René König

René König
by Jennifer Platt, University of Sussex, England

Born: 5 July 1906
Nationality:  German

1925-6  University of Vienna (Philosophy, Psychology and Islamic Laguages)
1926-9  Berlin University (Philosophy, Romance Languages and Ethnology), PhD.  (Thesis
title: Die naturalistische Aesthetik in Frankreich und ihre Auflösung. [The naturalistic
aesthetic in France and its resolution])
1936  Habilitation, University of Zürich (Thesis title: Kritik der historisch-existentialistischen
Soziologie: Ein Beitrag zur Begründung einer objektiven Soziologie’  [Critique of historical and existential sociology: A contribution to the creation of an objective sociology])

Posts held
1938-1953  University of Zürich [paid as a privatdozent, but doing the work of a professor]
1949-1972  Professor, University of Köln

ISA participation, main roles
1948  member, preparatory committee for the foundation of the ISA
1948-53, 1956-9, member of EC
In 1950 he acted as local organiser for the first World Congress, in Zürich; at the 1956 Amsterdam Congress he was on the Programme Committee, and gave the introductory paper for a session on ‘The Western family’; he was also on the Programme Committee for Washington in 1962, and gave a paper on ‘The nature and problems of sociological theories’.  He gave papers at the 1953 Liège Congress (on his experience of research techniques in Switzerland and Germany, arguing that there are both respondent resistances and linguistic problems which make anglo-saxon style survey interviewing difficult there), and the 1959 Stresa Congress (‘On some recent developments in the relation between theory and research’).
1959-62  Vice-President.
1962-66  President

Participation in other settings
International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation[1]

Intellectual and ISA career
König’s biography shows remarkable levels of cosmopolitanism – some arising from external circumstances, some a matter of personal choice.  As his name reflects, he had a French mother and a German father, and he was brought up bilingually.  His father worked for the League of Nations, with the result that he lived as a child in Italy, Spain and Poland, and he also had relatives who spoke Russian; he learned their languages by osmosis. At school, he studied English, Latin, Greek and ancient Hebrew, then he took Oriental languages for his minor field at university in Vienna, where he learned Turkish, and acquainted himself more superficially with Arabic, Persian, modern Hebrew, Chinese and Aztec.[2]  He then worked in Paris, Switzerland[3] and the USA before ending in Germany, but with frequent trips abroad, which included research in Britain and the USA (some of the latter on Navaho reservations). 

His period of work in Paris was to research French ethnology for his Berlin teacher Thurnwald; he also made the acquaintance of the second generation of the Durkheim school, and became deeply interested in his Durkheim’s ideas, though not with the political connotations that they then had for the French.  He had planned a Berlin habilitation in order to teach there, but a book of his was banned by the Nazis, so the political situation meant that he qualified in Zürich instead.  (König 1973)  He remained an exile there until the war was over.

His sociological interests and work were broad; he published textbooks on empirical research methods as well as on theoretical topics, and his substantive work included some on the family[4], fashion, and youth.  Hartmann (1992: 481) calls it his life-project:

‘to build a new German sociology based on empirical grounds; a sociology distinct from the historical and socio-philosophical traditions of German social sciences, and a critical reflection on their own theories and methods’. 

He took over and from 1955-1985 edited the important Köln departmental journal, the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie.  There he introduced the practice of having special issues (‘sonderhefte’), giving an overall view of a particular topic area.  He also edited an encyclopaedic work in a number of volumes appearing in the 1960s, the Handbuch der empirischen Sozialforschung, which brought together theories and tested them against the latest research as well as covering empirical methods; he regarded this as the final stage in the establishment of sociology. 

Hartmann, a former student of his, describes his impact as due as much to his personality and presence as to the quality of his written work; he was a fascinating lecturer, involved his students in many interesting projects and held open house for them.  He was well loved, and in the sixties, when students were attacking their professors, the students organised a demonstration to prevent him leaving Köln.

As the list above of ISA activities shows, he was undoubtedly one of its founding fathers, and his biography immediately makes clear how his range of experience and talents led him to the role of president.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Hartmann, Jürgen (1992)  ‘Portrait: In memoriam René König’, International Sociology 4: 481-483.
  • König, René (1935)  Das Wesen der deutschen Universität (The Nature of the German University)  [banned in Germany by the Nazis]
  • König, René (1946)  Materialien zur Soziologie der Familie
  • König, René (1949)  Soziologie Heute [translated into Dutch, Italian,Spanish and Japanese]
  • König, René (1952)  Das Interview [7th edition 1972]
  • König, René (1973)  ‘Sketches by a cosmopolitan German sociologist’. International Social Science Journal 25: 55-70.

Web site
The René König Gesellschaft (René Koenig Society) is an organisation of scholars interested in the work of René König, and in promoting further work in his spirit and tradition.  On its home page there are biographical data, a comprehensive bibliography, and a number of articles relating to König as downloads.
Several festschrifts have been produced, most published by Westdeutscher Verlag
At the end of 2013 a volume of selected papers is almost complete, and work is in progress on a double volume of letters edited by his sons.
His son Dr Oliver König is thanked for his assistance with this entry, and may be contacted for further information at

Presidential address
None given.


[1]  This was an offshoot of the League of Nations, founded in 1922, and in its functions a predecessor of UNESCO.  König did work for it for a number of years; one of his contributions was bibliographical, and he later took this to UNESCO as the ‘trend reports’ of Current Sociology. (König 1973: 65.

[2]  His publications include translations - of non-sociological works - from Russian and Italian.

[3]  This was a refuge from Nazism; he was underpaid because of his status as an émigré.  Even in Switzerland, when he wrote a book strongly critical of Nazism no Swiss publisher dared take it.

[4]  This appears to have originated relatively accidentally, in a Swiss government commission to produce a report on the family as background for a constitutional  reform  project, followed by location in Köln where Nels Anderson was based.  [See entry on Hill.]  Later, his continuing interest in the family ‘as a paradigm for applied group theory’ (König 1973: 64) sounds idiosyncratic, but suggests how this could fit into his broader interests.