to accept the Institute’s loss of the second chair. At his request, sociology was separated from ethnology in 1977 and the Institute of Sociology and Ethnology was renamed the Institute for Sociology. Finally, in 1979, Schluchter managed to recover a second professorship post for the Institute, to which the renowned M. Rainer Lepsius was appointed.

In 2011, the Institute’s name changed yet again, with the addition of ‘Max Weber’. Indeed, the new institute had meanwhile developed into a center for Max Weber research. Schluchter succeeded in setting up a Max Weber Chair, in editing large sections of the Max Weber complete edition in collaboration with Lepsius, and, together with Lepsius and other colleagues, in planning and pursuing a Weberian research program. Over and above this, the new institute placed great importance on steadily expanding the fields of research and teaching. The Institute now boasts five professorships, whose holders engage with a wide array of sociological concerns. The institutional history of sociology in Heidelberg thus reaches from the foundation of the Seminar of Economics by Max Weber to the establishment of the Institute of Social and Political Sciences by Alfred Weber, the Institute of Sociology and Ethnology by Wilhelm Emil Mühlmann, and finally the formation of the Institute of Sociology by Wolfgang Schluchter.