Mikael Carleheden

Mikael Carleheden

Associate Professor

Current research

• On the logic and method of theorizing
• The transformation of critical theory
• Conceptions of freedom in sociological theory
• Different aspects of the transformation of modernity

Participant of the research group Culture and Civil society, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen


Spring: Critique of society: The Frankfurt School, Foucault and Boltanski (Master course)

Fall: Classical and contemporary sociological theory (Bachelor course, fifth semester)

History of research

I was accepted to the PhD program at the Department of Sociology at Lund University, Sweden in 1984 (but, which at the time was the rule, received funding two years later). I began an evaluation of a treatment centre for drug addicts in southern Sweden. This evaluation would provide material for a PhD thesis on the causes of drug addiction. This work in turn would be a continuation of my master thesis ("Drug addiction - a survival strategy" Lund, 1984), which was based on a number of interviews with drug addicts at St. Lars Hospital in Lund, Sweden.

However, I became increasingly interested in epistemological/methodological and social theoretical issues in general and in Jürgen Habermas’s works specially. In 1989 I received funding (Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst, Swedish Institute, Bröderna Söderbergs stiftelser and Hultengrenska fonden) to study for and be supervised by JürgenHabermas (Department of Philosophy, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main) and stayed there for 4 years (also studying philosophy and translating Habermas to Swedish). I also became (1994-1997) a Swedish coordinator for a Nordic network on “Political theory and philosophy of right” led by Gorm Harste (University of Aarhus, Denmark) and funded by Norfa/Nordic Council of Ministers.

My PhD thesis was a work in social theory. Habermas's theory was at the centre, but I contrasted his theory against both classical (Marx, Durkheim, Weber) and contemporary social theory (liberalism, postmodernism and communitarianism). I used primarily Habermas's theory to explore the fundamental sociological question of social integration under modern conditions, which was linked to the question of democracy from a sociological perspective. An earlier version of Chapter 2 of the thesis (on Habermas’s critique of Marx) was awarded the Swedish Sociological Association’s "Torgny Segerstedt Prize" for best article in Sociologisk Forskning 1994. In the last chapter of the thesis I developed a theory of personal identity. This theory, was developed further immediately after the PhD thesis in a gender theoretical context. I was part of and coordinated (1995-1997) a Nordic research network on “Masculinty” within the context of the Nordic Summer University (funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers). It should also be added that already before the defence of my PhD thesis, I worked in a project (funded by the Swedish research council, HSFR) led by Professor Margareta Bertilsson (Lund/Copenhagen) "Rätten i förvandling” (Law in transformation. Before the defence of the PhD thesis I interviewed also both Habermas and Michael Walzer. Both interviews have been published in more languages than I have been able to keep track of.

Social theory, on both macro and micro level, continued to be in the centre of my research also after my PhD thesis. Habermas and the third generation of the critical theory of the Frankfurt school still play a crucial role in my research. On the one hand I continued, just as in my PhD thesis, to confront this school with other social theoretical paradigms (currently the later Foucault and French pragmatism). On the other, I apply the results of this basic theoretical research on more specific topics. I have, ever since my PhD thesis, worked on four different, but related, more specific research topics.

The first research topic is the most general and is about the construction of a theory of social change. The premise here is on one hand a critique of the neo-classical character of Habermas’s and many others’ social theories, which involves that modernization is to be understood as a gradual development. On the other hand, it is a critique of the frequent but, in my opinion, unsatisfactory attempts to capture contemporary society in terms of late modernity, postmodernity, etc. (e.g. Beck, Giddens, Bauman). My general thesis is that the modern history of society instead must be understood in terms of structural transformation, i.e. as a transition from one epoch to another within modernity and with intermediate crises. This general topic of research is linked to the discussion of "multiple modernities". Inspired by Johann Arnason (Professor emeritus La Trobe University, Australia) and Peter Wagner (Professor, Universitat de Barcelona), I distinguish however “multiple modernities” from “successive modernities" and my focus is on the latter. Both Arnason and Wagner have participated in a research group on Cornelius Castoriadis at the Nordic summer university (2007-2009) in which I also participated and together with Arnason I also formulated a research project which unfortunately did not receive any funding. This first research topic was first developed during my time as assistant professor at Aalborg University. Among other things I organized an international conference on this topic (together with Michael Hviid Jacobsen, Aalborg University). These talks where later published in an anthology. Later I also edited (together with Christian Borch, Copenhagen Business school) a special issue of Distinktion – Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory on “successive modernities”.

The second research topic is an application of the first on the question of democracy. The hypothesis is that modern democracy historically has undergone structural transformations. I argue, among other things, that we can only understand democracy's current crisis from such a transformation perspective. Further, from this perspective democracy issues are discussed in a sociological, rather than legal or political science perspective. Democracy is related primarily to structural development of the civil society outside the formal political institutions. This research topic was developed during my time as post doc at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University (I was invited by Professor Jean L. Cohen and funded by STINT, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education). I have in this context also been discussing the meaning and possibility of "deliberative democracy”, for instance in a network led by Rune Premfors (professor at Department of Political Science and Score, Stockholm University). Among other things we organized an international conferernce - ”Deliberation and Democratic Governance – funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond , the Swedish  Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. I have also participated in the research school "Conditions of Democracy" at Örebro University where I 2004 worked as Professor pro tempore. I was one of the editors of an anthology that captured the research of this research school. Two of my PhD students wrote their thesis within the framework. It should be added that in this context also I cooperated with the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions in their "civil dialogue project". Recently I was invited by my former PhD student Katarzyna Jezierska (now post doc at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and Leszek Koczanowicz (Professor at The Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Wroclaw, Poland) to a conference in Wroclaw, Poland about “Democracy in dialogue – dialogue in democracy”. The outcome of this conference is now published in an edited volume.

This second research topic took also an educational turn. I became 2002 part of a project (funded by the Swedish Research Council) on “Education and Communication” led by Tomas Englund (Professor of Education at Örebro University). The idea was here to transfer the notion of deliberative democracy to a school context. My role in the project was to theoretically develop this notion.

While my second topic of research is a macro-oriented application of the first research topic, my third research topic is rather a micro-oriented application. Together with Professor Carl-Göran Heidegren and associate professor Bo Isenberg (both Lund University) I started 2003 a project (funded by the Swedish Research Council) which had Weber’s concept "conduct of life" as its basic conceptual point of departure. Using this concept, I was able to bring together my early attempts to work out a theory of personal identity with a theory of structural transformation at the micro-level. The thesis is thus that during the history of modern society also a structural transformation of the conduct of life and personal identity has occurred. In order to develop this thesis I was 2003 invited to the Department of Sociology at University of Chicago as a visiting scholar by Professor Hans Joas (funded by STINT, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education). This third topic of research was related to the Örebro University's research group "People's living conditions - opportunities, barriers and opening processes”. As full professor at Örebro University, I also built up a comprehensive research plan ("Interaction, transformation and social pathologies") which served as a platform for research applications for colleagues and my former Ph.D.-students. This research topic occupy me currently more than the second one (for instance I gave two presentations at the latest ISA world conference in Gothenburg – one of them together with assistant Professor Emma Engdahl at Aalborg University (now University of Gothenburg) - and edited another special issue of Distinktion on the topic. Further, in 2012 I was invited and funded by Halmstad University, Sweden to develop a similar research platform as the one I developed in Örebro. I formulated two projects together with colleagues at Halmstad University: “The morality of the present: On the significance of ideals for individual conduct of life” and “Contemporary social pathologies: On the social causes of new forms of suffering”. I am also currently also involved in an international network on social pathologies led by my former Ph.D.-student Anders Petersen (today associate professor at Aalborg University, Denmark) and Professor Kieran Keohane (University College Cork, Ireland). In  June 2013, I gave a talk at a conference which was a cooperation between this network and the International Social Theory Consortium (led by Professor Stephen Turner, University of Florida) and in August the same year I gave a key note talk on the same topic (“Towards a conception of critical social psychology: Self-realization, social pathologies and critique”) at the The Fourth Conference of the European Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction at Uppsala University, Sweden. In the Fifth Conference of European Society of Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Aalborg University Denmark 2014 I chaired two sessions and gave also a talk. My cooperation with Anders Petersen and Kieran Keohane also continues in the form of a special issue on “Social Pathologies of Contemporary Civilization – Explorations and Critique” for Distinktion – Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory (Forthcoming 2016).

The fourth research topic deals with theory of science and methodology. Even though most sociologists today (at least in theory) agree that “facts are theory dependent” there is surprisingly little written on the topic of how to theorize, i.e. theoretical method. I am not thinking in the lines of “Grounded theory” but, on the contrary, of how social theorists (e.g. Habermas, Luhmann and Honneth) proceed when the construct their theories; often without doing any empirical research of their own. Only recently I have had the chance to develop this line of thought. Together with Professor Richard Swedberg (Cornell University) I gave 2010 a PhD course in Copenhagen on “Theorizing” and was invited by Swedberg to a panel on the subject at the Swedish Sociological Association annual meeting 2011 at Stockholm University and has since then given several talks on the subject of Theorizing, published 2 articles and one review of Swedberg’s latest book. I have also been ask to write an article on Theorizing in Michiru Nagatsu (Ed.) Frontiers of Social Science: A Philosophical Reflection” (Bloomsbury Publishing, Forthcoming 2016). I have further signed a contract with Ashgate to write a book on this subject with the preliminary title On Theorizing: C.S. Peirce and Contemporary Social Science. Last year I also applied for funding together with three colleagues at my department for a common research project on the subject of Theorizing. Swedberg, Patrick Baert (Cambridge) and Hans Joas (Humboldt) were affiliated to this project. Unfortunately the project was turned down, even though it was very highly assessed by international scholars (see documentation). We will apply again this year with an even stronger version of the same project.

This fourth topic is also related to the methodological implications of doing Critical theory in a scientific context. In sociology critique of society has had a significant role since its founding fathers. I have from my PhD thesis to my latest publication discussed the concept of critique. For some years now I have also given a course on Classic and contemporary sociological theory. In this course I use the concept of freedom as a general theme, i.e. the development of the history of social theory is discussed from the perspective of how freedom- explicitly or implicitly - is understood. With this setup of the course students learn to question the crude distinction between facts and norms which still characterize many conceptions of social science and to reflect over the role of critique in social theory. I plan to write another book on this subject. The idea was presented already in 2011 at the Social Theory Research network, ESA in Geneva and in a review article together with Michael Hviid Jacobsen (Aalborg University) of Gunnar Aakvaag’s book Frihed in 2013.

Selected publications

  1. Published

    Dialogue and Critique: On the Theoretical Conditions of a Critique of Society

    Carleheden, Mikael, 2015, Democracy in dialogue, dialogue in democracy: the politics of dialogue in theory and practice. Jezierska, K. & Koczanowicz, L. (eds.). Ashgate, p. 37-55 18 p.

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review

  2. Published

    On Theorizing: C.S. Peirce and Contemporary Social Science

    Carleheden, Mikael, 2014, Sisäisyys & suunnistautuminen: juhlakirja Jussi Kotkavirralle . Laitinen, A., Saarinen, J., Ikäheimo, H., Lyyra, P. & Niemi, P. (eds.). SoPhi 125 Jyväskylän yliopisto, p. 428-459 32 p.

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review

  3. Published

    The Imaginary Significations of Modernity: A Re-Examination

    Carleheden, Mikael, 2010, In: Distinktion : Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory. 11, 2, p. 51-70 20 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

ID: 12691917