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Saturday 6 July 2013

Max Weber

Max Weber


Max Weber is conventionally described as a value-free sociologist who rose above politics. His work is assumed to have a timeless quality that is not at all related to the debates within his own society at the time. Weber was primarily concerned with three central issues. These emerge in Weber’s earliest writings but they continue throughout his life. One was the question of empire: why was imperialism in Germany’s interest? The second was the leadership of Germany: after its unification, who was to lead the German nation? Finally, there was the question of class division and the rise of Marxism: how best was Marxism to be combated? In the following section a brief overview of his methodology and some of his major works are described.


Early sociology tried to model itself on the natural sciences and sought to import their methods into the study of society. The positivist school of Auguste Comte was the most ambitious in this regard. It believed that the process of observation and comparison of social phenomena would eventually yield evidence of social laws. These in turn would enable the sociologist to predict future behaviour and so develop a certain power to control events. The positivist approach put primary emphasis on observable human behaviour. But soon questions emerged. What if our observations were biased by our culture, language or the peculiar features of our mind? In addition, where did mental activity, which was unobservable, fit into this? What role did interpretation and choice play in constructing the social order?
Weber’s sociology became part of the revolt against positivism. Philosophically, he was influenced by German idealism, which assigned a huge role to the human mind in actively constructing the observable world. Ideologically, he was deeply committed to what might be now termed a neo-liberal concept of ‘free choice’, which grew out of his support for market-based economics. Both these strands led him to a series of writings on methodology which has had enormous influence on subsequent sociologists. Weber’s writings on methodology were published posthumously in Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. This contains articles on whether knowledge about society can be objective or whether it is relative.

Individualist approach:

Weber’s sociology is based on a methodological individualism which seeks to break down collectivities such as ‘classes’ or ‘nations’ or ‘the family’ in order to see them as the outcome of social actions of individual persons. For Weber, however, choice plays a huge role in society and, therefore, in the methodology of disciplines that study it. The subject matter of sociology, he argued, was social action. Action occurs when ‘the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behaviour – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence[1]. In other words, the individual interprets, chooses, and evaluates what they are doing, according to their own distinct mental life. Action is social when the meaning given by the individual ‘takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby orientated in its course[2]’. Society is formed by individuals choosing, interpreting and acting in ways that take account of the fact that other individuals are doing likewise.

Versthen method:

A number of complex conclusions followed from this particular view of the social world. The first was the famous Verstehen method. Following the wider German idealist tradition Weber denied that the discovery of general laws added anything to our understanding of ‘why’ humans acted as they did. Even if there was strictly statistical evidence to show that all men who had been placed in a particular situation invariably reacted in a certain way, all this would show would be that their actions were calculable. Such a demonstration, he argued, would ‘contribute absolutely nothing to the project of “understanding” “why” this reaction ever occurred and, moreover, “why” it invariably occurs in the same way’[3]. What was needed instead was a method of Verstehen or understanding, which would allow us to get into the inner sense of how individuals subjectively interpreted and chose what they were doing. In Weber’s own words, the Verstehen method means,
to identify a concrete ‘motive’ or complex of motives ‘reproducible in inner experience’, a motive to which we can attribute the conduct in question with a degree of precision that is dependent upon our source material. In other words because of its susceptibility to a meaningful interpretation ... individual conduct is in principle intrinsically less ‘irrational’ than the individual natural event[4].
There are two types of Verstehen. One is a direct observational understanding where we grasp what is really going on merely through noticing facial expressions or outward behaviour. Another type is explanatory understanding where we place the action in a ‘sequence of motivation’ and so work out why it is occurring. In both cases sociology is primarily about putting oneself in another’s mind. By using precise methods to access the motives of other people we are able to understand why they acted as they did. From this point of view, the behaviour of someone you truly know is far more predictable than the weather. Notice here the implicit promise that Weber is holding out: it is possible to focus on Geist or culture or motives and still be as ‘scientific’ as the natural sciences. His aim was to rid the Verstehen method of a lazy, intuitive approach, which simply assumed there was a natural empathy between individuals. He wanted to lend it instead a ‘scientific’ rigour. Or, to put it in a broader context, to link the German idealist tradition to the motor of modernity.

Value free sociology:

This rigorous approach to Verstehen demanded a trade-off from the sociologists – they would have to be ‘value free’. As conflicting values reflected power struggles in society, the sociologist had to put aside their own values when engaged in research. In order to access the mind of others who might have opposing values it was necessary to temporarily put one’s own values aside. It should be clear ‘exactly at which point the scientific investigator becomes silent and the evaluating and acting person begins to speak’.[5] Another reason for the strict injunction about value freedom was that Weber believed that there was an unbridgeable gap between the world of ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. Empirical research could not lead to any conclusions about values because ‘to judge the validity of such values is a matter of faith’.[6] There were also, however, more pragmatic reasons for advocating ‘value freedom’.
Social scientists also needed to assess how people used the scarce means that were available to achieve their ends. They could ‘scientifically’ draw out the implications of the pursuit of certain values and illustrate to people the actual means that would be required to achieve them. They could do this even while opposed to their value system. The social scientist could select a problem for investigation and have the direction of the investigation kickstarted by their own value system – but once underway, he or she needed to suspend their own values and adopt the most rigorous scientific methods. The following is probably is the clearest summary of Weber’s complex argument:
1.      The choice of the object of investigation ... [is] determined by the evaluative ideas which dominate the investigator and his age.
2.      In the method of investigation, the guiding ‘point of view’ [of the researcher] is of great importance for the construction of the conceptual schema which will be used in the investigation.
3.       [but] in the mode of their use [i.e. the conceptual schema] the investigator is bound by the [scientific] norms of our thought just as much here as elsewhere. For scientific truth is precisely what is valid for all who seek the truth.

Ideal types:

Weber added one more element to his attempt to marry a subjective focus on values with his desire for objective methodological rigour. This was the ideal type, which Weber believed was ‘heuristically indispensable’ for sociological and historical research.[7] To understand it we need again to return to the old debate between the Historical School of Economics and the Austrian marginalist school. The Austrian school sought to eliminate all discussion of particular national cultures from the workings of each economy. Their analysis started out from an economic man who existed as an isolated atom. The marginalists placed this imaginary man in particular situations of scarcity, or in situations with different balances between supply and demand. From these scenarios, they devised general laws of the economy that could be stated with quite mathematical precision. One of their number, Stanley Jevons, stated that ‘the general form of the laws of economy is the same in the case of individuals and nations’.[8] This level of formal equivalence could only occur because the economic man they started out from was shorn of his particular histories, foibles, and cultures – he was an abstract model or ‘ideal type’, which functioned as a sort of thought experiment. Weber summarised the underlying philosophy of the marginalist school by saying that it examined what course a ‘given type of human action would take if it were strictly rational, unaffected by errors or emotional factors and if, furthermore, it were completely and unequivocally directed to a single end, the maximization of economic advantage’.
Weber wanted to import the methodology of the ideal type into the wider field of social science because he believed it would impose an intellectual discipline on the researcher who was using the Verstehen method. The sociologist, he argued, had to follow the economist in constructing an ideal type that highlighted certain aspects of reality. The ideal type was not meant as a description but was a ‘one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view’ and a ‘synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete … concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct’[9]. It was therefore a model that was based on pure elements that represented people’s motive and culture. So, for example, the researcher could develop an ideal type of a Puritan by assembling together the pure motives that followed from their religious beliefs. Or in a more complex fashion, he or she could develop an ideal type of the ‘handicraft’ economy in order to contrast it with ‘industrial capitalism’. Ideal types were models for highlighting contrasts and comparisons between different societies. They also allowed connections to be drawn between different spheres of society, between, say, religious beliefs and economic action. These were known as elective affinities.
Weber was keen to stress that the ideal types were only explanatory devices which helped to bring out the significance and meanings that humans bestow on their actions. The criterion of their success was whether they revealed ‘concrete culture phenomena in their interdependence, their causal conditions and their significance’.26
The ideal types were related to the four main categories of social action. These were:
        Traditional action, which was a form of ingrained habit – you do something because it was always done like that;
·         Affective action, which is based on emotional feeling – you do something because of love for, say, a brother or sister;
        Value rational action, where actions are undertaken for some ethical or religious ideal and there is no consideration of its prospect of success – you do something for God or ‘the cause’;
        Instrumentally rational action, which is based on rational calculation about the specific means of achieving definite ends – you do something because it is the most effective means of achieving a specific goal.

Spirit of capitalism:

Weber’s most famous book is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is regarded by many sociologists as one of the key texts in their discipline. Its central question is: why did capitalism begin in Western Europe rather than in Asia? Weber’s answer focussed on religion – in particular, the Protestant Reformation.
The book is important because it moved sociology from a concern with general evolutionary patterns to a comparative approach. Writers such as Auguste Comte had devised a universal scheme whereby societies moved through a series of stages. His three main stages were the ‘theological’, where religious belief was dominant; the ‘metaphysical’, where the language of human rights became more prevalent; and finally the ‘positivist’ stage, where conflicts were resolved by a scientific elite who understood social laws. Marx had questioned this broad schema, which was based on abstract systematising. However, it was Weber who shifted the focus to a comparative analysis, attempting to identify what was unique and different about particular societies.


The crucial point of Weber’s argument was that Western Europe was unique in giving birth to modern capitalism. This then framed the question that forms the core of the book: how did this unique development occur? Weber defined capitalism. ‘The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money’, Weber wrote ‘has in itself nothing to do with capitalism’.[10] Many people might, on the contrary, think that these features have everything to do with capitalism. If you remove the catchall phrase ‘in itself’ the sentence would appear truly extraordinary. However, Weber’s argument was that the impulse to pursue money is common to all people in all times and so is not unique to capitalism. Definitions have to focus on what is unique and essential and so Weber claimed that the essential feature of capitalism is its pursuit of ‘renewed profit, by means of continuous rational ... enterprise’. Formally, he defined capitalist action as ‘one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit’. Like Marx, he notes that rational capitalism rests on ‘formally free labour’. This is labour which is bought and sold on the market place like any other commodity. For this system to emerge there had to be a number of preconditions in place. One was a rational structure of law that lent stability and certainty to the calculations about moneymaking. Another was an administration based on trained officials who did not rely on tax collection to line their own pockets. Still another precondition was the development of technology. Technology here is understood not simply as machinery but also as forms of knowledge such as bookkeeping, which paved the way for a more calculating culture.

The protestant spirit:

The central theme of Weber’s analysis is an exploration of protestant spirit. There is some evidence, he claims, to suggest a prima facie case for a link between the Protestant religion and capitalism. Business leaders in Germany tend to be Protestant; districts with the highest level of economic development are Protestant; Protestant students tend to study technical and scientific subjects while Catholics choose more ‘humanistic’ ones.
Weber identifies the spirit of capitalism as ‘the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life’. This spirit led to the formation of a sober, industrious bourgeois class but it was also necessary for the creation of a modern working class. Capitalism needed constantly to increase productivity but it could only do so when workers did not look for ‘the maximum of comfort and the minimum of exertion’ and instead performed labour as if it were an ‘absolute end in itself, a calling’.
Where did this new capitalist spirit come from? After all, moneymaking went against the dominant culture of medieval times. According to Thomas Aquinas, moneymaking was a ‘turpitudo’ – it was dirty, and sinful. Money was a ‘filthy lucre’ and painters such as Pieter Bruegel often depicted money as faeces. An individual could not make the breakthrough against this culture. The spirit of capitalism had to come from a way of life that was common to whole groups. Possible candidates were traders or pirates who engaged in moneymaking, despite the dominant culture. Weber, however, rules them out as originators of the new society because they were not engaged in regular, systematic accumulation of capital. They went for a series of one off gains or displayed an uncontrolled impulse of greed. Traditionalist opposition to moneymaking could only be shaken by a profound culture change and this is precisely what occurred in the Reformation. The psychological impact of the Reformation allowed Protestants both to adopt an enterprising, rational spirit and to look on work as a duty.
The teachings of Luther and Calvin were decisive. Prior to Luther, the Catholic Church drew a sharp distinction between the moral codes that applied to the laity and secular clergy on the one hand and religious orders on the other. The religious orders were obliged to follow the higher morality of the gospels, especially expressed in vows of obedience, poverty and chastity. This moral code was seen as impossible to fulfil in a secular life and so holiness was defined as a withdrawal from the world. Luther changed all this when he introduced the concept that every person had a ‘calling’ or a ‘vocation’ given to him or her by God. Weber claims that Luther’s translation of the Bible shifted the meaning of a key term so that labour in everyday life was seen as a God appointed task. Withdrawal from the world into monasteries was deemed a form of selfish idleness; true holiness meant fulfilling your worldly duties so as to glorify God.
This was potentially a revolutionary doctrine but Luther still gave it a traditional twist. Under the impact of the Peasant War in Germany – where Luther turned on many of his own radical supporters – he stressed how individuals needed to adapt themselves to the particular calling chosen for them by God. If a peasant’s lot was to farm barren land while the lord lived off his taxes, then each had simply to accept those positions as their calling.
It fell to Calvin to draw out the more radical elements of the Reformation. Calvin returned to the traditional dilemma that all Christians face – if God is all-powerful, then how can individuals have a genuinely free choice? Logically there was no scope for autonomous human decision-making if God was so powerful that he had created the future in advance. Calvin, therefore, adopted the famous doctrine of predestination whereby God had preordained who was going to heaven and hell. The effect of this doctrine was to produce an intense, lonely form of anxiety, which cut each individual off from other human beings.
Consider for a moment what was involved. If it was preordained that only a small number of students – the elect – would pass exams and the rest would be thrown out of college, think of the high levels of anxiety this would cause. However, in the sixteenth century, we are not considering relatively trivial matters such as careers but the whole of one’s eternal life. One result of this anxiety was that it led people desperately to search to see if they were part of the elect. The Calvinist sects, who were communities of true believers, taught that it was one’s ‘absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil’. In order to attain this selfconfidence, intense worldly activity was recommended. Success in one’s calling alone dispersed religious doubts and gave certainty of grace. Calvinism therefore led to a highly individualistic desire for achievement as a means of counteracting religious anxiety.
Weber refers to the psychological state whereby people removed everything from their life that interfered with their calling as a ‘worldly asceticism’. Protestant beliefs encouraged people to bring their actions under constant self-control. They could not turn to a priest or the confessional to relieve sins and anxiety. Their only way of relieving anxiety was ‘not single good works but a life of good works combined into a unified system’. Idleness and wasting of time became the greatest sins. Everything had to be put into a methodical pursuit of a calling. In this way, the asceticism of the monastery was brought out into the marketplace. Calvinism ‘substituted for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world, the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world’. Unlike Luther’s interpretation, the doctrine of the calling did not imply an acceptance of one’s lot but rather an injunction to work hard, to make money in order to glorify God. It condemned idle ‘spontaneous enjoyment of possessions’, dishonesty and impulsive avarice but still promoted wealth as a means of showing the individual that they had a sign of God’s blessing.
All of this was part of the unintended consequences of the Reformation. Nobody became a Protestant in order to become a capitalist but the psychological effects of the actual doctrine were highly significant, in their unanticipated consequences. It led to ‘the accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save’. Religious asceticism also provided employers ‘with sober, conscientious and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by Gods’. Above all the ideal of methodical self-control led to the ‘ethos of rational organisation of capital and labour’. Against Sombart, Weber claims that Judaism led ‘to the politically and speculatively orientated adventurous capitalism’ whereas Puritanism promoted a rational sober bourgeois life that restrained the consumption of wealth and so increased productive investment of capital.

Domination and bureaucracy:

Weber provided subsequent sociologists with a wealth of concepts that became their toolbox for generating new theories. He liked to draw up a set of typologies to categorise different forms of social action. One of the most famous of these is the different categories of domination which have been exercised in society. Weber argued that there were three main forms of domination – traditional, charismatic and rational legal. The writings on these forms of domination are to be found in Economy and Society. Weber used his vast historic knowledge to provide examples from a wide range of societies to illustrate the dynamics of each of these forms of domination. He was less interested in how people resisted or overthrew the power structures and focussed more on how they were maintained. He assumed that domination was natural and drew from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche a belief that the ‘will to power’ pervaded all human relationships.
Weber’s definition of power has also become a classic in sociology. Power, he argued ‘is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability exists’. This definition focuses on the individual actor and their will – on this inner mental capacity to enforce their desires. There is no reference to resources – either economic or military – which the particular actor might need. As Brennan has pointed out, it is a subjective definition of power and one more likely to flatter existing power holders. Those at the bottom are more likely to experience power as an objective constraint – they obey the capitalist or the slave owner because these hold the machinery or the whip, not necessarily because they respect his or her will.

Types of domination:

Weber acknowledged that his definition of power was amorphous because it could refer to all conceivable circumstances. His principal writings focus instead on domination, which he saw as a special case of power. Domination is defined as ‘the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons’. This is again a broad opening statement but Weber soon moves to distinguish between two main forms of domination. There is, first, domination by monopoly control of economic resources. So a central bank or a multinational like Standard Oil can enforce their command over debtors or on garage retailers because they hold the economic monopoly. Second, there is domination by the authority of office. Thus state officials or army generals use non-economic sources of power to dominate. The distinction between them can be fluid and one form of domination can develop into another.
Weber argues that there are three ideal types of legitimate authority in history. These ideal types are not necessarily found in pure forms in the real world but they are useful yardsticks to measure reality against.
·         Traditional authority rests on beliefs in the sanctity of immemorial tradition and custom. This type of domination is exercised by tribal chiefs, patriarchs, feudal aristocrats.
·         Charismatic authority rests on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or personal magnetism of a heroic figure. Revolutionary leaders, prophets and warriors, for instance, exercise this type of authority.
·         Legal Rational authority is based on properly enacted rules and is given to office holders rather than specific persons. Bureaucrats and government ministers have authority of this type.
Weber’s three ideal types distinguish between the grounds on which obedience is based. Parkin[11] provides an excellent, succinct summary
Type of dominance
Grounds for claiming obedience
Obey me because that is what our people
have always done.
Obey me because I can transform your life.
Legal Rational
Obey me because I am your lawfully
appointed superior.

Traditional authority:

Traditional authority is based on respect for the sanctity of age old rules and customs and involves loyalty to a personal master. Obedience is not given simply to an office but to a lord or a prince. All traditional authority involves a double sphere. On the one hand, the master has personal discretion in a wide area. They are entitled to make arbitrary and unilateral demands when it suits and expect obedience precisely because they are seen as a personal master. On the other hand, obedience is delivered within the bounds of a tradition that places limits on the arbitrary power of the ruler.
Throughout his sociology of domination, Weber’s primary focus was on the relationship between the ruler and their administrative staff. The administrative staff make up the apparatus that carries out and enforces the ruler’s wishes among the masses. Any relationship of domination has three elements – the ruler, the administrative staff, and the ruled. Weber, though, focused only on the first two. He paid particular attention to the material interests of the staff, the organisational principles through which they operate and their wider relationship to the ruler. He simply assumed that they conquer ‘the masses’.

Charismatic authority:

The term charisma in Christian theology means ‘the gift of grace’. Weber took over the term and added ‘charismatic leader’ to modern political vocabularies. No account of modern elections is now complete without some reference to the semi-magical, mysterious quality of charisma. However, the coinage has been debased. Charisma can apparently be won by a hairdo, an engaging smile, a vague sex appeal, etc. For Weber, charisma had an altogether more important meaning. Charismatic leaders were seen by their followers to have some extraordinary power or quality that commanded obedience. In more primitive societies, these powers were magical and the leaders were either superhuman or supernatural. In modern society, charismatic leaders arise in periods of great turbulence or crisis and answer a need. The leader is literally blessed with a sign of grace or, in secular terms, is a genius. As Bendix puts it, ‘it is associated with a collective excitement through which masses of people respond to some extraordinary experience and by virtue of which they surrender themselves to a heroic leader’.
The administrative staff of charismatic leaders are not chosen because of qualifications, social status, or family loyalty. They are recruited simply as followers. There is no set hierarchy, no prospect of promotion or career. There is not even a regular salary because pure charisma is foreign to economic considerations. The staff can be looked after by the seizure of booty or by gifts but any provision for a regular career structure is despised. In order to live up to their mission the leader and his followers ‘must be free of the ordinary worldly attachments and duties of occupational and family life’.

Legal Rational Authority:

The normal means of domination in modern societies is legal rational authority and bureaucracy. Weber’s main concern was with the culture of rationality that led to bureaucracy and the consequences this held for the world. Legal authority rests on a number of interdependent factors. There has to be a legal code which covers everyone in a particular territory. It has to be based on consistent, abstract rules – so that people know in advance the penalties for infringements. Crucially, the rulers themselves must also be subject to these rules. The arbitrary discretion that was granted to charismatic or traditional rulers is removed. People obey authority in their capacity as citizens or members of particular associations. Crucially, obedience is given to an office holder and not the person.
The administrative staff in this form of authority are more highly developed and in their purest form become a bureaucracy. The staff operate continuously according to rules that govern the conduct of their official business. They each have a definite specified area of competence that is laid down by their job descriptions. These areas of jurisdiction give them powers to fulfil their duties only in these specific areas. The jurisdictions do not overlap but are based on a rational division of labour. The whole system forms a hierarchical pyramid so that the higher offices supervise the lower offices. Rules are laid down for each office and the official is given specialised training so that he or she can meet them.
The axial principal of bureaucracy is ‘domination through knowledge’. It is popular today to disparage bureaucracy as ‘red tape’ and to caricature the way that officials fill in forms and memos in triplicate. This misses the point, however. The modern office is indeed based on the management of files but this is to ensure that those at the top have ‘a special knowledge of facts and have available to them a store of documentary material peculiar to themselves’. They know more about the ruled than any previous authorities in history. They also know exactly how their commands will be implemented since the room for personal discretion among their staff is virtually nil. Bureaucracy has invented the concept of the ‘official secret’ which means that information can be gathered and exact commands transmitted in a secretive way. Individual officials can be penalised for divulging these official secrets to the public. Normally, however, it does not come to this because ‘bureaucratic administration always tends to exclude the public, to hide its knowledge and action from criticism as well as it can’.
A bureaucracy, therefore, is a permanent machine and different rulers can use it. After the country is defeated, for example, the bureaucratic apparatus survives and is usually taken over by the new rulers. This suggests that ‘at the top of a bureaucratic organisation, there is necessarily an element which is at least not purely bureaucratic’. At the apex of the system, there is a will, a personality whose wishes have to be enforced. Weber’s central argument, though, is that bureaucracy is the most efficient way of conducting this rule.

[Author's declaration: This material is prepared from Max Weber A Critical Introduction by Kieran Allen London: Pluto Press (2004)]

An Earlier Version of Max Weber can be found here

[1] Max Weber, Economy and Society Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) p. 4.
[2] ibid
[3] Max Weber, Roscher and Knies: The Logical Problems of Historical Economics (New York: Free Press 1975), p. 129.
[4] Ibid p 125
[5] Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (New York: Free Press, 1949), p 60
[6] Ibid, p 55
[7] T. Burger, Max Weber’s Theory of Concept Formation: History, Laws and Ideal Types (Durham: Duke University Press, 1976).
[8] N. Bukharin, The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Augustus M. Kelly, 1970).p 41
[9] Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 90.
[10] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), p. 17.
[11] F. Parkin, Max Weber (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 77