Compare and contrast any two social theorists’ accounts of the operation of ‘the social’

During the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Max Weber were two of the most influential sociologists, but they concentrated on different themes and constructed differing theories relating to ‘the social’. I will go on to introduce both theorists’ and their main accounts of how ‘the social’ operates, highlighting the key areas the two theorists disagree on, as well as the common ideas.

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818. Marx’s work mostly concerned with the idea of history as a social process involving change and contradictions, basing most of his ideas around capitalism. He argued that history develops due to the economic activity of societies, emphasising the importance of economy in all his works, believing that all the other parts of a society, politics, culture and social life, are seen as the result of economic relationships.

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Max Weber was born in 1864 in Erfurt, Germany. Weber believed that Marx focussed too much on economics, and believed in fact that capitalism was the product of a new way of thinking. As Giddens (1993) wrote, Max Weber was “deeply influenced” by the tradition to differentiate between the problems of the social and the natural sciences. Clearly the theorists employed different ways of thinking; where Marx was concerned to explain social phenomena in primarily economic terms, Weber sought to illustrate social phenomena in cultural terms. I will firstly look at both interpretations of ‘social class’, and this was key in both theorists’ work.

Both theorists were in agreement about the actual existence of the various classes in society, and both in fact believed that class conflict “portrays society as a battleground, as an arena of conflict between different groups” (Brown, 1979; p76). However disagreement did arise as to how this occurred. This is where the essential difference between Weber and Marx comes.

For Weber modern bureaucracy was crucial in understanding Industrial Society. According to Weber, the specialisation of labour under Industrial Society did not lead into the splitting into two distinct opposed classes in which the seeds of development and change where sown. Rather a number of classes, related to life style and chances, developed. Weber felt that Marx’s stress on class, or economic factors, had led him to underestimate the importance of status factors.

Marx investigates just two of the economic classes; the bourgeoisie, whom own the means of production, and the proletariat, who do not. As Best (2003; p50) writes, “these two groups have a structural conflict of interest: to make profits the bourgeoisie must exploit the proletariat, while to improve their own living standards the proletariat must reduce the profits of the bourgeoisie by transferring more profit to the workers as wages”. Marx views this relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as an exploitative one, saying that the bourgeoisie in fact exploit the proletariat.

Weber agrees with Marx that class can be said to be divided into two groups, workers and owners, but disagrees that socially related interests are not occurring. This is what Weber means when he maintained that Marx concentrated on one-sided debate, the economic, and ignored the social and cultural factors occurring.

Weber argues that classes develop in market economies in which individuals compete for economic gain. He defines a class as a group of individuals who share a similar position in a market economy, and receive similar economic rewards. Therefore, according to Weber, a person’s class situation is basically their market situation. Their market situation will directly affect their chances of obtaining those things defined as desirable in society, for example access to higher education, good quality housing and health care.

Marx attempted to reduce all forms inequality to social class and argued that classes formed the only significant groups in society. Weber argued that there exists a more complex interaction of factors when it comes to determining social stratification. Weber discusses the concept of class extensively. He recognises the existence of classes. However, unlike Marx, he rejects the idea of the working classes as being a revolutionary class. This is as a result of Weber’s general claim that class is unlikely to be the basis upon which individuals form communities. For Weber communities will more likely be based upon status. Weber defined status as a subjective social ranking based upon prestige.

Like Marx, Weber argues that the major class division is between those who own the means of production and those who do not. However, Weber sees important differences in the market situation of the property-less groups in society, that is, different occupations and skills are judged as having different market values. Therefore factors other than ownership can affect social stratification. While economic class forms one possible basis for group formation, collective action and the acquisition of political power, Weber argues that there are other bases for these activities. In particular, groups form because their members share a similar “status situation.” Occupations, ethnic and religious groups and, most importantly, lifestyles are accorded differing degrees of prestige or esteem by members of society.

Marx goes on to compose the ‘Base-Superstructure’ model of societies, which for Marx defines the relationship between the economy and the rest of society. As Brown (1979; p56) explains, this “tends to divide society into two components – the economic base which provides the material needs for life, and the rest. The rest included the family, education systems, religion… the structure and life of all these social institutions is shaped by the economic base”. Marx emphasised how the superstructure was dependent upon and shaped by the base. The state, cultural life and social institutions are considered by Marx to be part of the Superstructure .The key link between the base/infrastructure and the superstructure in societies is established by the class relationships of the given society. It is the class relationships which act as the link between the economy and the politics and culture of a society.

However, this idea can appear to simplistic as is tends to ignore that the relationship between economy and society is not entirely one-way; “for instance, the direction in which a particular mode of production develops will be affected by the superstructure which it first gave birth to… Nevertheless Marx continues to insist that the method most useful for analysing social relationships is the materialist method” (Brown, 1979; p65). In contrast to Marx, Weber perceived social institutions and structures as the product of social action, as oppose to economy; individuals are said to socially construct the society in which they live. Weber highlights that this ignores that individual ideas and culture can influence the economic base in the first and last instance, and, in fact, totally subvert social reality; and that by postulating a one sided account of social reality through using economic factors alone, Marx disallowed for understanding of the whole of social reality.

With the rise of capitalism, Weber was concerned about how highly impersonal the system had become. Weber called this system bureaucracy. This system depended on people who were appointed to a position. Weber saw that this system even existed in a democratic society. This system was impersonal but it was efficient. It was a highly organized way of doing work. Marx had also agreed that bureaucracy was a part of capitalism, but he had seen it as an inefficient circle; “Weber argues that bureaucracy and democracy stand in a paradoxical relation to one another. By its very nature, bureaucracy promotes the centralisation of power in the hands of a minority: those at the apex of the organisation. Marx regarded the expropriation of the mass of the population in a capitalist society, from control of their means of production as the source both of exploitative class domination and of the limited character of bourgeois democracy” (Giddens, 1986; p82).

Marx based his theory on the dialectic of the proletariat. What Weber criticised was that Marx did not define the proletariat in respect to their relations to the rest of society. In essence what Weber is saying is that one’s actions with respect to others define who one is in society. For Weber this is where Marx failed to define who the proletariat are in relation to the others in society. Marx defines the proletariat in terms of their relation to the means of production, but not in their actions. However as Giddens (1986; p86) wrote “Weber’s concentration upon problems of bureaucratic domination… led him to underestimate the salience of Marx’s critique of the capitalist state”. Where Marx focussed on the causes and effects of capitalism, Weber looked more into bureaucracy and how it was of great significance in society.

Marx seemed to think all actions were of economic reasoning, but Weber believed actions were more ‘thoughtful’ than Marx suggests. Weber constructed a typology of the different forms of social action and suggested that for all forms of social action, one of the four ‘Ideal-Types’ are involved. The first is ’emotional’ social action which is motivated by the human emotion, such as love and anger, and was therefore seen as spontaneous. Weber refers to the second form of social action as ‘traditional’, motivated by habit. The third type is ‘value-rational’; these forms of social action are motivated by an abstract ideal, such as ‘God’. The final type, is referred to as ‘instrumental-rational’ social action, motivated by reaching a goal. But even though this is more complex than Marx’s ideas of action, this can still be seen as simplistic as Weber tries to categorise all actions within these boundaries; Best (2003; p118) agreed and wrote “social action is much more subjective than Weber had described and has a much richer variety of intentions underpinning it”.

As we have seen, there are similarities in the theories. The underlying theme in both of the theories is that capitalism grew from a personal society to a highly impersonal society. Although they have different reasons as to why capitalism rose, they both agree as to what it became; Weber felt that the impersonal society was represented in the bureaucratic power, and Marx saw the impersonal system in the alienation of the proletariat workers. The fundamental difference is, as Best (2003; p6) explains, that “Marx concerns himself more with ‘social relations’, looking at the transformation of capitalism by socialism and the critique of political economy, where as Weber concentrates his theories more on ‘social action'”.

Although I am in agreement with Weber that Marx tended to be slightly narrow-minded in his views of society, some of the ideas he did concentrate on, such as class conflict, were very well defined and thorough. As Brown (1979; p58) wrote, “the concept of class is Marx’s most valuable contribution to sociology”. However I do feel that Weber’s accounts of society are more realistic as he looks at a larger scale in order to explain it, giving more reasoned accounts of how society operates. It is therefore the combination of these views that allow us to understand ‘the social’, it would be unrealistic to rely solely on the accounts of just one theorist. In this case, Weber’s ‘social action’ and Marx’s significance of economy are important; “our ideas are shaped by the social and economic environment in which we find ourselves” (Brown, 1979; p65).