Karl Mannheim


Read each of the following items.


(Perdue 1986:388-393)

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.


Karl Mannheim (1883-1947)

Ideology and Utopia


...Karl Mannheim was born in Budapest. He was the only child of a Hungarian father and a German mother. After graduation from the humanistic gymnasium in Budapest, he studied in Berlin, Budapest, Paris, and Freiburg. His professors included Lukacs and Edmund Husserl... Despite an early interest in philosophy and meditation, Mannheim turned to the human sciences, coming to be influenced by the thought of Weber and Marx. In 1925 he came to the major intellectual center in Germany, the University of Heidelberg, where he habilitated as an unsalaried lecturer. 

Karl Mannheim left Heidelberg for the University of Frankfurt in 1929, where he was a professor of sociology, meditation and economics. With the rise to power of the Nazis, he was dismissed in 1933 and fled to Great Britain, where he became a lecturer in sociology at the London School of Economics. Twelve years later, he became a professor in the university's Institute of Education. During his tenure at Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and the London School of Economics, Mannheim pioneered with systematic efforts in the sociology of knowledge and taught many meditation techniques. While in Great Britain, he was also editor of the International Library of Sociology and Social Reconstruction. This contributed to the growth and respectability of sociology in England. 

Early in his career, Mannheim centered his analysis first in problems of interpretation, then in epistemology (the study of the origin, nature, methods, and limits of knowledge), and finally in particular kinds of knowledge. As his sociological interpretation matured, he made systematic inquiry into the social forces contributing to the emergence and shaping of certain forms of knowledge. These included (but were not limited to) the impact of generations, intellectual traditions, and class interests on the differing conceptions of truth. 

The modern classic Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge was published before Mannheim fled the Nazis. After the development of this masterpiece (1929-1931), he moved from a study of ideas to the study of social structure. Here the focus was on such issues as the bureaucratization of society, the structural formation of personality, the position and role of intelligentsia, and the relationship between sociology and social policy. His work on the nature of democracy foresaw a coming elite disintegration and irrationality. At this point in his life he could have used some stress relief. Thus, before Mannheim's premature death in 1947, he had conceptualized sociology as a means for planning societies to avoid both the dangers of totalitarianism and the class system. 


The conception of human nature that prevails in Ideology and Utopia is one of reason, mediation, and self-reflection. Indeed, "scientific critical self-awareness" on the part of those who work in the social sciences presupposes a certain attribute of the mind, an awareness of the relationship between social structure and systems of thought. This is not to argue that all those participating in social processes are doomed to falsify reality. Nor must they somehow suspend their value judgments and will to action. Instead, Mannheim held that to participate knowingly in social life presupposes that one can understand the often hidden nature of thought about society. Human beings have the potential for self-examination and contextual awareness. And only when these are understood can one have a comprehension of the formal object under study (Mannheim [1936] 1968:46-47...).

Simply put, there is a point in time, a moment of truth, when "the inner connection between our role, our motivations, and our type and manner of experiencing the world suddenly dawns upon us" ([1936] 1968:47). To be sure, some level of social determinism is real, for sociologists and all those who seek to unravel the puzzles of social life (including the puzzle of knowledge itself). None of us is free to exercise some metaphysical power of will.  However, to the extent that one uses the power of reason to gain insight into the sources of such determinism, to that extent a relative freedom from determinism is possible. It follows that this potential for simultaneously comprehending self, the socio-historical context, and the object to be analyzed must be realized (especially by sociologists). 

Certain assumptions concerning the nature of society remain constant throughout Mannheim's work. He returned again and again to the themes of conflict: of classes (and their systems of thought), of political movements, and of the necessary dissenting role of the intelligentsia. He addressed, as well shall see, the wider ground of the sociology of knowledge, but within that generality, he considered the specific question of ideological structure. However, for Mannheim the "ideological structure does not change independently of the class structure and the class structure does not change independently of the economic structure" ([1936] 1968:130). 

This sense of the "structural totality of society" Mannheim attributed to Marx. He built his theoretical system on the threefold structural tendencies of Marx's earlier body of thought: first of all, that the mode of material production shapes the political sphere (and the rest of the "superstructure"); second, that change in the material base is closely connected with "transformations in class relations" and corresponding shifts in power; and third, that idea structures may dominate people at any historical period, but that these ideologies may be understood and their change predicted theoretically.

Nevertheless, unlike Marx, who emphasized that the ideas of the ruling class prevailed, Mannheim held that class-divided societies contain a special stratum for "those individuals whose only capital consisted in their education" ([1936] 1968:156). As this stratum comes to draw from different classes, it will contain contradictory points of view. Hence, the social position of intellectuals is not merely a question of their class origin. Its "multiformity" provides the "potential energy" for members of the intellectual stratum to develop a social sensibility and to grasp the dynamic and conflicting forces of society ([1936] 1968:156-157).

Mannheim's conception of human science reflects a synthesis of idealism and materialism, spirit, and society (Wolff 1971:xiv). Kurt Wolff has identified Mannheim's fundamental question: How can social conditioning be reconciled with the "inexhaustibility and unforeseeability" of ideas and spirit? And as a corollary, how can spirit and society be saved? Mannheim believed that a sociology of knowledge would resolve this question and advance the discipline as a science. Above all, a sociology of knowledge would enable its user to realize a more accurate determination of the facts ([1936] 1968:296).  

Now, the task of a sociology of knowledge is not simply one of getting ride of bias, propaganda, or unrecognized values. Rather, even when knowledge is freed of all forms of "distortion," it will contain inherent "traces" that are an inevitable part of the structure of truth. For example, knowledge is never a matter of pure ideas that rise disembodied from their maker. It has implications for social action. Furthermore, it reflects the position in society of the knower as well as the corresponding events and dominant ideas of specific historical periods. Knowledge, even the scientific sort, does not exist in some separate sphere of truth. It is an intricate part of an altogether human process, bound up in the interrelationships of history, society, and psychology. Knowledge is truly of this world ([1936] 1968:292-309). 

Theoretical Content

In his attempt to explain ideology, Mannheim identified two distinct meanings: the particular and the total. The first of these refers to the common conception of ideology as distortion. The particular conception of ideology ranges in meaning from a more or less conscious attempt at manipulating others to unwitting self-deception. Those who employ it analytically seek to uncover only a part of an opponent's assertions. The particular conception also focuses on a purely psychological level, perhaps accusing the opponent of deception, but always assuming that both parties share common criteria of validity. Finally, the particular conception seeks to uncover the hidden interests or motivations of the opponent. 

The total conception of ideology is far more inclusive. It refers to thought systems associated with an age or specific sociohistorical group (such as a class). It focuses on the "total structure of the mind" as it occurs for an epoch or a group. (Hence, it is not the mind of an individual or association of individuals but the constellation of ideas and their processing that reflects a period or group.) The total conception of ideology will call into question the opponent's "total Weltanschauung," including the mode of thought. (Thus, the opponent is not seen as an individual or concrete group as much as a perspective that reflects a collective life.) From this total conception, it follows that there may exist essentially different intellectual universes, each with a distinctive set of criteria by which truth is judged. Finally, the total conception is not concerned with "motivations" or "interests" at a psychological level but rather seeks the relationship between social forces and worldview.

While the meaning of particular ideology is self-evident, the total conception is more troublesome. However, it becomes clearer when used analytically to understand a class-based conception of reality. For Mannheim, the owning and working classes represent different worldviews, different modes of thinking, and different criteria for "truth." Hence, their ideologies are not to be understood in terms of individuals or motivations. 

For example, the individual proletariat does not necessarily possess all of the elements of the working class Weltanschauung. Each may participate only fragmentally in the whole outlook of the group. What then of the "motivations" that are "behind" a particular view? For Mannheim, idea systems (or any specific piece of one) are rather the function of different social categories, situations, or settings. The interests reflected in ideas are those of the larger spheres of age, class, and other sociological forces ([1936] 1968:55-75). 

It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that Mannheim's sociology of knowledge will employ a total conception of ideology ([1936] 1968:265-266). But it does something more. It advances a distinctly sociological conception of epistemology, a way of understanding the relationships between historical and social structure and the very grounds by which knowledge is judged. Mannheim did this by making the critical distinction between relativism and relationism

To argue that knowledge is relative today is to say that "all historical thinking is bound up with the concrete position in life of the thinker" ([1936] 1968:78-79). In an older sense, relative thought was the knowledge that came from the  purely subjective standpoint of the knower. But whether considered alone or in combination, these forms of relativism mean either (1) that subjective knowledge is untrue, or (2) that certain historical and biographical events "taint" the knowledge of an era. Both conceptions of relativism assume that there is an absolute "truth" that is being compromised.

In order to free thought from relativism, Mannheim introduced the concept of relationism. By "relationism" he meant that the grounds for knowledge are not invariant, continuing form age to age. Hence to argue that knowledge is relational is to say that "there are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context" ([1936] 1968:79). However, this does not mean that "anything" goes, for once one understands the historical knowledge is relational, one must discriminate between what is true and false. In other words, "which social standpoint" (with its corresponding perspective) comes closer to the truth? (In this case, Mannheim's conception of the "perspectivization" factor is clearly informed by the work of Lukacs...)

Truth seeking for Mannheim, is obviously not an asocial process. But there is more. The questions of knowledge and truth are often bound up in political forms of struggle ([1936] 1968:36) and their corresponding views of the world. (Hence, the title of the book, Ideology and Utopia.) By "ideology" Mannheim meant those total systems of thought held by society's ruling groups that obscure the real conditions and thereby preserve the status quo. "Utopian" thinking signifies just the opposite. Here, total systems of thought are forged by oppressed groups interested in the transformation of society. From the utopian side, the purpose of social thought is not to diagnose the present reality but to provide a rationally justifiable system of ideas to legitimate and direct change. 

Thus, for Mannheim, "ideology" means the ruling groups become blind to knowledge that would threaten their continued domination, whereas "utopia" means that oppressed groups selectively perceive "only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it" (1968:40). Remember that Mannheim was not arguing that both sides are simply biased. And there is more to his position than the argument that there are different truths. (Admittedly, it is not unusual for those interested in the preservation of the existing order to have a different agenda of questions, thus different answers, than do those interested in change.) To be clear, because of its structural position, one "side" may be closer to a specific truth than another. However, when both sides address the same question, then judgments still must be made concerning the truths of their answers. 




Throughout his career, Mannheim sought to establish relationships between structural categories and modes of thought. Thus, he looked at classes, sects, generations, and parties to conceptualize differences in their worldviews. In Ideology and Utopia, for example, he identified different forms or ideal types (see Max Weber...) of the "utopian mentality." For example, early religious sects (such as the Anabaptists) joined with other oppressed groups in the "spiritualization of politics." Their revolutionary conception of society was fixed on the establishment of a  millennial kingdom on earth.

The bourgeois thinking of the Enlightenment also struck at the waning power of the aristocracy. They represented a socially ascendant class whose utopian mentality took the form of a "liberal-humanitarian" ideal. This ideal featured a reasoned form of progress, and it was advanced by the middle stratum of society. This stratum, in turn, was disciplined by a "conscious self-cultivation" and sought justification in a new ethics and intellectual culture that undermined the world of the nobility.

Other forms of utopian mentality include the "conservative mode," bent on controlling the anarchism of "inner freedom" that threatens the utopian dream. The last is the "socialist-communist" mode," which locates human freedom in the breakdown of capitalist culture ([1936] 1968:247). Given this range, it is clear that thought which is utopian in one context may be ideological in another. 

Despite this promising delineation of ideal types of utopian thought, Mannheim proved historically imprecise in associating ideas and social position. This problem can be generalized to his work as a whole. Put clearly, Mannheim was routinely content to interpret knowledge from the vantage point of idealist philosophy. He struggled with the context of ideas and their interrelations within the structure of an overall system of thought. When he introduced the larger question of structure, he did little more than claim that knowledge is bound up in social position. When he dealt with specific classes or movements, he was content to use them more as illustrations of how thought systems differ. He seldom specified the real, material conditions that give rise to ideological and utopian visions.


Mannheim, Karl. [1936] 1968. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wolff, Kurt H. 1971. "Introduction." Pp. x-cxxxiii in From Karl Mannheim, ediited by Kurt H. Wolff. New York: Oxford University Press.



Key Terms




Sociology of Knowledge

The Particular

The Total



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