Ralf Dahrendorf studied at Hamburg University between 1947 and 1952, becoming a doctor of philosophy and classics in 1952. He continued his academic research at London School of Economics under Karl Popper as a Leverhulme Research Scholar in 1953–54, gaining a PhD degree in sociology in 1956. He was a professor of sociology in Hamburg (1957–60), Tübingen (1960–64) and Konstanz (1966–69).
From 1968 to 1969, he was a member of the Parliament of Baden-Württemberg, and from 1969 to 1970 he was a member of the German parliament for the Freie Demokratische Partei (Free Democratic Party). From 1969–1970 he was also a Parliamentary Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1970 he became a Commissioner in the European Commission in Brussels.
From 1974 to 1984 he was Director of the London School of Economics. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982 and adopted British citizenship in 1988. In 1993, he was granted a life peerage and named Baron Dahrendorf of Clare Market in the City of Westminster.