La Trobe
42344_SOURCE01_3_A.pdf (2.16 MB)

The Anxiety of Ascent - Middle-Class Narratives in Germany and America

Download (2.16 MB)
posted on 2023-01-18, 18:22 authored by Scott Kenneth Doidge
This thesis examines a narrative of cultural decline that developed in the wake of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Weber, and a group of influential sociologists that followed, Western modernity is marked by an increasing disenchantment with the bourgeois values that had previously given a sense of structure and meaning to life. Despite its unparalleled material achievements, the modern West in this reading is suffering from a crisis of meaning and is no longer able to provide authoritative answers the only really important question: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’ With this question in mind, this thesis explores two influential visions of middle-class life: the German bourgeois ideal of the late nineteenth century and the American middle class in the 1950s-1960s. The case studies were chosen because they share several key social facts. Both periods were marked by unprecedented economic development, social mobility and consolidation of values and aspirations commonly associated with middle-class life. They were also remarkably fecund periods of social enquiry that shaped many of the central themes and questions of the sociological tradition. The case studies are built on a close reading of a contemporary and retrospective text for each of the periods. In the German case, Gustav Freytag’s novel Debt and Credit (1855) is read against Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901). In the American example, attention shifts to television. An examination of the domestic comedy Father Knows Best (1954-1960) is followed by a reading of the cable television drama Mad Men (2007-2015). Following a well established tradition within the sociology of culture, these texts were selected for their extraordinary popularity and cultural influence. The conclusion draws the central themes in all four stories together and considers the enduring accuracy of Weber’s diagnosis.

Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University, Bundoora.

This thesis was a recipient of the Nancy Millis Award for theses of exceptional merit.


Center or Department

College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. Department of Social Inquiry.

Thesis type

  • Ph. D.

Awarding institution

La Trobe University

Year Awarded


Rights Statement

This thesis contains third party copyright material which has been reproduced here with permission. Any further use requires permission of the copyright owner. The thesis author retains all proprietary rights (such as copyright and patent rights) over all other content of this thesis, and has granted La Trobe University permission to reproduce and communicate this version of the thesis. The author has declared that any third party copyright material contained within the thesis made available here is reproduced and communicated with permission. If you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact us with the details.

Data source

arrow migration 2023-01-10 00:15. Ref: latrobe:42344 (9e0739)

Usage metrics

    Open Theses


    No categories selected



    Ref. manager