What do sociologists write about when they write about themselves? The question hardly ever occurred to the classics: Weber, Sombart, Simmel, Durkheim, Mauss, Pareto, Mosca never wrote autobiographies. Nor was the next generation more inclined to take up the challenge: Parsons and Merton, Halbwachs and Gurvitch, Marshall and Ginsberg, Mannheim, Gehlen or Freyer showed no interest in narrating their own life trajectories. Exceptions to this rule are few and far between, commonly located on the social margins of the tradition. Of the first cohort, W. E. B. Du Bois published no fewer than three autobiographies, in which first-hand knowledge of the American South is filtered through family history and meditations on race, labour and politics provide intimate guides to a life of scholarship and activism. From the second generation, Sorokin’s A Long Journey tells a story of exile, from Red Petrograd to Cambridge, Massachusetts, tightly wrapped in anti-communism.

Immigration naturally defined the fate of a number of sociologists coming of age during the Weimar Republic: Norbert Elias recounted his life on the move from Frankfurt to Amsterdam, via Paris, Leicester and Accra; younger still, Reinhard Bendix recalled his relocation from Brandenburg to California—both Jewish refugees whose autobiographies resonated with the experience of an entire generation of émigré scholars driven out of Central Europe in the 1930s. In addition to racial oppression and political persecution, the postwar epoch added class as a major theme for sociologists’ autobiographies. This was mostly an American phenomenon of mavericks overcoming early hardships, intellectual and social: Robert Nisbet’s paean to the country’s greatest public university, tuition ‘virtually nonexistent at Berkeley in the thirties’; Edward Shils cutting his teeth on Weber’s German syntax during hot summer nights in Philadelphia; Daniel Bell picking up leftover potatoes and bruised tomatoes at the wholesale vegetable markets on the West Side before joining his reading group on Marx’s Capital; Peter Berger attending evening classes at the New School after nine-to-five working-days; Clifford Geertz entering college on the gi Bill. And as George Homans of Harvard University writes in Coming to My Senses—recalling his growing up among Boston’s upper class, pampered by three Irish maids and one cook—class was not just about upward mobility: ‘it is in the matter of servants that the life I lived then differed most from the one I live now’.

No comparable yield was ever recorded in Europe. Here, more modest output was compensated by higher quality. Hoggart’s trilogy, A Measured Life, is as much a social history of class relations from Beveridge to Thatcher as the autobiography of Britain’s pioneer student of popular culture. Bulked up to over a thousand pages, Raymond Aron’s Mémoirs has no counterpart among sociologists, or indeed among social scientists in general. Aron’s doorstopper invites comparison with the recollections of major political figures of the twentieth century, and reads more like a running political commentary delivered at the end of a life of public engagement, with occasional vignettes about passing intellectual fashions in Paris and changing political moods at the Élysée, a fitting companion to the author’s book length interview Le spectateur engagé. The differences with Sartre’s Les Mots could not be greater. Finally, a countercharge against both Aron and Sartre, Bourdieu’s Esquisse pour une auto-analyse is the masterpiece of the genre, the product of a research agenda—or, more precisely, of a trenchant critique of any narratives of the authorial self pursued in scholastic ignorance of the social constraints that determine one’s life course. Yet this one, too, is largely a story of upward mobility that offers a glimpse into how a young man of modest origins ended up as France’s most notable sociologist and why the post-war Union française alone—equality masking privilege in the metropole, modernization spelling dispossession in the colonies—could produce Pierre Bourdieu.

It was not for a lack of talent that German sociologists hardly reached similar heights of excellence. Luminaries of two successive postwar generations—Habermas and Luhmann in the first, Offe and Beck in the second—seemed impervious to introspection, at least in any recognizable literary form. The one exception was Hans Albert’s In Kontroversen verstrickt, who told the intertwined story of his personal conversion to Popperian rationalism and of Germany’s transformation into an ‘open society’. Still, the generation that saw combat in the Second World War was even less inclined to such exercises, not least due to some of the sociologists having sympathized with National Socialism during the 1930s. Catapulted to Lehrstühle after 1945, this cohort opted at best to claim centre-stage in re-establishing the discipline in the Federal Republic; more commonly it kept silent, blending in with the rest of German society up to the unruly 1960s. Former Stormtrooper Helmut Schelsky was a case in point.

Until recently, the field was thus occupied by only two works of distinction, both impeccably mandarin: René König’s Leben im Widerspruch and Ralf Dahrendorf’s more recent Über Grenzen. A generation apart, the two men shared so much in common that both chose the metaphor of border-crossing as a major theme of their autobiographies. Born to a French mother and a German father, König moved effortlessly between cultures, translating from Italian, pitching L’Année Sociologique to a German audience, finding refuge in Zurich after scuffles with the Nazi regime in the mid-1930s. Finally, from his postwar base at the University of Cologne, König imported American positivism, building up a school of German sociologists trained on ‘research methods’ and dispatched to explore empirically the emerging world of the ‘social market’, the dominant topic of the epoch. For his part, Dahrendorf moved with ease between academia and politics, first in his native land and then, later in life, in Britain. By social origin and personal conviction, both were liberal, cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial. Intellectually, they were essentially middlemen, Dahrendorf the slightly more original of the two and the one whose scholarship travelled beyond the confines of the discipline.

Oskar Negt’s autobiography, recently published in two instalments—Überlebensglück (2016) and Erfahrungsspuren (2019)—is the latest addition to the genre. The titles don’t translate easily: ‘Survivors’ Luck: An Autobiographical Search for Tracks’ and ‘Tracks of Experience: An Autobiographical Thought-Journey’ would be clumsy approximations, though ‘tracks’ might equally be rendered as the more metaphorical ‘traces’, while Glück has the double sense in German of both happiness and luck. In appraising the two volumes, we might first recall that Negt’s work is hard to classify, his influence impossible to distil: a gargantuan body of texts, myriad philosophical commentaries (on Kant and Hegel, Marx and Comte, various figures of twentieth-century Western Marxism) standing side by side with studies of labour sociology, organizational theory, political journalism, media and much more. No single discipline can encompass such diversity, although for much of his career Negt occupied a chair in sociology at the University of Hanover. Thematically, three overlapping concerns can be detected: first, labour, understood anthropologically as a fundamental human activity, the ultimate source of both collective wealth and personal dignity; second, pedagogy, in its most expansive sense; finally, politics, viewed largely as a struggle for autonomy that is pursued across all spheres of social life.

The centrepiece of this oeuvre, however, is Negt’s collaboration with the film director and writer Alexander Kluge, which resulted in three major volumes spread over twenty years, the first two—Public Sphere and Experience (1972) and History and Obstinacy (1981)—available in English translation. Published in the early 1990s, the last of the triptych—Maßverhältnisse des Politischen—is a recapitulation of arguments presented in the first two, updated to account for the transformation of the political after the collapse of state socialism and the parallel hollowing out of the left in the rest of Europe. It is also their most personal book. Allied carpet-bombing of German cities and civilian retreat from Eastern Europe as the Red Army marched westwards are evoked as biographical landmarks, ‘awakenings’ that shaped the authors’ early understanding of politics. Such traumatic experiences and their narrativized form as short stories—Lebensläufe—have always played a key role in Kluge’s work. Now, with the publication of Negt’s autobiography, we get the chance to follow the life course of the other member of the duo, from the Second World War and the student movement of 1968, via socialist activism and apprenticeship under Adorno and Habermas, to defence of the rights of ‘living labour’.