Allowing for Ambiguity in the Social Sciences: Else Frenkel-Brunswik’s methodological practice in "The Authoritarian Personality"

As I have had around a hundred research papers published in the academic journals in this subject area, I suppose I should comment on this rather nauseating bit of hagiography under the above title by Andreas Kranebitter and Fabian Gruber

Frenkel-Brunswik was one of a mid-20th century group of far-Leftist American Jews who loathed the society they lived in and were dedicated to denigrating it. How did they do that? In a nutshell, they portrayed American conservatives as potential Nazis. American Leftists still do that.

The hilarity was that they wrote in 1950, when mainstream Americans had just been instrumental in wiping out the regime of the "National SOCIALIST German Workers party" (the Nazis) and that the "Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics" (the USSR) was the big authoritarian threat of the day.

So it was clearly then -- as now -- that socialism that was the big authoritarian beast in real life. It is intrinsic to socialists that they want to tell other people what to do and to rely on coercion if they cannot get their way by voluntary co-operation. If that is not authoritarianism what would be?

So how did Frenkel-Brunswik and her collaborators place the mark of the beast on American conservatives? What had American conservatives done to deserve such denigration?

Basically, nothing. F-B and her colleagues worked up a Freudian theory about what underlay authoritarianism and tried to show that American conservatives displayed the psychological characteristics concerned. There was NO MENTION of socialism as the major source of authoritarianism

They demonstrated their claims in two prime ways, by subjective interviews with educated Californians and by distributing questionnaires that encompassed what the authors thought were authoritarian attitudes.

Amusingly, Pflaum's work showed that their alleged list of "authoritarian" attitudes were simply mainstream American beliefs of the prewar "progressive" era. So their theories did in fact point to progressivism as authoritarian -- not what they intended at all. So their work was a major sociological failure.

But what they showed does coincide with what we know of political history in the first half of the 20th century -- the American "progressive" era. It was an unshamedly racist and antisemitic era. So it is no surprise that F-B et al. found progressive attitudes to be racist

In conclusion, there are two ways that the work of Kranebitter and Gruber is helpful.

1). They showed that the subjective interviews were biased and no proof of anything, which is pretty much what one would have expected

2). They showed that F-B and co, were aware that sociological questions loomed over what they were doing but that they touched on that only very gingerly. Had they given sociology the sort of reverence they gave to dubious Freudian theories they might have discovered something useful.

I give the abstract of the Kranebitter and Gruber paper below and you can read it in full at:

This paper gives a micro-sociological view on the methodology used by Else Frenkel-Brunswik in the famous study "The Authoritarian Personality" (Adorno et al. 1950). A thorough reconstruction of the theoretical and methodological concepts of Else Frenkel-Brunswik eventually allows for a full appreciation of her works from a today’s social research perspective, especially of her role in the field of authoritarianism-research. The paper deals with (i) Else Frenkel-Brunswik’s role in the research team of The Authoritarian Personality, (ii) the way she followed up on her earlier work, (iii) the question of in which ways her parts of the study were object of criticism by the numerous critics of TAP, and (iv) the ways she herself responded to these critics. The material basis for such an approach is the archival material available in the “Archive for the History of Sociology in Austria (AGSO)” in Graz, Austria, which holds parts of the estate of Else Frenkel-Brunswik, most of all her correspondence and unpublished typoscripts of later publications, as well as at the Institute for Jewish Research (YIVO) in New York, which holds the papers of the American Jewish Committee, i.e., draft reports, memoranda, and some interview protocols of the TAP study.


No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments containing Chinese characters will not be published as I do not understand them