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Since its foundation in 1923, the Institute for Social Research has regarded itself as a site of critical social theory.

Initially devoted to the theory and history of socialism and of the labor movement, the theoretical orientation of the Institute developed under the direction of Max Horkheimer into a program around which intellectuals such as Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Otto Kirchheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Friedrich Pollock and others gathered. This orientation later came to be known as »Frankfurt School Critical Theory«. Closed down in early 1933, the Institute managed to relocate to Columbia University in New York and returned to Frankfurt in 1951. Since then its administrative budget has been funded by the State of Hesse and the City of Frankfurt, whereas its research activities are funded by external sources.

Oversight of the IfS is the responsibility of the foundation »Institute for Social Research«, which was granted nonprofit status by the Hesse Ministry of the Interior in 1951.

The current work of the Institute aims to unite the wide-ranging research in social science and social philosophy into an overarching research program »Paradoxes of Capitalist Modernization« and to contribute to a critical understanding of structural changes in society. This program, which has been followed since 2001, has the character of a framework thesis or an analytical perspective. It is not intended to set limits to the variety of topics or the range of methodologies pursued at the Institute.