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Ralf Dahrendorf

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Ralf Dahrendorf

The Right Honourable
The Lord Dahrendorf
Ralf Dahrendorf, photo taken in 1980
Member of House of Lords
In office
15 July 1993 – 17 June 2009
Personal details
Born (1929-05-01)1 May 1929
Hamburg, Germany
Died 17 June 2009(2009-06-17) (aged 80)
Cologne, Germany
Nationality United Kingdom
Political party Liberal Democrats (UK); FDP (Germany)
Spouse(s) Vera Dahrendorf
Ellen Dahrendorf (née Ellen Joan Krug) (1980–2004)
Christiane Dahrendorf (2004–2009)
Children Nicola, Alexandra, and Daphne Dahrendorf
Alma mater University of Hamburg
London School of Economics
Profession Sociologist
Ralf Dahrendorf
Known for Providing a new definition of class conflict based on authority relations
Influences Marx, Weber, Popper, Hayek, Kant

Ralf Gustav Dahrendorf, Baron Dahrendorf, KBE, FBA, PhD (1 May 1929 – 17 June 2009) was a German-British sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and liberal politician. A class conflict theorist, Dahrendorf was a leading expert on explaining and analyzing class divisions in modern society, and is regarded as "one of the most influential thinkers of his generation."[1] Dahrendorf wrote multiple articles and books, his most notable being Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959) and Essays in the Theory of Society (1968).

During his political career, he was a Member of the German Parliament, Parliamentary Secretary of State at the Foreign Office of Germany, European Commissioner for External Relations and Trade, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Education and Member of the British House of Lords, after he was created a life peer in 1993. He was subsequently known in the United Kingdom as Lord Dahrendorf.[2]

He served as director of the London School of Economics and Warden of St Antony's College, University of Oxford. He also served as a Professor of Sociology at a number of universities in Germany and the United Kingdom, and was a Research Professor at the Berlin Social Science Research Center.


  • Biography 1
    • Family 1.1
    • Education and career 1.2
    • Marriages and children 1.3
    • Death 1.4
  • Dahrendorf's thought 2
    • Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society 2.1
    • Dahrendorf's theory on class conflict 2.2
      • Marx and Dahrendorf's Perspectives on Class Formation 2.2.1
  • Criticism 3
  • Relationship to other classical theorists, and perspectives 4
  • Further reading 5
  • Publications in printed in other languages 6
    • Works available in English 6.1
    • Works available in French 6.2
    • Works available in German 6.3
  • Awards and honours 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10



Born in Hamburg, Ralf Dahrendorf was the son of Lina and Gustav Dahrendorf, and brother of Frank Dahrendorf.[2] Dahrendorf was known for strongly supporting anti-Nazi activities.[3] As a child, Ralf was a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, the youngest branch of the Hitler Youth.[4] When Ralf was only a teenager, he and his father, a SPD member of the German Parliament, were arrested and sent to concentration camps for their Anti-Nazi activities during the National Socialist regime. After this his family moved to Berlin. In 1944, during the last year of the second world war, Ralf was arrested for engaging in anti-nazi activities and sent to a concentration camp in Poland. He was released in 1945.[5][6]

Education and career

He studied [9] In 1960, he became a visiting professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York.[10]

From 1968 to 1969, Dahrendorf was a member of the Parliament of Baden-Württemberg, and also in 1968 his links with Harvard University began.[10] Dahrendorf decided to become a member of the Bundestag in 1969 during the time when Brandt formed his first SPD-FDP coalition government. After joining, he was appointed parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister. Because he was placed third on the ladder of command in the foreign ministry, he did not enjoy the experience.[10] From 1969 to 1970 he was a member of the German parliament for the Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democratic Party) (the German liberals). From 1969 to 1970 he was also a Parliamentary Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1970 he became a Commissioner in the European Commission in Brussels. He was dedicated to the EU as a guarantor of human rights and liberty.[10]

In 1974 the BBC invited him to present the annual Reith Lectures. In this series of six radio talks, entitled The New Libertyhe examined the definition of freedom.

From 1974 to 1984 Dahrendorf was director of the London School of Economics when he returned to Germany to become Professor of Social Science, Konstanz University (1984–86).

From 1967 to 1970 he was Chairman of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie, resigning it when he took up his office at Brussels. Between 1976 and 1979 he led the educational sub-committee of the Benson Commission.[11]

In 1986, Ralf Dahrendorf became a Governor of the London School of Economics. From 1987 to 1997, he was Warden of St Antony's College at the University of Oxford, succeeding the historian Sir Raymond Carr.[2]

In 1982, Dahrendorf was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1988, he acquired British citizenship.[10] and became known as Sir Ralf Dahrendorf (as only KBEs who are British subjects are entitled to use that title). In 1993, he was granted a life peerage and was named Baron Dahrendorf of Clare Market in the City of Westminster. Clare Market is near the London School of Economics, and is also used for car parking by LSE staff. Dahrendorf chose this name to honour the School in this way, and also as a sign of his liberal humour. He sat in the House of Lords as a cross-bencher.

Between 2000 and 2006 Dahrendorf served as Chairman of the Judging Panel of the FIRST Award for Responsible Capitalism .[12] He received the FIRST Responsible Capitalism lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. Dahrendorf insisted that even the most basic civil rights, including equality and freedom of expression, be given constitutional legitimacy.[10] On 11 July 2007, he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Studies.

In January 2005, he was appointed a Research Professor at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin (WZB). [13]

Dahrendorf held dual citizenship in the UK and Germany. After retiring, he lived partially in Germany and partially in the United Kingdom, with a home in London and one in Bonndorf in south-western Germany. When asked which city he considered his home, he once said, "I am a Londoner".[14] He also once said that his life was marked by a conflict between the obligation he felt to the country of his birth, Germany and the attraction he felt for Britain.[6]

Marriages and children

Dahrendorf was married three times. He married his first wife, Vera, in 1954. She was a fellow student at LSE. Together they had three daughters: Nicola, Alexandra and Daphne Dahrendorf. Nicola Dahrendorf has worked for the United Nations and as the West Africa Regional Conflict Adviser to the UK Government.

From 1980 to 2004, he was married to historian and translator Ellen Dahrendorf (née Ellen Joan Krug), the daughter of Professor James Krug. When he was created a peer in 1993, his wife became known as Lady Dahrendorf. Ellen Dahrendorf, who is Jewish, has served on the board of the Jewish Institute for Policy Research, been chair of the British branch of the New Israel Fund, and is a signatory of the Independent Jewish Voices declaration, which is critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.[15][16][17]

Ralf Dahrendorf's first two marriages ended in divorce. In 2004 he married Christiane Dahrendorf, a Medical Doctor from Cologne.[18]


Dahrendorf died in Cologne, Germany, aged 80, on 17 June 2009, after suffering from cancer.[19]

He is survived by his third wife, three daughters, and one grandchild.[5]

Dahrendorf's thought

Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society

In 1959, Dahrendorf published in his most influential work on social inequality, titled Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Despite later revisions and affirmations of his work, today this book still remains as his first detailed and most influential account of the problem of social inequality in modern, or postcapitalist, societies.[20]

In analysing and evaluating the arguments of structural functionalism and Marxism, Dahrendorf believed that neither theory alone could account for all of society. Marxism did not account for evidence of obvious social integration and cohesion. Structural functionalist, on the other hand, did not focus enough on social conflict.[20][21] He also asserted that Marx defined class in a too narrow, historically-specific context. During Marx's time, wealth was the determining factor in attaining power. The wealthy –– and therefore the powerful –– ruled, leaving no way for the poor to gain any power or increase their position in society.

Drawing on aspects of both Marxism and structural functionalists to form his own beliefs, Dahrendorf highlighted the changes that have occurred in modern society. Dahrendorf believed in two approaches to society, Utopian and Rationalist. Utopian being the balance of values and solidity and Rationalist being dissension and disagreement. While he believes that both are social perspectives, the Utopian approach is most apparent in modern day society, leaving Dahrendorf to create a balance between the two views.[22] Dahrendorf discusses literary utopias to show that the structural-functionalists idea of the social system is utopians in itself because it possess all the necessary characteristics.[8] Specifically, with democracy came voting for political parties, and increased social mobility. He believes that the struggle for authority creates conflict.[23] Furthermore, he believes that traditional Marxism ignores consensus and integration in modern social structures.[20] Dahrendorf's theory defined class not in terms of wealth like Marx, but by levels of authority.[23] Dahrendorf combines elements from both of these perspectives to develop his own theory about class conflict in postcapitalist society.

Dahrendorf's theory on class conflict

As a sociologist, Dahrendorf developed, cultivated, and advanced conflict theory. This new theory is said to have taken place in reaction to structural functionalism and in many ways represents antithesis. The conflict theory attempts to bring together structural functionalism and Marxism. According to Dahrendorf, functionalism is beneficial while trying to understand consensus while the conflict theory is used to understand conflict and coercion. In order to understand structural functionalism, we study three bodies of work: Davis and Moore, Parsons, and Merton.[24][25] Dahrendorf states that capitalism has undergone major changes since Marx initially developed his theory on class conflict. This new system of capitalism, which he identifies as postcapitalism, is characterised by diverse class structure and a fluid system of power relations. Thus, it involves a much more complex system of inequality than Marx originally outlined.[20] Dahrendorf contends that postcapitalist society has institutionalised class conflict into state and economic spheres.[20] For example, class conflict has been habituated through unions, collective bargaining, the court system, and legislative debate. In effect, the severe class strife typical of Marx's time is not longer relevant. Dahrendorf's theory often took the opposite view of functionalists.

Conflict theorists, and therefore Dahrendorf, often took the exact opposite view of functionalists. Whereas functionalists believe that society was oscillating very slightly, if not completely static, conflict theorists said that every society at every point is subject to process of change".[25] He believes that there is "dissension and conflict at every point in the social system" and "many societal elements as contributing to disintegration and change".[26] They believe order comes from coercion from those at the top. They believe that power is an important factor in social order. Dahrendorf believes that both conflict theory and consensus theory are necessary because they reflect the two parts of society.

In developing his conflict theory, Dahrendorf recognised consensus theory was also necessary to fully reflect society. Consensus theory focuses on the value integration into society, while conflict theory focuses on conflicts of interest and the force that holds society together despite these stresses. In the past, structural functionalism was the commanding theory in sociology, until the conflict theory came along as its major challenger. However, both structural functionalism and the conflict theory have received major criticisms. In fact, Dahrendorf asserted that there has to be consensus to have conflict, as he said that the two were prerequisites for each other.[27] The opposite is also true, he believed –– conflict can result in cohesion and consensus.[26] However, Dahrendorf did not believe the two theories could be combined into one cohesive and comprehensive theory. Instead, Dahrendorf's thesis was "the differential distribution of authority invariably becomes the determining factor of systematic social conflicts".[26]

Dahrendorf believed that Marx's theory could be updated to reflect modern society and Roman society. He rejects Marx's two class system as too simplistic and overly focused on property ownership.[26] Due to the rise of the joint stock company, ownership does not necessarily reflect control of economic production in modern society.[20] Instead of describing the fundamental differences of class in terms of property, Dahrendorf claims that we must "replace the possession, or nonpossesion, of effective private property by the exercise of, or exclusion from, authority as the criterion of class formation".[21] A crucial component to Dahrendorf's conflict theory is the idea of authority. Although it initially appears to be an individual issue and psychological, Dahrendorf argues that authority is related to positions not individuals.[26] In this way, subordination and authority are products of expectation specified by society, and if those roles are not adhered to, sanctions are imposed. Dahrendorf expands on this idea with the notion that roles of authority may conflict when in different positions that call for different things. According to Dahrendorf, these different defined areas of society where people's roles may be different are called imperatively coordinated associations.[28] The groups of society in different associations are drawn together by their common interests. Dahrendorf explains that latent interests are natural interests that arise unconsciously in conflict between superordinates and subordinates. He defines manifest interests as latent interests when they are realised. In conclusion, Dahrendorf believes that understanding authority to be the key to understanding social conflict.

Dahrendorf, like Merton, looked at latent and manifest interests and further classified them as unconscious and conscious interests. He found the connection between these two concepts to be problematic for the conflict theory.[27] Dahrendorf believed that the basis of class conflict was the division of three groups of society: quasi groups, interest groups, and conflict groups.[28] Thus, society can be split up into the "command class" and the "obey class". The command class exercises authority, while the obey class not only has no authority, and but is also subservient to that of others. With a clear interplay between both class types class conflict theory sought to explain that interplay.[29] Quasi groups are "aggregates of incumbents of positions with identical role interests".[28] Interest groups are derived from the quasi groups and they are organised with members, an organisation, and a program or goal. The main difference between quasi groups and interest groups are that interest groups are able to organise and have a sense of "belonging" or identity.[30] Darhendorf acknowledged that other conditions like politics, adequate personnel, and recruitment would play a role along with the groups. He also believed that, under ideal circumstances, conflict could be explained without reference to other variables.[27] Unlike Marx, however, he did not believe that random recruitment into the quasi group, it would not start a conflict group. In contrast to Lewis Coser's ideas that functions of conflict maintained the status quo, Dahrendorf believed that that conflict also leads to change (in social structure) and development.[31] His belief in a changing society separated Dahrendorf's ideas from Marx who supported the concept of a utopia.[2]

Marx and Dahrendorf's Perspectives on Class Formation

Marx believed history to be defined as class struggle. Marx defined class as the difference between the dominating class and those who dominate. He believed that in modern society there were three types of classes: Capitalists, workers and petite bourgeoisie. The proletariat and the bourgeoisie are the pillars in the formation of classes. Marx believed that the battle between the different classes formed the concept of class phenomenon.

Marx understood that there are two classes: the rulers who control the means of production, and the ruled who worked with the means of production. Every society needs both. The conflicts between them causes a destruction of the existing societal order so that it can be replaced by a new one.

On the other hand, Dahrendorf believed that the formation of classes was the organization of common interests. This further means that people who are in positions of authority are supposed to control subordination, meaning that sanctions could be put into effect against people who fail to obey authority commands, resulting in fines and further punishments. Dahrendorf argues that society is composed of multiple units that are called imperatively coordinated associations. He saw social conflict as the difference between dominating and subject groups in imperatively coordinated associations.[32]

Marx believed that class formation was based on the ownership of private property. On the contrary, Dahrendorf argued that class formation was always based on authority. He defined authority as a facet of social organizations and as a common element of social structures. There is also another difference between Marx and Dahrendorf concerning the structure of societies. Dahrendorf believed that society had two aspects: consensus and conflict, static and change, order and dissension, cohesion and the role of power, integration and conflict, and lastly consensus and constraint. He saw them all as equally the double aspects of society. On this point, Dahrendorf asserted that society could not survive without both consensus and conflict. He felt this way because without conflict, there can be no consensus, and although consensus leads to conflict, conflict also leads to consensus.[32]


While Dahrendorf sought to blend the ideas of structural functionalism and Marxism, conflict theory did little to improve the theory. Conflict theory has many of the same problems of structural functionalism. Conflict theory is also linked to structural functionalism by its ideas about systems, positions, and roles. "We discuss the criticisms that structural functionalism is ahistorical, unable to deal with conflict and change, highly conservative, preoccupied with societal constraints on actors, accepting of elite legitimations, teleological, and tautological". In order to respond to the many critiques of structural functionalism, the development of an orientation known as neofunctionalism began to rise. "Neofunctionalism sought to buttress structural functionalism by synthesizing it with a wide array of other theoretical perspectives." Overall, the theory has few similarities with Marxism. Dahrendorf was criticized for being satisfied with having two alternative theories of order and conflict, rather than trying to find a theory that combined the two.[33] In addition the theory takes only a macrosociological perspective. The theory fails to address much of social life.[31]

In increasingly modern, multicultural societies, the contested concept and construct of identity received growing emphasis, and was the focus of many debates. As a consequence of the debates over identity, and inevitably in a globalising, modern, multicultural world, the issues of citizenship came into play. Specifically, the discussions analysed the ways in which citizenship contributed to the formation and construction of identities. Dahrendorf's adherence to Marxian seemingly prevented him from participating in these debates. Absent from Dahrendorf's theory were any significant discussions of culture, and therefore, citizenship and identity.[34]

Relationship to other classical theorists, and perspectives

Unlike many of the other works published by social theorists in the 1950s, Dahrendorf's work acknowledges the same class interests that worried Marx . Like Marx, Dahrendorf agreed that conflict is still a basic fact of social life. Dahrendorf believed that class conflict could have beneficial consequences for society, such as progressive change.[20] Dahrendorf is recognised for being one of the best departures from the structural functionalist tradition of the 1950s. Dahrendorf criticised and wanted to challenge the "false, utopian representation of societal harmony, stability, and consensus by the structural functionalist school."[35] Nevertheless, Dahrendorf still shares key ideas with structural functionalists, such as a general faith in the efficacy of political and economic institutions. Like Weber, Dahrendorf criticises Marx's view that the working class will ultimately become a homogeneous group of unskilled machine operators. Dahrendorf points out that in postcapitalist society there are elaborate distinctions regarding income, prestige, skill level, and life chances. Dahrendorf's pluralist view of class and power structures and belief that hierarchies of authority are inevitable in modern societies also reflect Weberian ideas.[20]

Further reading

  • Julie Smith, Ralf Dahrendorf (Lord Dahrendorf) in Brack et al. (eds.) Dictionary of Liberal Biography; Politico's 1998 pp. 89–90
  • Julie Smith, Ralf Dahrendorf in Brack & Randall (eds.) Dictionary of Liberal Thought; Politico's 2007 pp83–85
  • Edward G. Grabb, "Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives." Ontario: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997

Publications in printed in other languages

Works available in English

  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1959) Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1968) Essays in the Theory of Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1967) Society and Democracy in Germany. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company
  • "The Modern Social Conflict". University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf (1974) The New Liberty BBC Radio Reith Lectures
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf (1990) Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: In a letter intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Warsaw. New York: Random House
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1979) Life chances: Approaches to Social and Political Theory. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, ISBN 0-297-77682-7

Works available in French

  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1972) Classes et conflits de classes dans la société industrielle. (Introduction by Raymond Aron), Paris: Gallimard

Works available in German

  • Gesellschaft und Freiheit: Zur soziologischen Analyse der Gegenwart. Piper, München 1961
  • Die angewandte Aufklärung: Gesellschaft u. Soziologie in Amerika. Piper, München 1962
  • Homo Sociologicus: ein Versuch zur Geschichte, Bedeutung und Kritik der Kategorie der sozialen Rolle. Westdeutscher Verlag, Köln/Opladen 1965
  • Gesellschaft und Demokratie in Deutschland. Piper, München 1965
  • Konflikt und Freiheit: auf dem Weg zur Dienstklassengesellschaft. Piper, München 1972, ISBN 3-492-01782-7
  • Pfade aus Utopia: Arbeiten zur Theorie und Methode der Soziologie. Piper, München 1974, ISBN 3-492-00401-6
  • Lebenschancen: Anläufe zur sozialen und politischen Theorie. Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch, Frankfurt a.M. 1979, ISBN 3-518-37059-6
  • Die neue Freiheit: Überleben und Gerechtigkeit in einer veränderten Welt. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1980, ISBN 3-518-37123-1
  • Die Chancen der Krise: über die Zukunft des Liberalismus. DVA, Stuttgart 1983, ISBN 3-421-06148-3
  • Fragmente eines neuen Liberalismus. DVA, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-421-06361-3
  • Der moderne soziale Konflikt: Essay zur Politik der Freiheit. DVA, Stuttgart 1992, ISBN 3-421-06539-X
  • Die Zukunft des Wohlfahrtsstaats. Verl. Neue Kritik, Frankfurt a.M. 1996
  • Liberale und andere: Portraits. DVA, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-421-06669-8
  • Liberal und unabhängig: Gerd Bucerius und seine Zeit. Beck, München 2000, ISBN 3-406-46474-2
  • Über Grenzen: Lebenserinnerungen. Beck, München 2002, ISBN 3-406-49338-6
  • Auf der Suche nach einer neuen Ordnung: Vorlesungen zur Politik der Freiheit im 21. Jahrhundert. Beck, München 2003, ISBN 3-406-50540-6
  • Der Wiederbeginn der Geschichte: vom Fall der Mauer zum Krieg im Irak; Reden und Aufsätze. Beck, München 2004, ISBN 3-406-51879-6
  • Werner Bruns, Döring Walter (Hrsg): Der selbstbewusste Bürger. Bouvier Verlag
  • Engagierte Beobachter. Die Intellektuellen und die Versuchungen der Zeit, Wien: Passagen Verlag 2005
  • Versuchungen der Unfreiheit. Die Intellektuellen in Zeiten der Prüfung . München 2006, ISBN 3-406-54054-6

Awards and honours

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e
  3. ^ Grimes, William. "Ralph Dahrendorf, Sociologist, Dies at 80 ", The New York Times, 22 June 2009. Accessed 10 October 2009.
  4. ^ Stern, Fritz. "Five Germanys I have Known", pg. 225.
  5. ^ a b Grimes, William. "Ralph Dahrendorf, Sociologist, Dies at 80 ", The New York Times, 22 June 2009. Accessed 22 June 2009.
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b c d e f
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ WZB website
  14. ^,,4406145,00.html
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Pick, Hella. "Lord Dahrendorf, German sociologist and politician who became director of the LSE and a life peer ", The Guardian, 19 June 2009. Accessed 10 October 2009.
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h Grabb, Edward G. "Theories of Social Inequality." Ontario: Harcourt Brace & Company. 1997
  21. ^ a b Dahrendorf, Ralf."Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society." Stanford CA: Stanford University. 1959
  22. ^
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b
  26. ^ a b c d e
  27. ^ a b c
  28. ^ a b c
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b
  32. ^ a b
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ Grabb, Edward G. "Theories of Social Inequality." Toronto: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston of Canada. 1984
  36. ^

External links

  • 2011 Dahrendorf Symposium – Changing the Debate on Europe – Moving Beyond Conventional Wisdoms
  • 2011 Dahrendorf Symposium Blog
  • – Conversation with Sir Ralf Dahrendorf by Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies; 4 April 1989Straddling Theory with Practice
  • obituaryDaily Telegraph
  • Biography at the Liberal Democrat History Group
  • ObituaryNew York Times
Academic offices
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