Roundhouse Student Journal

Social Control Theory and Jürgen Habermas in Matthieu Deflem: Making the Dissimilar Comparable

Thomas Jeffery

The work of Jürgen Habermas remains of interest nearly three decades after the publication of the first volume of The Theory of Communicative Action, not only because of the large and varied body of theory he has produced since, but because its complexity and scope has not yet been fully explored. But this complexity, and a shift in the perspective of his later work, can sometimes lead us to confuse his motives.  This paper therefore aims to investigate Habermas’ work – particularly his views on the state and law – in its proper theoretical context, taking into account his lineage from the Frankfurt School. This paper is also the story of the successors of the Chicago School in sociology, and following Matthieu Deflem’s article on the body of Social Control Theory that developed this school’s ideas on methods, we will investigate whether parallels exist between two very different views on the nature of society and the state, and even how this nature is to be understood.

 Following Max Horkheimer’s appointment as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main, he gathered around him a constellation of theorists whose interests reflected his concern that ‘teaching about society can only be developed in the most tightly integrated connection of disciplines’ (Horkheimer in Held 1980:32).  This interdisciplinary approach is fundamental to the resulting work of the “Frankfurt School”, which contributed towards a “critical theory of society”, known in short as Critical Theory.  At the time of Horkheimer’s appointment in 1931, the Great Depression and the faltering of European democracies in the face of emergent fascism were evidence of systemic crises in both capitalism and liberal democracy. In terms of the School’s largely Marxist theoretical background, it seemed inexplicable in this situation of clear revolutionary potential that workers’ movements had failed to consolidate and combat the resulting authoritarian and bureaucratizing tendencies evident even in the established democracies. Meanwhile, Stalin’s Russia provided increasingly dismaying evidence of the degree of authoritarianism possible in an ostensibly socialist state. The Frankfurt School was therefore convinced that a systematic analysis of this situation – employing a new, progressive interpretation of Marx and emerging research in their various disciplines – was necessary. Their ultimate aim was, as Held notes, for their intellectual project to ‘become a material force in the struggle against domination in all its forms’ (1980:35). What emerged was a critique of the relationship between democracy and capitalism that arguably reached the peak of its ferocity in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.  It took aim specifically at the instrumental nature of Enlightenment rationality, which supports of capitalist oppression. Thus,

 myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator towards men. He knows them as far as he can manipulate them (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972: 9).

Social Control Theory and Jürgen Habermas in Matthieu Deflem: Making the Dissimilar Comparable - Thomas Jeffery [PDF file]

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