Translation and Its Consequences in Qualitative Social Research: On Distinguishing "the Social" from "the Societal"

Wolff-Michael Roth


The translation of research texts between different languages is a possible impossible (ROTH, 2013). With translation come serious dangers for theorizing when words are translated into terms that do not cover the same conceptual field. This study investigates one such instance, which pertains to the difference between the social and the societal, and which possibly has devastating effects on many theories in the sociocultural, cultural-historical, and societal historical tradition. In the German and Russian versions of his works, Karl MARX used apparently quite distinctly the equivalents of the English adjectives "social [sozial, social'nyj]" and "societal [gesellschaftlich, obščestvennyj]." Many scholars do not distinguish the two notions, and in English, both are translated into "the social." This article exhibits the conceptual distinction MARX makes by explicitly tying the emergence of the universal to society (exemplified in value) rather than to any smaller social group. In this vein, some phenomena, such as consciousness or the psyche are virtually always societal [gesellschaftlich, obščestvennyj]. Implications are sketched for the possibility of quite differently reading philosophical and psychological works in the MARXIAN tradition when the distinction is made.


social; society; societal; consciousness; ideal, universal; particular; translation; interpretation

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