Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Sociological Sentimentalism and Naturalistic Novel

On the Prehistory of Modern Social Theories in the 19th Century

Dr. Ingo Stöckmann


In the last third of the 19th century, a constellation can be observed which is rich in implications and which has not been examined up until this point. Parallel to the constitutional phase of early sociology (Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, Max Weber), the social novel of naturalism directed all of its narrative energies at all those experiences of social disintegration which help form the social-theoretical image of structure and the course of social modernization until the present day. What is conspicuous in the process is that in both fields the same economy of conceptualization is at work, organized around a sentimental narrative pattern: Modernization is in early sociology as well as in the social novel identical with the loss of an originary-organic world of nearness (“community”) and the differentiation of a sphere of abstract-mechanical social relations (“society”).

At this point, we are dealing with nothing less than the prehistory of modern social-theoretical ideas of modernity. These ideas—in novels by Max Kretzer, Wilhelm von Polenz, Conrad Alberti, Peter Rosegger, Ernst von Wildenbruch und Michael Georg Conrad as well as in the foundational texts of early sociology—gained from processual assumptions that apply ideas of anomie and disintegration to a formerly homogenous social body. For this reason, i.e., owing to the necessity of shaping social transformations as processes in time, the novel and sociology come together in the inescapability of narration as a self-constituting moment of modernity.

The pattern suggested here can be substantiated in the work of all classical sociologists: in Tönnies it is the disjunction of society and community; in Simmel it is the idea of “social differentness” based on a previous “primitive grouping”; in Durkheim it is the distinction between “mechanical” and “organic” solidarity; lastly, in Weber, it is in the early national-economic writings on the breakdown of corporative structures in the East Elbian region. This is incidentally a local partial process of modernization which is also a topic for Polenz in the same period.  In analogous fashion, the social novel--almost fully neglected by researchers—relates narratives of the decline of craftsmanship (Kretzer: Meister Timpe [1889], Wildenbruch: Meister Balzer [1893]), on the downfall of the large landowners (Polenz: Der Büttnerbauer [1895], Rosegger: Jakob der Letzte [1887]), on the disintegration of corporative paternalism (Polenz: Der Grabenhäger [1897]), on the profound conflict between the generations (Alberti: Die Alten und die Jungen [1889]) or on dematerialization of the social in the ubiquitous contractual relationships of modernity (Conrad: Was die Isar rauscht [1888]).

Three points of view are central to the research project:

  1. The formation of time
    Durkheim’s early critique of Tönnies revealed early on that typological formation of ideas in sociology was impossible without thinking about “development”. Were one to borrow narratological terms to distinguish the level of histoire from discourse in the foundational texts of early sociology, one would repeatedly encounter indexicalizations of time and analeptic narrative signals. Precisely because social modernization refers constitutively to representation as a process, the conceptual constitution of sociology is less a matter of substrates formed by experience and more a compulsion to represent, which initially derived the disjunctive status of “community” and “society” on non-explicit narrative grounds.

  2. Myth of indebtedness and enmity
    At the same problem-site – the transmission of organic into mechanical social forms—the social novel can narrate in a less objectionable ways. It does this by visualizing the modernization process through myths of culpable discord (schuldhafte Entzweiung). Virtually all novels follow this pattern by letting the sons step out out of the continuum of solidarity and honor through which the fathers maintain their roles as guarantors of the community. Coming under the spell of this “betrayal” is everyone who has initated conflicts by theft, extortion or breach of contract—conflicts which flow directly through the symbolic body of the family. To this extent, the social novel touches upon a figuration of the “enemy” that corresponds to the structure of antagonistic narratives.

  3. Logic of the supplement
    When it is the case that communities are uncovered in history as an experiential substrate of the social whole, their construction gains inexorably a supplementary status. “Community” is the name given to the loss of an origin that never existed. It functions in temporal terms as a “deferred” social supplement, in narratological terms as a necessary narrative corollary without which modernization processes could not be represented. In this way, the long standing controversy between ontological and deconstructive versions of “thinking the community” can be rendered less dramatic, insofar as one emphasizes the constitutive function of narration and the interplay of literary fiction and cultural semantics.