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BY-NC-ND 3.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter April 6, 2016

Karl Mannheim on democratic interaction: Revisiting mass society theory

Ryusaku Yamada
From the journal Human Affairs

Abstract

This essay re-considers Karl Mannheim’s notion of democratic behaviour in the context of mass society. Although the term ‘mass society’ seems archaic, it is still the precondition of democracy today. Mannheim conceptualized mass society as irrational, disintegrating Great Society and presented the remedy of Planning for Freedom to counter the crisis of mass democracy. In his remedy Mannheim advocated social education that fosters citizens’ democratic interaction, and the keywords of his education were ‘integrative behaviour’ and ‘creative tolerance’. The similar orientation of his remedy can be found in much more contemporary critiques of deliberative democracy. Iris Marion Young’s ‘communicative democracy’ was a version of her democratic interaction in a complex, large-scale mass society. Young’s notion of ‘reasonableness’ has substantial affinity with Mannheim’s integrative behaviour, both of which require the democratic attitude of hearing the other side and the readiness to self-transform. Mass society theory has relevance for contemporary democratic theory.

Introduction

Citizens’ interactions in the public sphere are not always democratic, and civil society is often uncivil. Although many political philosophers of deliberative democracy have argued about the public use of reason, there are many irrational phenomena in a society, including some kinds of populist movements, emotional hate speech, and hostile internet flaming. The way to change people’s interaction to be more democratic and civil is a significant question in democratic theory, and not only philosophical discussions but also sociological and social-psychological insights are needed. In this respect, a recently forgotten classical term is recalled: ‘mass society’.

Many thinkers argued about mass society, particularly between the 1930s and 1950s (Giner, 1976; Kornhauser, 1959; Yamada, 2006). The arguments might be obsolete were we to limit them to explanations of fascism and/or totalitarianism. However, mass society theory included several propositions that persist in contemporary political and social theory. For example, the decline of community, atomization, anomie, and mass movements continue to receive scholarly attention. It is true that mass society theory was influenced by social psychology and psychoanalysis, which conceived of ‘the masses’ and ‘crowds’ almost interchangeably (Borch, 2012). At the same time, however, the theory was not necessarily an argument that reduced common people’s actions into dehumanized mass behaviour: it also attempted to elucidate the social conditions of democracy in transforming modern society. Therefore, it is valuable to re-evaluate scholarly positions on mass society theory from the perspective of contemporary democratic theory.

This essay mainly examines a representative theorist who coped with problems of mass society: Karl Mannheim, a sociologist with a Hungarian–German–English background. His interest drastically shifted from the sociology of knowledge to mass society theory in the 1930s after he exiled himself from Nazi Germany to England. His works in his English period have not been investigated sufficiently, and he is almost forgotten in democratic theory today. Therefore, we need to examine his ideas about democratic interaction in the context of mass society in his English works. This essay firstly characterizes his concept of mass society as disintegrating great society. It then briefly reconsiders Mannheim’s notion of social education in his conception of ‘Planning for Freedom’ as the remedy for the ill effects of mass society. After that, it examines his ideas of ‘integrative behaviour’ and ‘creative tolerance’ which seem to be necessary for democratic interaction. Finally, it attempts to show the relevance of his ideas today through examining contemporary critiques of deliberative democracy.

Mannheim’s democratic interaction for social reconstruction

What is mass society?

Mannheim’s basic diagnosis of modern society can be put as follows:

Most symptoms of maladjustment in modern society can be traced to the fact that a parochial world of small groups expanded into a Great Society in a comparatively short time. This unguided transformation caused manifold disturbances and unsolved problems throughout social life (1951, p. 4).

The term ‘Great Society’ was coined by British political theorist Graham Wallas in his work The Great Society (1914). It is equivalent to Mannheim’s term ‘mass society’, which he used in his book, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction.[2] Mannheim perceived modern society as the manifestation of rational and irrational phenomena that arise in the process of industrialization. On the one hand, as a large-scale industrial society, ‘it creates a whole series of actions which are rationally calculable to the highest degree and which depend on a whole series of repressions and renunciations of impulsive satisfactions’. On the other hand, as a mass society, ‘it produces all the irrationalities and emotional outbreaks which are characteristic of amorphous human agglomerations’ (Mannheim, 1940, p. 61). From Mannheim’s perspective, the contradictions between rationality and irrationality would create serious problems that would destroy modern society.

Mannheim explained that these contradictions are sustained by two principles: the ‘fundamental democratization of society’ and the process of ‘growing interdependence’. The first principle refers to the proposition that increasing numbers of social groups, which previously had passively participated in political life, commence striving for a share of social and political control and demanding representation of their particular interests. However, insofar as these social groups emerge from the intellectually undeveloped masses, giving them political voice risks irrational mass psychoses ruling the world in times of crisis. This meant the transformation from a liberal democracy to a ‘democracy of emotions’ (Manheim, 1940, pp. 44-45).

The second principle, growing interdependence, points to the great interdependence of all the parts of a modern industrial society. To Mannheim, the modern order became more sensitive: ‘the more minutely the individual parts of a large mechanism fit into one another, and the more closely the single elements are bound up together, the more serious are the repercussions of even the slightest disturbance’ (1940, p. 50). Thus, Mannheim took a pessimistic stance on mass democracy when he stated,

In a society in which the masses tend to dominate, irrationalities which have not been integrated into the social structure may force their way into political life. This situation is dangerous because the selective apparatus of mass democracy opens the door to irrationalities in those places where rational direction is indispensable. Thus, democracy itself produces its own antithesis and even provides its enemies with their weapons (1940, p. 63).

He referred to the process by which irrationalities affect rationality as ‘negative democratization’ (1940, p. 63).

In his posthumous volume, Freedom, Power and Democratic Planning, Mannheim described the more concrete aspects of the crisis of ‘mass society’, which could not only be found in the Weimar Republic but also in modern societies including England. Several aspects of his diagnosis of the crisis are relevant to this discussion (1951, pp. 3-21).

  • New social techniques making for minority rule

  • Displacement of self-regulating small groups

  • Disintegration of traditional group controls

  • Failure of large-scale co-ordination

  • Disintegration of co-operative controls

  • Disintegration of personalities

  • Disintegration of consensus and of religious bonds

This list suggests that Mannheim insisted that the crisis was one of social disintegration, and that his notion of ‘mass society’ signified a disintegration of the Great Society, which, therefore, needed reintegration. He regarded the emergence of totalitarian dictatorship from the political left (Bolshevism) and right (Nazism) as a response to the social destruction brought about by the breakdown of laissez-faire liberalism (1943, p. 1; 1951, p. 23).

In his English period, he conceptualized what he termed the ‘Third Way’, which differs from laissez-faire liberalism and from dictatorship, as the remedy for the crisis of mass democracy, and he defined it as ‘Planning for Freedom’ or ‘democratic planning’. It is reasonable that his primary purpose for Planning for Freedom was to realize reconstruction, reintegration, coordination, and even establishment of co-operation in response to the destruction of the Great Society (Albini, 1970; Bogardus, 1951). However, his diagnosis was criticized and rejected by many theorists because he expressed his remedy with the term ‘planning’, which was too rationalistic and easily confused with totalitarianism (Kettler & Meja, 1995, pp. 135-142; Loader, 1985, pp. 173-189; Woldring, 1986, pp. 316-326).

Social education and social awareness

In Planning for Freedom, Mannheim pursued social reconstruction as well as the improvement of human abilities and personalities to prevent the masses from being captured by fascism. The process of the emergence of mass society, including the decline of community and the increasing bureaucratization of modern life, deprives people of meaningful social bonds and uproots them, causing them to be shapeless and fragile, like a ‘crab without its shell’ (Mannheim, 1943, p. 95). The masses can easily be manipulated and mobilized by powerful propaganda through social techniques. Before leaving Germany, Mannheim had warned about the irrational democracy of emotions (mentioned above), stating that ‘[t]he democratization of social life … and especially the democratization of politics, in the sense of the potential co-participation of the broad masses, makes it imperative to subject the latter to sociological-civic schooling’ (2001 [1932], p. 150). This can be regarded as his requirement for citizenship education.

Thus, Mannheim recognized a crisis of value in laissez-faire liberalism, such that,

there is nothing in our lives, not even on the level of basic habits such as food, manners, behaviour, about which our views are not at variance. We do not even agree as to whether this great variety of opinion is good or bad, whether the greater conformity of the past or the modern emphasis on choice is to be preferred (1943, p. 14).

He continued: ‘it is definitely not good to live in a society whose norms are unsettled and develop in an unsteady way’ and ‘even in peace-time, this variety in valuations tended to become unbearable, especially in marginal situations where a simple “yes” or “no” was required’ (1943, pp. 14-15). Mannheim insisted that the chaos of competing and unreconciled values disables people from making reasonable choices (1943, p. 25) and that people eventually share the fascist view that ‘a bad decision is better than no decision’ (1943, p. 15). Therefore, Mannheim became enthusiastic about education as a means for improving the average person’s political judgments, and education became an indispensable element of Planning for Freedom.

Mannheim further argued that an outstanding societal problem at that time was a lack of awareness of social affairs, which accompanies laissez-faire liberalism and creates a haphazard, unplanned approach to the crisis of mass society. Here, Mannheim’s sense of what ‘awareness’ means did not imply the mere accumulation of rational knowledge; he meant,

both in the life of the individual and in that of the community the readiness to see the whole situation in which one finds oneself, and not only to orientate one’s action on immediate tasks and purposes but to base them on a more comprehensive vision (1943, p. 61).

Mannheim conceptualized a sort of social (and adult) education that would cultivate such awareness.

Mannheim criticized British education under laissez-faire liberalism from his perspective as a Central European refugee. According to him, in Britain tolerance and objectivity were confused with neutrality, which was exactly the target at which academic teaching had previously aimed (1943, pp. 65, 67). Although tolerance does not mean that no one should ardently believe in her or his cause and it does mean that everyone should have an equal opportunity to present her or his case, ‘[t]his attitude of neutrality in our modern democracy went so far that we ceased to believe, out of mere fairness, in our own objectives’ (Mannheim, 1943, p. 7). As a result, such a neutralized education ‘is bound to create a human being incapable of offering real resistance when life surrounds him with an arsenal of doctrines and propaganda’ (Mannheim, 1943, pp. 67-68).

To overcome this damaging neutrality and the crisis in valuation, Mannheim attached importance to education that fosters social awareness. This was different from political education in the Marxian sense that intends to raise class consciousness, prepare a social group or class to fight against another class, and blind people to the factors that develop cohesion and co-operation in societies. Instead of this sort of partial awareness, Mannheim insisted on total awareness when he argued for ‘awareness of the total situation, as far as that is humanly possible, at a given stage of history’ (1943, p. 64).

The origin of Mannheim’s idea of total awareness is found in his sociology of knowledge developed before he left Germany. In Ideology and Utopia, he argued that our own as well as our opponents’ ideas, thoughts, and knowledge must be regarded as situationally determined ideology, a partial view that cannot be absolute. According to Mannheim, if a person insisted that she or he had discovered some absolute nostrum and recommended it to others, this would be ‘merely a sign of the loss of and the need for intellectual and moral certainty, felt by broad sections of the population who are unable to look life in the face’ (1936, p. 77). Yet, a person’s awareness of the situationally determined nature of her or his ideas and knowledge would make the relativization of her or his perspective possible, which would reduce to a minimum the tendency towards self-apotheosis. Mannheim stressed that, by means of the effort to gain such awareness, ‘the one-sidedness of our own point of view is counteracted, and conflicting intellectual positions may actually come to supplement one another’ (1936, p. 76).

Mannheim did not refer to his intellectual position as relativism, but as ‘relationism’, meaning that ‘all of the elements of meaning in a given situation have reference to one another and derive their significance from this reciprocal interrelationship in a given frame of thought’ (1936, p. 76). Thus, relationism enables us to overcome the partialness of our ideas or knowledge, and to perceive a total view, which implies the assimilation and transcendence of the limitations inherent in particular viewpoints. Here, Mannheim meant by the term ‘totality’ neither an eternally valid vision of reality nor a self-contained and stable view. Rather, a total view represents ‘the continuous process of the expansion of knowledge, and has as its goal not achievement of a super-temporary valid conclusion but the broadest possible extension of our horizon of vision’ (1936, pp. 94-95). Thus, Mannheim’s sense of relationism in his German period is in harmony with his idea of awareness of the total situation in Planning for Freedom in his English period. Mannheim purposed social education to foster this awareness in elites and common people alike.

Integrative behaviour and creative tolerance

Mannheim argued that the absolutization of partial views disaggregates a society and renders agreement and co-operation impossible. To him, if a democracy is to survive, a society needs individuals who have democratic personalities in addition to the awareness of shared responsibilities for social reconstruction. Thus, the types of human behaviour or attitudes at which Mannheimian education aims with the goal of realizing the reintegration of mass society must be clarified.

Mannheim rejected the value neutrality of laissez-faire liberalism and the totalitarian unification and enforcement of a specific value. Planning for Freedom was his Third Way, which requires individuals and social groups to achieve spontaneous integration of consensus on disintegrating mass society for the common purpose of reconstructing democratic society (Mannheim, 1943, p. 29). Mannheimian education pursues the transformation of human personalities to realize such integration. Mannheim referred to the essence of the requisite democratic personality as ‘integrative behaviour’ (1951, p. 200). According to him,

The important element in this conception of integrative behavior is that the person who acts in its spirit is not only unwilling to superimpose his own view and will upon the other fellow – the essence of domineering attitude – but he is tolerant of disagreement (1951, p. 201).

Integrative behaviour is different from compromise, which is merely the rational adjustment between two or more opposing views and/or wills such that, ‘it is only a matter of expediency that the parties sacrifice some of the original claims. No dynamic progress, no truly creative power is expressed by compromise’ (Mannheim, 1951, p. 203). Mannheim explained how integrative behaviour of the democratic personality is more than compromise when he stated,

He is tolerant … in the expectation of enlarging his own personality by absorbing some features of a human being essentially different from himself. Practically, this means that the democratic personality welcomes disagreement because it has the courage to expose itself to change (1951, p. 201).

It means that people, though fully aware of the fact that differences of constitution and social position, of drives and interests, shape their experience and attitude to life in different ways, yet transmute their different approaches for the purpose of co-operating in a common way of life (1951, p. 203).

Thus, Mannheim’s sense of integrative behaviour contained the ideal notion of creative tolerance, which he defined as ‘the task of establishing a common purpose and real cooperation with dissenters who are forever in ferment’ (1951, p. 205).

To Mannheim, integrative behaviour was a significant element of democratic personality that is not only required by political elites in parliament; it is essential for the masses. He stressed that democracy only functions ‘if democratic self-discipline is strong enough to make people agree on concrete issues for the sake of common action, even if they differ on details’ and ‘this self-restraint will only be produced on the parliamentary scene if the same virtues are being exercised in everyday life’ (1943, p. 27). In short, the ultimate purpose of Mannheim’s education for social awareness was to produce democratic individuals who embody integrative behaviour and the virtue of creative tolerance. Thus, integrative behaviour and creative tolerance are arguably the core of Mannheim’s requirements for democratic interaction in the age of mass society, in which the necessity of the Weberian notion of ethics of responsibility increasingly came to the fore. According to Mannheim, the ethics of responsibility expect us to foresee some of the immediate consequences of our actions and to respond to them (1943, p. 112). He previously had referred to these ethics in his German period, when he pointed out that the history of mankind was at a point where,

action should not only be in accord with the dictates of conscience, but should take into consideration the possible consequences of the action in so far as they are calculable … [and] conscience itself should be subjected to critical self-examination in order to eliminate all the blindly and compulsively operating factors (1936, pp. 170-71).

Therefore, Mannheim’s version of democratic interaction comprises awareness of the partial nature of our ideas, perspectives, and knowledge gained through self-examination; awareness of the total situation; and enlargement of (and willingness to change, if necessary) our personal views and personalities.

Mass society in contemporary democratic theory

Young’s understandings of mass society and citizenship

Although Mannheim’s ideas of integrative behaviour and creative tolerance have not been sufficiently considered for a long time, we can see their relevance in today’s discussions of democratic deliberation. In order to clarify the relevance, I will briefly examine a much more contemporary political theorist who is critically committed to deliberative democracy, Iris Marion Young. The reason I choose Young here is because she was a rare contemporary political thinker who referred to ‘mass society’: for example, she put the term in the index of her book Inclusion and Democracy (2000), and this shows she regarded ‘mass society’ as a significant keyword that is worth being taken seriously as a condition of contemporary democracy. It is true that Young lived and worked in a very different context than Mannheim. Her politics of difference focused on what she termed structural injustice in liberal democracy, especially in America, where the mainstream social groups dominate (particularly, the white, middle class, heterosexual males) and marginalized social groups are oppressed (for example, women, workers, blacks, Native Americans, and those of non-heterosexual orientations) (1989, 1990). Nevertheless, the ideas of the two theorists seem to agree about mass society, considering the way that Young used the term in her discussions.

Young’s terminology, such as ‘[c]ity life in urban mass society’ (1990, p. 238), ‘modern, mass, economically interdependent societies’ (1993, p. 127), ‘the facts of interdependent mass societies’ (2000, p. 47) and ‘complex mass society’ (2000, p. 167), suggest that her basic sense of the meaning of the term ‘mass society’ concurred with Mannheim’s ideas on growing interdependence. Young referred to large-scale mass societies without a clear definition (2000, p. 8); however, she apparently inherited the traditional understanding of ‘mass society’ from the classical sociologists as the development of a market economy and urbanization that accompany social interdependence in the modern age, termed ‘mass society’ or ‘Great Society’ (although Young never referenced Mannheim). To Young, mass society was the precondition for the ‘large-scale politics of millions of people linked by dense social and economic processes and legal framework’ (2000, p. 45).

Unlike many sociologists who bewailed the atomization and impersonalization of modern society, Young never idealized the small community. She was doubtful about communitarianism because it often idealizes a closed communal society characterized by face-to-face relationships that privilege shared heritage, history, and culture as preconditions of good society. Young stated that, ‘the desire for community … often operates to exclude or oppress those experienced as different’ (1990, p. 234). Young insisted that group differentiation is an inevitable and desirable process in modern societies. We can see her understanding of mass society as not only a complex, interdependent, and large-scale society but also a differentiated urban society.

Therefore, Young criticized the republican ideal of universal citizenship because the term ‘universality’ is easily misidentified with ‘sameness’ or ‘homogeneity’: such identification is inadequate in mass society. She then advocated for a ‘heterogeneous public’ and ‘differentiated citizenship’. She rejected the assumption of universal citizenship in which all citizens should take the impartial, general viewpoint because ‘[p]eople necessarily and properly consider public issues in terms influenced by their situated experience and perception of social relations’ (1989, p. 257). What Young envisioned in her notion of differentiated citizenship was a democracy that enables a citizen to consider her or his needs, interests, or desires relative to those of others. In such a democracy, moreover, individuals and social groups can be aware of the partialness of their individual perspectives when particular perspectives are publicly expressed rather than locked up in the private sphere.

Young’s argument was quite similar to the Mannheimian notion of relationism, particularly regarding his requirement to relativize individual perspectives to reduce the tendency towards self-apotheosis. Young’s statement, ‘unless confronted with different perspectives on social relations and events, different values and language, most people tend to assert their own perspective as universal’ (1989, p. 262), is harmonious with Mannheim’s assertion that conflicting intellectual positions may come to supplement one another when the one-sidedness of each viewpoint is counteracted. Mannheim and Young apparently shared the position that we need to be aware of our situationally determined knowledge and viewpoints,[3] an awareness that leads to what Mannheim referred to as ‘the broadest possible extension of our horizon of vision’ mentioned above.

Democratic interaction in mass society

Young’s assertion of a heterogeneous public led to her conceptualization of democratic communication. Young was critical of a kind of deliberative democracy that assumes the homogeneity and unity of the citizenry. First, many theorists of deliberative democracy implicitly assumed the presence of small-group face-to-face discussion, although this assumption seems irrelevant to complex, large-scale mass society (Young, 2000, p. 45). Second, such theorists stressed the idea of the common good for achieving agreement or they assumed that common interests or a common lifestyle are preconditions for deliberation. However, ‘definitions of the common good are likely to express the interests and perspectives of the dominant groups in generalized terms’ (Young, 2000, p. 43).

Young referred to her version of inclusive democratic interaction as ‘communicative democracy’ (1996, p. 69) rather than deliberative democracy. There are two significant points to her definition. First, she considered the notion of difference as a resource for, rather than obstacle to, democratic communication. Second, she expected transformation of ideas, opinions, and perspectives of individuals and groups to occur by means of public discussions. Young insisted that what different citizens and social groups share is not a common good but common problems to be solved, and the way to understand and interpret the problems depends on each citizen or group. Therefore, communication among people of difference is necessary and people’s differences are the resources and preconditions of that communication. By practicing public discussion, citizens relativize their perspectives, which develop their openness and mutual accountability (Young, 2002, p. 229).

Young conceptualized four normative ideals for her inclusive democratic communication (2000, pp. 23-25): ‘inclusion’, which concerns the involvement of all who would be influenced by a decision in the discussion and decision-making process; ‘political equality’, which refers to all those who are included in decision making having an equal right and effective opportunity to express their interests, concerns, and questions; ‘reasonableness’, which means a context in which people are willing to listen to others’ criticisms of them and are open to changing their opinions or preferences because of others’ respectful persuasion; and ‘publicity’, which means that the interaction among participants in a democratic decision-making process is a public structure in which people hold one another accountable and in which they speak with the reflective idea that third parties might be listening. In this context, ‘reasonableness’ is required for transformative deliberation to occur. In fact, there are theorists of citizenship education, for example Elizabeth Frazer (2006), who were inspired by Young’s notion of reasonableness, which stresses the significance of learning how to listen to different, unfamiliar voices.

Young’s demand for reasonableness was virtually the same as Mannheim’s notions of integrative behaviour and creative tolerance, both of which admit to the possibility of being persuaded by others (through hearing or listening) and of being swayed to a transformation of opinion (relativization of perspectives). To both of them, to be reasonable citizens depends not on institutional school education but on citizens’ practices of public discussion in everyday life. Here, we must recall that Mannheim’s notion of creative tolerance points to the task of establishing a common purpose and authentic co-operation between or among ‘dissenters who are forever in ferment’ quoted above.

Conclusion

As societies have evolved, traditional ties among people have weakened, and the homogeneity of society cannot be assumed—this is a fact of the modern mass society. Even if the term ‘mass society’ were rarely used in political theory today, the sociological insights like Mannheim’s regarding mass society are still relevant when we consider the social condition of democracy. Discussions of participatory and/or deliberative democracy today must take seriously ‘mass society’ as a precondition of democratic politics and society.

Traditionally, Mannheim was often regarded as an elitist, but his mass society theory cannot easily be identified with the discussion of mass behaviour because, as his commitment to social education shows, he believed in the possibility of the improvement and cultivation of the masses’ democratic abilities and personalities. He demonstrated his ideals, such as integrative behaviour and creative tolerance, which would structure interactions as democratic. His insight coincides with contemporary arguments on democratic communication by theorists like Young. The norms of democratic interaction in mass society, which democratic citizens must acquire through education, include at least three ideals.

  • Hearing the other side of a question in all of its needs, interests, experiences, and perspectives, which should be publicly presented and heard

  • Awareness of the partialness of individual viewpoints, which, when recognized, awakens people to the understanding that all viewpoints must be understood in relation to all others

  • Self-examination and relativization, in which all parties must be ready to self-transform through communication with others.

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Published Online: 2016-04-06
Published in Print: 2016-04-01

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