In 2012, I spent a couple of weeks at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, working through the papers of Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 – 1932) in an effort to understand the context for his interest in sociology, the nature of his relationships with contemporary sociologists, his role in the development of the German Sociological Association, and to assess the potential of his work on energy relations for a contemporary sociology of energy. Ostwald, a singular and influential thinker, whose work is celebrated by the Wilhelm Ostwald Gesellschaft, housed in his former country residence (the so-called ‘Energy Villa’, in Großbothen), proved to be a rewarding subject. His work sheds light, in particular, on the way in which certain contemporary sociologists – Rudolf Goldscheid and Ferdinand Tönnies foremost amongst them – grappled with the question of how sociology should respond to debates about the nature of energy.
The results of my deliberations, including a new translation of Ostwald’s ‘Sociological Energetics’, have now been published in Cultural Sociology.
Sociology has largely ignored the contribution of the German Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald to the sociology of energy, mainly due to Max Weber’s (1909) dismissive reception of Ostwald’s ‘energetical thought’. This article reclaims Ostwald’s significance for contemporary sociology, through a translation and exposition of ‘Sociological Energetics’, first published in 1908 as the final chapter of a popular book on energy. Ostwald’s deliberations, which derive from his engagement in contemporary debates on thermodynamics and energetics, brought him into contact with classical sociologists, including Rudolf Goldscheid, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies and Weber. Ostwald’s contribution to sociology lies in his focus on the cultural significance of energy relations and transformations. In their encounters with Ostwald and energetics, Simmel, Tönnies and Weber all reveal the potential importance of Ostwald’s work on energy relations in thinking productively about the relationship between technology and culture.