Weber has a place in history as one of the founders of sociological thought. His ideas, which spanned subjects from economic history to the sociology of music, continue to be extremely influential to the present day.
If one were asked to cite two traditions apparently most influential amongst contemporary political sociologists, one might well cite the traditions initiated by Karl Marx and by Max Weber. Weber has been described, by one of his commentators as ‘the best known and most important sociological theorists today.’
The most crucial way in which Weber differs from the great Marx is that Weber engages with culture; whereas Marx does not.
It is with his standing as one of the founding fathers of sociology that this essay will attempt to outline some of Weber’s most influential works and examine some of his most acclaimed theories.
Webarian Theories and Observations
“Weberian sociology is inspired by two negations … No science (of society) can ever tell men [sic] how they should live or societies how they should be organised; and no science can ever tell humanity what its future is. The first negation distinguishes him from Durkheim, the second from Marx.” (Aron. l967: I97)
Weber rejects Marx’ s ‘objective’ definition of class. He agrees that class is Importantly based on economic position, but sees many variations in economic position. Also, Weber himself argues “One’s status in society is not necessarily related to economic position. It is the dictatorship of the officials, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, that 1s marching on.” (Weber, cited in Macrae 1974: 87) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (PESC)
Weber (against Marx) does not accept that people’s actions can be explained in terms of economic interests alone, or that capitalism is an inevitable stage in the development of human societies. However he also stated – It is not our aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic interpretation (i.e., Marx) an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of history (Weber, cited in Lee & Newby, I989: 183)
According to the standard interpretation, Weber conceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action (Aron 1970; Coser 1977. His initial theoretical focus is on the subjective meaning that humans attach to their actions and interactions within specific social contexts. In this connection, Weber distinguishes between four major types of social action:
3. Affective action
4. Traditional action
Zweckrational can be defined as action in which the means to attain a particular goal are rationally chosen. It can be roughly translated as ”technocratic thinking.” It is often exemplified in the literature by an engineer who builds a bridge as the most efficient way to cross a river. Perhaps a more relevant example would be the modern goal of material success sought after by many young people today. Many recognize that the most efficient way to attain that success is through higher education, and so they flock to the universities in order to get a good job (Elwell I999).
Wertrational, or value-oriented, rationality, is characterized by striving for a goal which in itself may not be rational, but which is Pursued through rational means The values come from within an ethical, religious, philosophical or even holistic context–they are not rationally ”chosen.” The traditional example in the literature is of an individual seeking salvation through following the teachings of a prophet. A more secular example is of a person who attends the university because they value the life of the mind–a value that was instilled in them by parents, previous teachers, or chance encounter (Elwell I999).
Affective action is based on the emotional state of the person rather than in the rational weighing of means and ends (Coser I977). Sentiments are powerful forces in motivating human behavior. Attending university for the community life of the fraternity, or following one’s boyfriend to school would be examples.
The final type Weber labels ”traditional action.” This is action guided by custom or habit. people engage in this type of action often unthinkingly, because it is simply ”always done.” Many students attend university because it is traditional for their social class and family to attend–the expectation was always there, it was never questioned (Elwell I999).
The Protestant Work Ethic
No essay on Weber would be complete without reference to one of his most notable works ‘The Protestant Ethic’
“A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour”
Weber argued that there was a link between the emergence of Protestantism (in the 16th century) and what he termed the Protestant ethic, and the rise of capitalism. He was one of the first to see the importance of bureaucracy, which he analyzed as a form of social organistion which consisted of “a hierarchy of paid, clearly defined offices, filled by individuals selected on merit who were free and able to progress up the hierarchy, which itself was controlled from the top.”
Weber refined the analysis of social stratification, arguing, for example, that an individual’s class could depend on the possession of skills as well as on property ownership and occupation, and he stressed the role of status in social inequality.
According to Weber, “sociology should concern itself with the interpretation and explanation of social behavior, not simply with its observation and description.”
The Ideal Type
“In his effort to escape from the individualizing and particularizing approach of German Geisteswissenschaft and historicism, Weber developed a key conceptual tool, the notion of the ideal type. It will be recalled that Weber argued that no scientific system is ever capable of reproducing all concrete reality, nor can any conceptual apparatus ever do full justice to the infinite diversity of particular phenomena. All science involves selection as well as abstraction. Yet the social scientist can easily be caught in a dilemma when he chooses his conceptual apparatus. When his concepts are very general–as when he attempts to explain capitalism or Protestantism by subsuming them under the general concepts of economics or religion–he is likely to leave out what is most distinctive to them. When, on the other hand, he uses the traditional conceptualizations of the historian and particularizes the phenomenon under discussion, he allows no room for comparison with related phenomena. The notion of the ideal type was meant to provide escape from this dilemma.
Socialism and capitalism are both economic systems based on industrialization–the rational application of science, observation, and reason to the production of goods and services. Both capitalism and socialism are forms of a rational organization of economic life to control and coordinate this production. Socialism is predicated on government ownership of the economy to provide the coordination to meet the needs of people within society. If anything, Weber maintained, socialism would be even more rationalized, even more bureaucratic than capitalism. And thus, more alienating to human beings as well.
According to Weber, because bureaucracy is a form of organization superior to all others, further bureaucratization and rationalization may be an inescapable fate. “Without this form of (social) technology the industrialized countries could not have reached the heights of extravagance and wealth that they currently enjoy. All indications are that they will continue to grow in size and scope. Weber wrote of the evolution of an iron cage, a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society.”
Challenged by the Marxist theory of economic determinism, Weber combined his interest in economics with sociology in an attempt to establish, through historical study, that historical causation was not influenced merely by economic considerations. In one of his best-known works, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05; trans. 1930), he tried to prove that ethical and religious ideas were strong influences on the development of capitalism. He expanded on this theme in The Religions of the East series (3 vol., 1920-21; trans. 1952-58), in which he postulated that the prevailing religious and philosophical ideas in the Eastern world prevented the development of capitalism in ancient societies, despite the presence of favorable economic factors.
From The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 1908 On the Psychophysics of Industrial Work Since his death in 1920, the reputation of Max Weber has grown until he is now recognized as the major social theorist of the twentieth century. He is cited by political leaders, and at least one of his key technical terms, ‘charisma’, has entered everyday language.
Ideas such as ‘legitimisation’ and ‘life chances’ have become an integral part of the language of politics. He was dedicated to ‘science’, the production of knowledge by systematic and critical enquiry.
An interest in facts and the pursuit of social theory are not necessarily combined by one and the same individual, or indeed even by the same professional group. Aristotle collected facts, Marx brought theory and facts together, Weber’s work began with facts and proceeded to develop a certain kind of theory which he called sociology and which represents a distinctive intellectual response to the world.
“Weber’s science of the social operates through the interrelationship of three phases of the world we inhabit: facts, understanding and the social. Neither one of these can be denied or grasped it is also from the other two.”
Weber’s sociology uniquely captured persisting and developing features of the twentieth century. For this reason his work gains ever increasing respect. Weber’s comparative studies of religion and the social bases of nationalism as well as power and the mark provide the basis for understanding the relationship between multi-culturalism and globalisation.
Nicholas Gane argues that; “Weber became the chopping block on which critical tools necessary for reorganising society were sharpened”. There is currently a resurgence of interest in the work of Max Weber, and this is, he believes, is for three main reasons.
1. First, the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s effectively marked the decline of Marxism as a dominant paradigm of social theory.
2. This sharp collapse of the Marxist orthodoxy vindicated Weber’s analysis of modernity, and, in particular, his critique of Marx. Here, one may argue Weber’s work is currently of interest because, secondly, it establishes a theory and critique of the nature, rise and trajectory of modern culture.
3. Gane maintains that the idea of rationality is a great unifying theme in Marx and others work. Weber’s seemingly disparate empirical studies converge on one underlying aim: to characterise and explain the development of the ‘specific’ and peculiar rationalism that distinguishes modern Western civilization from every other.
His methodological investigations emphasize the universal capacity of men to act rationally and with consequent power of social science to understand as well as to explain action.
Weber’s sociology of religion contains an account of the emergence and development of modern Western culture. This account reads the history of the West in terms of two interconnected processes: the rise and spread of Occidental (instrumental) rationalism (the process of rationalization) and the accompanying disenchantment (Entzauberung) of religious superstition and myth.”
Arguably, the notion of rationalisation underlies all of Weber’s sociology. In general terms this refers to a tendency to apply a rational approach to more and more areas of social life. This is in distinction to, say, traditional approaches.
A rational approach is systematic, scientific, logical, and calculable. etc. Weber feels that this approach had become more developed in Western society, over the last 500 years or so, than in any previous period in human history.
The work of Max Weber is almost unquestionably one of the outstanding contributions to the ‘science’ of sociology. Weber’s sociology, with its philosophical justification, proved more satisfactory as a rationale for capitalism than conventional theories
A lasting merit of Max Weber is that he was the first to demonstrate the premise of socio-economic dynamics, the basis of an analysis of the nature and development of capitalism. He was quite open about the undeniable fact that it was the ruling class, which always gained most from successful imperialism.
“Thanks to this realism he could free himself from traditions, which for thousands of years have presented the war to man as a rational order informed by absolute values. What he developed in its place was an ideology of bitter disillusionment, of which he was acutely conscious, sustained not unfittingly by an heroic faith, whose greatness and force have won admiration even from those who totally reject his philosophy.”