Weber, Max
Max Weber. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


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Weber, Max

Weber, Max

Analysis of social structure

Sociology of religion

Analysis of social action

Types of authority

Impact of Weber’s work



Max Weber (1864-1920) grew up in Germany during the Bismarckian era. His father was a lawyer, and in the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of the Weber home, the boy’s intellectual interests developed at an early age. Weber received an excellent secondary education in languages, history, and the classics. Beginning in 1882 he attended the universities of Heidelberg, Göttingen, and Berlin; he studied law but simultaneously acquired professional competence as an economist, historian, and philosopher.

Weber took his bar examination in 1886 and completed his academic training in 1891, but his health never permitted him to hold a permanent academic position. After serving as a Privatdozent in law at the University of Berlin and as a government consultant, and having completed extensive research projects (this in the years immediately preceding and following his marriage in 1893), he became professor of economics, first at the University of Freiburg in 1894 and then at Heidelberg in 1896. In 1898, however, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown, and after he had made repeated attempts to resume teaching, the university granted him leave without pay. Incapacitated for some four years, he resumed his scholarly activities in 1903, becoming coeditor of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft. In 1904 he began to publish his own scholarly work. From this time on he lived as a private scholar, mostly in the city of Heidelberg, returning only briefly to more formal academic work, in Vienna and Munich in the years immediately preceding his death.

Weber’s work reveals his extraordinary intellectual tensions. He was a political realist and a nationalist who nevertheless criticized his country with detachment and treated national shibboleths with derision. He was an analyst of power politics who examined constitutional problems in the spirit of political engineering, yet he was deeply concerned with ethical problems and with the cultural significance of the power struggle. And there are further contradictions: he was a monarchist who openly denounced the Kaiser; later, a liberal with a pessimistic view of the masses and an awareness of the need for personal leadership; and a passionate individualist faced with the rising forces of collectivism. These tensions prevented Weber from finding outlets for his drive to act decisively and led him instead to pour his great energies into his scholarly work. But even in his scholarly work tensions prevailed. Every sentence of Weber’s seems a precarious victory over the complexity of facts; despite their massive scope, his writings are fragments. Substantively, his work bristles with an awareness of the unresolved paradoxes of the human condition, which Weber sought to understand on the basis of his extraordinary historical knowledge and to conceptualize at a level between historical description and a theory of sociological universals.

Intellectual background . Diverse intellectual antecedents are revealed in Weber’s work. He made use of Kant’s distinction between practical and pure reason in his analysis of the relation between knowledge and action. Hegel’s distinction between state and society had set a pattern for nineteenthcentury German thought; Weber reinterpreted this distinction behavioristically, under the influence of utilitarianism and of German theories of criminal law. Like the idealist interpretation of history, Marx’s materialist interpretation appeared useful to Weber, but only as a hypothesis; he rejected the doctrinaire formulations of both theories. Other influences include his legal training, the ideal-typical constructs implicit in Jakob Burckhardt’s writings, the emphasis on conflict characteristic of Nietzsche and the social Darwinists, and the dialectical modes of thought characteristic of the Hegelian tradition. This sketchy list could be extended to include many other social theorists since the seventeenth century. However, Weber’s position was an original one of great intellectual complexity and must be understood in its own right. Few subsequent scholars have accepted this position in its entirety, but many have profited greatly from Weber’s insights and theoretical perspectives.

Theoretical position . Weber took issue with several major intellectual traditions. Much is often made of his lifelong debate with the writings of Marx, but it must be remembered that he also “debated” with Hegel, with the historicists, and with the theories of social evolution and of utilitarianism. Weber’s theoretical opposition to these holistic intellectual tendencies was based on his insistence that individual action is the unit of sociological analysis. Against the view that men’s actions have an unintended significance, variously derived from (or imputed to) an Absolute Spirit, the necessities embodied in the organization of production, or the struggle for survival, Weber developed his concepts in terms of the meaning (Sinn) that individuals attribute to their actions in society. Indicative of Weber’s approach is his critique of his friend Georg Simmel: Simmel retained elements of the Hegelian tradition and therefore, according to Weber, frequently and illegitimately shifted the ground of his analysis from the meaning intended by the individual to the transpersonal meaning revealed in and through the reciprocal effects (Wechselwirkungen) of individuals upon each other.

Weber’s theoretical starting point exposed him to two dangers: on the one hand, he risked a radical subjectivism, represented at the time by the utilitarian tradition, and on the other, he risked the antiscientific orientation of the historicists. However, Weber avoided both these dangers.

Utilitarianism had sought to derive economic and political structures from a hedonistic calculus of individual actions, a procedure developed further during Weber’s lifetime by the marginal utility school of economics [see Utility]. Weber opposed this approach on empirical and methodological grounds. Empirically he showed that not even economic conduct has “self interest” as its ultima ratio but involves values and judgments that reflect the normative social context from which utilitarianism artificially isolated the individual. His methodological objection to utilitarianism was that any calculus of happiness necessarily operates with a mixture of “is” and “ought” that is scientifically inadmissible. Weber sought to show that this “individualistic theory” is not in fact a set of generalizations or a body of laws but that it is best interpreted as a model constructed out of abstractions from elementary forms of behavior and best employed as a reference point for the systematic observation of behavior. In this fashion Weber moved away from a radically individualistic position but was able to maintain his nominalist view of individual action as the basic datum of sociological inquiry.

Finally, Weber sought to refute the historicist school by emphasizing that studies of culture and history cannot avoid the use of typological concepts, and that the most important task is, therefore, to attempt to make these concepts explicit. In protest against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and building on the romantic appreciation of the uniqueness of the individual personality and of the national culture, historicism asserted the uniqueness of constellations of historical events. Weber, however, refused to accept the historicist claim that disciplines dealing with historical constellations are generically different from the natural sciences, even though the latter deal with recurrent events and discover general laws or regularities of high probability. Instead of producing speculative arguments about the nature of the reality studied by the different disciplines, he examined the procedures used in their scholarly inquiries. In his view, cultural studies are distinctive only in that they originate in the investigator’s sense of what is culturally significant. But once a question has been accepted as significant, it is necessary to formulate concepts that will present the relevant evidence “systematically and in greater unity than has ever existed in the actual course of development” these “ideal types” can then be employed as reference points for the analysis of behavior.

A strategic element in Weber’s confrontation of the Marxists, the utilitarians, and the historicist school was his insistence on a “value-free” social science. While the Marxists construed the truth of social scientific assertions as contingent on history, Weber’s concept permitted him to assert the possibility of arriving at a scientific study of society by separating personal evaluation from scientific judgments. Although scientists may bring values and concepts to their subject matter, they must take care that they do not inadvertently confuse their own values and ideas with those of the actors they are studying. This was the mistake the utilitarians had made when they identified goodness with utility. And against the antiscientific particularism of the historicist school, Weber was able to legitimize the scientific approach both by recognizing and delimiting the subjective dimension of the cultural significance of historical studies and by emphasizing the indispensability of concepts in historical analysis (see Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences).

The debate concerning the significance of Weber’s position continues, but it is our first obligation to understand him as he wanted to be understood. It is his adoption of a nominalist position in social science that is of key importance in his critiques of Marxism, of theories of evolution, and of the historical school.

Analysis of social structure

An early example of Weber’s approach to the analysis of social structure is his investigation, in the 1890s, of farm labor conditions east of the Elbe. The study was stimulated by a nationalist concern with the exodus of Germans and the influx of Slavic migrant workers, but Weber’s inquiry centered on the growth of individualism among farm laborers, who preferred the risks of urban independence to the security of personal subservience on rural estates, even at the cost of a loss in income. Weber saw in this individualism evidence for the independent influence of ideas, a prominent theme throughout his work. He also made this specific inquiry the occasion for a more general analysis of Imperial Germany. According to Weber, the Junker had been effective landlords, local administrators, and military men when they established the power of the Prussian state, but during the nineteenth century they had become rural capitalists who bolstered their declining economic position by political blackmail. Moreover, the quasi-commercialization of the Junker was paralleled by a quasiaristocratization of the middle-class industrialists who bought land in the east for the sake of titles and of bureaucratic or military careers for their sons. Weber thus broadened his study of the farm-labor problem into an analysis of social structure—of the interplay of “material and ideal interests” in the interactions of classes and status groups in Imperial Germany. He later used this approach in his comparative studies of religious ideas and economic conduct.

Sociology of religion

The Protestant ethic . Weber’s studies in the sociology of religion began with the publication of his famous essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905). Two observations provided the initial impetus for the essay: (1) that in many parts of the world great material achievements had resulted from the work of monastic orders dedicated to a life of the spirit; and (2) that ascetic Protestant sects were noted for their economic success, especially in the early phase of modern capitalism. There appeared to exist a paradoxically positive relationship between ascetic religious belief and economic enterprise, in spite of the fact that the great Protestant reformers had anathematized the pursuit of riches as dangerous to the soul and that the pursuit of riches had so often been accompanied by a life of adventure and display, as well as by religious indifference.

Weber began to resolve the challenging paradox by noting that both Puritan religion and capitalist enterprise are characterized to an unusual degree by a systematization of life; this suggested a source of affinities between the two. His inquiry showed the interrelation of three processes: the incentives for action in this world that are implicit in Calvinist theology, as contrasted with Roman Catholic and Lutheran theology; the ways in which Puritan divines of the seventeenth century interpreted Cal-vinist themes in their pastoral exhortations; and the process by which theological doctrines and pastoral advice became effective social controls.

Weber first analyzed the implications of the doctrine of predestination; this analysis is a good example of his more general studies of religious doctrines. He deduced that an unfathomable divine decision concerning the fate of men in the hereafter would produce great anxiety among a people intensely concerned with the salvation of their souls, and he assumed that this anxiety was at its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such religious anxiety could not be allayed by Reformation leaders like Calvin and Zwingli, who creatively reoriented the human situation and did not influence men directly. Only the pastoral interpretations of the theological doctrines could allay this anxiety. Calvin taught that everyone must face the ultimate uncertainty of his fate; nevertheless, ministers encouraged their congregations to engage in a zealous and self-denying round of daily activities, mindful that God had put the resources of his created world at the disposal of men who on the day of judgment would be responsible to him for the single-minded, workoriented use of all their powers in his service. True believers responded with an “inner-worldly asceticism,” as Weber called it, which enabled them to quiet their consciences by rationally transforming the world in which God had placed them.

Pastoral admonition is, of course, an uncertain index of conduct; moreover, the accumulation of wealth by ascetic Protestants appears paradoxical partly because, historically, wealth has been associated with attenuated belief rather than piety. Weber’s analysis helped to resolve this paradox. He showed that Puritan wealth was an unintended consequence of the anxieties aroused by the doctrine of predestination. Because members of the Calvinist congregation accepted the interpretations of that doctrine offered by the Puritan divines, they led frugal, active lives that resulted in the accumulation of wealth.

Weber acknowledged that further research on this relationship was needed, especially documentary research on diaries and autobiographies of entrepreneurs of the seventeenth century that might contain direct evidence concerning the relationship between religious belief and economic activities. His essay “The Protestant Sects” (1906) provides one such supplement by describing the methods used to inculcate moral tenets upon members of Puritan sects. [See Christianityand the biography of Tawney.]

Comparative religion . Weber did not pursue the study of Puritanism further, in part because his friend, the theologian Ernst Troeltsch, had undertaken a related and more elaborate study, published subsequently, in 1912, as The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches [see the biography of Troeltsch]. Instead, he made the important decision to work on a large-scale comparative sociology of world religions that would examine the social foundations of religious beliefs and practices as well as the inner-worldly repercussions of religious doctrine. In part, the aim of his works on Confucianism and Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and Judaism was not essentially different from that of The Protestant Ethic —it was to characterize and explain the distinguishing traits of different kinds of religious belief and to trace the unintended, but nonetheless important, consequences of different theological doctrines for the orientation that men bring to their economic activities. Weber wished to demonstrate, for example, that in Confucianism and Hinduism particular doctrines had had an inhibiting effect on economic rationality, even under circumstances that were generally conducive to capitalist development. By comparing different religious systems he hoped to achieve a better understanding of what it was about Western religion that had made it a major influence in the development of western European capitalism; thus he would strengthen, albeit indirectly, the persuasiveness of his original thesis concerning Protestantism.

At the same time, Weber wanted to go beyond a narrow focus on the indirect impact of ideas on behavior by examining in detail the “anchorage” of religious ideas in social organization. He noted three forms of relationship between social organization and religious ideas that warranted investigation. First, social groups with particular economic interests often show themselves to be more receptive to some religious ideas than to others. For example, peasants typically incline toward some form of nature worship, aristocrats toward religious ideas compatible with their sense of status and dignity. Second, religious ideas lead to the formation of certain groups, such as monastic orders, guilds of magicians, or a clergy, and these groups may develop quite extensive economic activities. Third, the distinction between the elite and the masses is as pertinent to the religious sphere as to others: in that sphere also, men tend to be divided into a minority which originates ideas and is unusually perceptive and a majority with ordinary interests and average capabilities. The gap between the elite and the masses poses a problem with which each of the great world religions has had to cope. To understand the process by which the messages of promise and the ideals of conduct proclaimed by religious leaders have become institutionalized, it is necessary to recognize not only that religious innovators and functionaries inevitably become involved in practical affairs, but also that the masses, in the midst of their pressing daily concerns, seek the satisfaction or reassurance of ritual and belief.

Confucianism. In his book on China (1915), Weber analyzed the interaction between religious ideas and social organization in the context of the wider social structure. He gave special attention to the longrun balance of power between the Chinese emperor, the central and provincial bureaucracy, and the kinship organization of the local community. Although the elements in the balance varied, it remained true that “patrimonial rule from above clashed with the kinship group’s strong counterbalance from below.” At the “top,” the policy of rapid turnover in office and a lay educational system that emphasized conventional propriety and classical learning strengthened patrimonial rule. Also, by encouraging competition for office, the famous examination system minimized the threat to the emperor while it maximized the interest of local kin groups in urging young men to succeed, since appointment to office promised prestige, income, and influence not only for the incumbent but for his relatives as well. Confucianism strengthened the status consciousness of the official, but at the same time, since Confucianism taught that filial piety and ancestor worship were duties required of everyone, it also strengthened the cohesion of kin groups and facilitated local resistance to official measures. Confucianism, then, according to Weber, was a belief system that supported both the bureaucratic order and the kinship structure, thus helping to sustain tension between these two structures. In this instance Weber laid emphasis on the fit between a belief system and a social structure.

Hinduism, A different relationship—between religious beliefs and the status interests of the foremost exponents of them—may be illustrated by Weber’s study of India (1916-1917). The Brahmans were a somewhat diverse group of royal chaplains, family priests, theologians, and jurists, who served as spiritual advisors and administrators, teachers, consultants, and authorities on questions of ritual propriety. The income of the Brahmans consisted of fixed rents derived from land and of “gifts” in return for their services. This income was enjoyed for life, or even for generations. The status interests of the Brahmans were related not only to economic rewards for the performance of their roles but also to keeping priestly roles concentrated in their hands. Although Confucian writing excoriated magical practices, the Brahmans, as a priestly caste, could not relegate the concern with magic powers to popular conjurers who might compete with priests. In India the magical powers of the ascetic were revered, and the problem for the Brahmans was to reconcile magic with their status interests as an educated, religious elite. With his characteristic sensitivity to world views other than his own, Weber explored the ramifications of the Brahman position, especially the way in which Indian philosophers and religious leaders achieved a “systematic rationalization of magic” and effected a compromise between their own elite interest in a dignified way of life and their need to provide for the masses magical release from the misfortunes that were their lot.

Analysis of social action

Although it remained unfinished, Weber’s Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft ranks among the classics of modern social science (1922a). Its influence stems from its wealth of concepts, formulated on the basis of a wide range of comparative historical materials. These concepts have often since been used in an ahistorical manner, but this was not Weber’s purpose. Rather than formulate a theoretical system of his own, he tried to provide a more secure foundation for sociology and history by specifying the meaning of ideas and concepts that were widely used at the time.

Once again, instead of adopting either a holistic or a particularistic (or subjectivist) approach, Weber hoped to occupy an intermediate position, moving from historical evidence to the formulation of concepts, and from concepts back to historical evidence. In this spirit he began the chapter “Religionssoziologie” with the comment that a definition of religion is, properly speaking, the result of an extensive inquiry rather than its beginning. In his formulation of types of prophecy on the basis of the Biblical text, or of the distinction between Oriental and Occidental cities, or of types of capitalist enterprise, or of feudalism, or again of the relation between priestly and ruling elites, he demonstrated what he meant by this approach.

The first part of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft is a compendium of concepts; the second is a descriptive and comparative treatment of the social conditions and consequences of economic behavior. Economic behavior is the ostensible focus of attention, but the thematic core is the establishment of categories for the analysis of action, as is suggested by the initial definitions.

These definitions emphasize the importance of meaning (Sinn) as an aspect of man’s behavior in society. Such meaning has an individual as well as a social dimension, as Weber’s definition of the subject matter of sociology makes clear: “…in ‘action’ is included all human behaviour when and in so far as, …by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course” ([1922b] 1957, p. 88). Weber pointed out that although much action in society is characterized by almost unconscious conformity, there is nevertheless a rudimentary consciousness of meaning even in such conventional behavior. Weber drew attention to the difference between this minimally meaningful conventional action and innovative action, although he insisted that it is essential to consider such individual inspiration in its social setting. It was characteristic of him to combine sharp distinctions with an awareness that in society analytically distinct features are often concretely joined.

One consequence of Weber’s primary concern with action and its meaning was his conceptualization of collectivities in terms of social behavior rather than of structures. In the text of his book even the words of the title appear in modified forms suggesting processes. Thus, instead of “economy” (Wirtschaft) the text refers to economic activities (Wirtschaften), and instead of “society” (Gesellschaft) it refers to society-forming activities (Vergesellschaftung ).

Weber analyzed the sense, or meaning, of human action at many levels, three of which may be considered basic, since they provide an organizing framework for Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (to be sure, some uncertainty remains concerning Weber’s intended organization, since the work was unfinished, and various editors have added subtitles). The three levels have to do, respectively, with the components of material interest, feelings of affinity, and authority in social relationships.

First of all, Weber was concerned with processes of group formation based on material interest. He discussed such associations as those of brokers, based on market relations; business firms based on bookkeeping methods (as distinguished from family firms, which combine business and household management and are not limited to material interests); trading and financial enterprises based on “booty” the oathbound associations that played a major role in the autonomous development of cities in western Europe; and many others. As he defined social classes, they too belonged in the category of groups based on material interests, since the concept of social class designated for him the “market situation” common to a group of people, who thereby have a broadly similar chance to dispose of goods or skills for the sake of income.

Second, Weber analyzed processes of group formation based on feelings of affinity. In this connection he discussed the household community, the neighborhood, extended kin groups (Sippen), estates and status groups (Stände), religious communities, and others. These groups are all formed on the basis of shared beliefs in what is honorable and proper. They come to have common styles of life, and these are buttressed, in turn, by segregating restrictions on hospitality and intermarriage. Such restrictions are often also the bases of economic monopolies and of military organization, that is, of organizations based on material interest. The interplay of these two levels of abstraction is a recurrent theme in Weber’s work: he inquired into the ideas and feelings of affinity involved in actions ostensibly prompted by economic interests only, as well as into the economic interests of status groups and religious elites. At a third level Weber identified social relationships based on the exercise of authority. Reinterpreting the distinction between society and the state, Weber differentiated between those groups based on common interest or affinity and those based on hierarchic organization and a shared belief in a legitimate order of authority.

Types of authority

Weber believed that the exercise of authority is a universal phenomenon and that there are three types of domination that characterize authority relationships: charismatic, traditional, and legal domination. These types indicate the relationships between a supreme ruler (e.g., a prophet, a king, or a parliament), an administrative body (e.g., disciples, royal servants, or officials) and the masses of the ruled (e.g., followers, subjects, or citizens). Under charismatic domination, the ruler’s exercise of authority rests on extraordinary qualities which both he and his followers believe to be inspired by some transcendent power; under traditional domination, the ruler is bound by immemorial custom that also sanctions his right to the arbitrary exercise of his will; and under legal domination, the exercise of authority is subject to a system of generalized rules. [See Leadership, article on Sociological aspects.]

Weber held that if rulers fail to justify their domination in terms of charisma, tradition, or law, they thereby tend to undermine the belief in these standards among officials and the public at large; if such illegitimacy continues long enough and if compensating factors are absent, the type of domination will change. Thus, under charismatic domination, belief in the very existence of charisma may be undermined by the ruler’s excessive claims to miraculous attributes or by too insistent demands by his followers that he give proof of such attributes. Similarly, too much arbitrariness can undermine the authority of the sacred tradition that justifies the dominion of the traditional ruler. And for the rule of law to endure, it is essential that there be a balance of the conflicting imperatives of formal and substantive legal rationality.

Weber’s open-ended formulation of the three types of authority suggests that these types should be treated not as labels to be applied to social phenomena but as concepts on which to base programs of research, as Weber’s book-length chapter on the sociology of law makes clear. However, the uneven reception of his work and the tendency to reify concepts like “charisma” and “bureaucracy” have militated against the appropriate utilization of Weber’s ideas.

Impact of Weber’s work

The above bare outline of Weber’s work cannot convey a sense of the richness of his materials and insights, but it may be possible to characterize the power of his work by describing some of the studies that have been stimulated by his ideas.

Religion and economic behavior . Weber’s essay on the Protestant ethic initiated a great controversy that began in his lifetime and shows no signs of abating. Broadly speaking, three approaches characterize this extensive literature: one is concerned with what Weber meant; one seeks to amplify, correct, or refute the empirical relationship asserted by Weber between religious belief and economic behavior; and still another supplements Weber’s thesis by examining this relationship in other contexts than those posited by him. While much of the earlier literature dealt with the first two topics (see the survey in Fischoff 1944), more recently the third topic has become salient, and historians, psychologists, and sociologists are grappling once again with Weber’s original problem of the unique development of Western institutions and the possibility that they have functional equivalents elsewhere. [See, for instance, Economic growth, article on NONECONOMIC ASPECTS.]

Ideal types . Inherent in all of Weber’s work is a methodological problem that has also stimulated scholarly activity. In his world-historical, comparative studies, Weber made use of bench-mark concepts, called ideal types, which deliberately simplify and exaggerate the evidence; examples are his formulation of the theological doctrines of Luther and Calvin, his typology of domination or of urban communities, and so on. At the world-historical level, which was of primary interest to Weber, this method produces useful major distinctions, such as those between patrimonialism and feudalism, between Occidental and Oriental cities, between Confucian and Puritan religious beliefs, between ethical and exemplary prophecy, and many others. Weber himself always emphasized both the “infinite manifold” of the reality to be investigated and the need to exaggerate distinctions for purposes of conceptual clarity. Accordingly, he saw his task as first the formulation of ideal types on the basis of comparative historical evidence, and then the analysis of the subject under investigation in terms of its deviation from, or approximation to, these concepts [seetypologies]. Yet this second step poses difficulties which he did not resolve; they have been discussed by Schweitzer (1964) and by Lazarsfeld and Oberschall (1965).

Weber never dealt satisfactorily with the question of how the ideal-typical implications of such a doctrine as predestination, which are compelling for the true believer, are internalized by ordinary believers, with all their vacillations and compromises. In his comparative sociology of religion he did emphasize that theological doctrines always accommodate themselves to the exigencies of daily life, but his attention was focused on the overall tendencies distinguishing one civilization from another rather than on the extent to which the accommodations of theology and popular practice might tend to diminish these distinctions. Studies have been conducted relating the macroscopic level (at which it is useful to stress differences) and the microscopic level more closely, and examining functional equivalents of the Protestant ethic in other civilizations. For example, Bellah (1957) and Dore (1965) have done such studies for Japan; Bendix (1964) for the Soviet Union; Merton (1938; 1949) has studied the impact of the Protestant ethic on the development of science; McClelland (1961) has examined inner-worldly asceticism as a psychological syndrome; Nelson (1949) has studied the development of ethical universalism in Christian theology; and Müller-Armack (1959) has studied the secularization of the Protestant ethic.

Bureaucracy . Similar extensions have been made of other aspects of Weber’s work, for example, of his analysis of bureaucracy. Weber’s typological discussion of domination and of the relationship of domination to bureaucracy seems most clear-cut when he contrasted bureaucracy and the rule of law with the administrative and legal structure under patrimonialism, while its analytic power is diminished when he was dealing with the study of politics and bureaucratic behavior under existing legal systems (this has been pointed out by Bendix 1956; Blau 1963; Crozier 1963; Delany 1963; Luhmann 1964; Schweitzer 1964). Here also the task remains of encompassing both the macroscopic and microscopic perspectives, a task begun by Weber himself in his political writings; it is noteworthy how useful Weber’s approach proves to be even in contexts entirely outside his analysis, as in the study of African political systems (Apter 1955; Fallers 1956; Smith 1960).

Impact in other areas . It is significant that some aspects of Weber’s work have been used as starting points for scholarly work that goes beyond his own frame of reference. A notable example is the work of Otto Hintze on comparative constitutional developments (1902-1932). At the theoretical level Talcott Parsons has synthesized Weber’s analysis of action with the structural-functional sociology of Durkheim. A third example is the analysis of emerging political communities and the reinterpretation of charisma by Edward Shils (1958; 1959-1960; 1965). These are only some prominent instances of the remarkable influence of Weber’s work; its many-sided intellectual perspectives and penetrating insights have proved more stimulating than a number of earlier and more integrated systems of sociological thought.

A final assessment of Weber’s importance is premature. Comparison of Weber’s work with that of Marx and Freud shows that his work lacks the central idea or theorem that could have served as the nucleus for the development of a school, nor does it have the same direct intellectual impact on the modern Weltanschauung that theirs does. Yet in the development of the social sciences, Weber’s influence may in the end surpass that of Marx or Freud. One can observe a renewal of interest in Weber’s contributions since the end of World War II, a period which coincides with a reversal of the European expansion that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Weber sought to account for the unique development of Western civilization, to comprehend what Occidental rationalism has contributed and the agonizing dilemmas it has produced in many spheres of life. He developed a remarkably probing and sympathetic understanding of alien world views, while affirming the cultural significance of his own civilization. Such work may well become increasingly relevant to the generation now growing to maturity, as it must come to terms with a world in which the values of Western civilization are challenged.

Reinhard Bendix

[Weber’s ideas pervade the social sciences; their influence is especially evident in the entriesAdministration; Alienation; Authority; Bureaucracy; Charisma; ChineseSOCIETY; Christianity; City; Economy and SOCIETY; Empires; Ethics, article on ETHICAL SYSTEMS AND SOCIAL STRUCTURES; Ideology; Intellectuals; Interaction, article on SOCIAL INTERACTION; Law; Legal SYSTEMS, article on COMPARATIVE LAW AND LEGAL SYSTEMS; Legitimacy; Millenarism; Organizations, article on THEORIES OF ORGANIZATIONS; Political SOCIOLOGY; PoliticalTHEORY; Politics, Comparative; Power; Professions; Religion; ReligiousORGANIZATION; ReligiousSpecialists; SOCIAL Institutions; SOCIAL Movements; Society; Sociology; STATUS, Social; Stratification, Social. Other relevant material may be found inBuddhism; Caste; Creativity, article on SOCIAL ASPECTS; Education; Gambling; Hinduism; IndianPoliticalThought; Journalism; Judaism; Leadership, article on SOCIOLOGICAL Aspects; MarxistSociology; MassSociety; PoliticalAnthropology, article OuPoliticalOrganization; PoliticalRECRUITMENT AND Careers; SECTS AND CULTS; Utilitarianism,article on SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHT; and in the biographies ofBurckhardt; Halevy; Hegel; Hintze; Jellinek; Knies; Mannheim; Marx; Mlchels; Mills; Ostrogorskii; Schutz; Simmel; Sombart; Troeltsch.]

Weber published many articles and a number of pamphlets during his lifetime, but his multivolume work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, did not appear until after his death in 1920. Many of his previously published writings were put together, often in expanded versions, in the Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (1920-1921) and other collections, and the completed portions of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft were published posthumously in 1922. In the bibliographies of many articles in this encyclopedia, the date of Weber’s final version of a particular item (i.e., the date of its first posthumous publication) has been presented as the date of first publication. In this bibliography, however, the dates of publication of the original versions of these items have been given.


(1896) 1950 The Social Causes of Decay of Ancient Civilization. Journal of General Education 5:75-88. → First published in the journal Wahrheit.

(1904-1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently. A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Scribner.

(1906) 1946 The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism. Pages 302-322 in Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A greatly enlarged version of an article originally published in the Frankfurter Zeitung.

(1915) 1951 The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as “Konfuzianismus und Taoismus” in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Socialpolitik; subsequently published as Volume 1 of Weber’s Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie.

(1916-1917) 1958 The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as “Hinduismus und Buddhismus” in the Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Socialpolitik; subsequently published as Volume 2 of Weber’s Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie.

(1917-1919) 1952 Ancient Judaism. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as “Das antike Judentum” in the Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Socialpolitik; subsequently published as Volume 3 of Weber’s Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie.

(1919-1920) 1950 General Economic History. Translated by Frank H. Knight. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → Contains lectures delivered in 1919-1920, and first published in 1923. The Knight translation was first published in 1927. A paperback edition was published in 1961.

(1921a) 1958 The City. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as Die Stadt.

(1921b) 1958 The Rational and Social Foundations of Music. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press. → First published in German.

(1922a) 1956 Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie. 4th ed. 2 vols. Tübingen (Germany ): Mohr. → A new and complete translation of this work is scheduled for publication by the Bedmin-ster Press in 1968.

(1922b) 1957 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated and edited by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as Volume 1, Part 1 of Weber (1922a). A paperback edition was published in 1964.

(1922c) 1954 Max Weber on Law in Economy and Society. Edited, with an introduction and annotations, by Max Rheinstein. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published as Volume 1, Part 2 of Weber (1922a).

(1922d) 1963 The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon. → First published as Volume 2, Chapter 4 of Weber (1922a); also, in the same year, as Religionssoziologie. A paperback edition was published in 1964.

(1922e) 1961 The Three Types of Legitimate Rule. Pages 4-14 in Amitai Etzioni (editor), Complex Organizations: A Sociological Reader. New York: Holt. → First published in the Preussische Jahrbücher.

From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1946. → Contains essays first written or published between 1906 and 1924. A paperback edition was published in 1958.

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. 2d ed. 3 vols. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr, 1922-1923. → Contains studies first published between 1904 and 1921. Volume 1: Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. Die Protestantischen Sekten und der Geist des Kapitalismus. Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen. Volume 2: Hinduismus und Buddhismus. Volume 3: Das antike Judentum.

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Tübingen: Mohr, 1924.

Gesammelte politische Schriften. 2d ed. enl. Tübingen (Germany) : Mohr, 1958.

Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by Edward Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1949. → Contains three essays, two of which were published in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in 1904 and 1905; and a third essay first published in Logos in 1917.


Apter, David E. (1955) 1963 Ghana in Transition. Rev. ed. New York: Atheneum. → First published as The Gold Coast in Transition.

Aron, Raymond (1935) 1957 German Sociology. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published in French.

Bellah, Robert N. 1957 Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-industrial Japan. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Bendix, Reinhard 1956 Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization. New York: Wiley. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Bendix, Reinhard (1960) 1962 Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Bendix, Reinhard 1964 Nation-building and Citizenship: Studies of Our Changing Social Order. New York: Wiley.

Blau, Peter M. 1963 Critical Remarks on Weber’s Theory of Authority. American Political Science Review 57:305-316.

Crozier, Michel (1963) 1964 The Bureaucratic Phenomenon. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as Le phenomene bureaucratique.

Delany, William 1963 The Development and Decline of Patrimonial and Bureaucratic Administration. Administrative Science Quarterly 7:458-501.

Dore, Ronald P. 1965 Education in Tokugawa Japan. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Fallers, Lloyd A. (1956) 1965 Bantu Bureaucracy: A Century of Political Evolution. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as Bantu Bureaucracy: A Study of Integration and Conflict in the Political Institutions of an East African People.

Fischoff, Ephraim 1944 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The History of a Controversy. Social Research 11:53-77.

Gerth, Hans H.; and Gerth, Hedwig I. (compilers) 1949 Bibliography on Max Weber. Social Research 16:70-89.

Gerth, Hans H.; and Mills, C. Wright 1946 Introduction. In Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1958.

Henrich, Dieter 1952 Die Einheit der Wissenschaftslehre Max Webers. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Hintze, Otto (1902-1932)1962 Staat und Verfassung: Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur allgemeinen Verfassungsgeschichte. 2d ed., enl. Göttingen (Germany): Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Hughes, H. Stuart 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. New York: Knopf.

Kennedy, Robert E. Jr. 1962 The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis. American Journal of Sociology 68:11-20.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; and Oberschall, Anthony R. 1965 Max Weber and Empirical Social Research. American Sociological Review 30:185-199.

Luhmann, Niklas 1964 Zweck—Herrschaft—System, Grundbegriffe und Pramissen Max Webers. Staat 3: 129-158.

Mcclelland, Davh) C. 1961 The Achieving Society. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Max Weber, 1864-1964. 1964 Sociological Quarterly 5: 304-404. Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Merton, Robert K. (1938) 1967 Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England. New York: Fertig. → First published in Volume 4 of Osiris.

Merton, Robert K. (1949) 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Mommsen, Wolfgang 1959 Max Weber und die deutsche Politik, 1890-1920. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Muller-Armack, Alfred 1959 Religion und Wirtschaft. Stuttgart (Germany): Kohlhammer.

Nelson, Benjamin N. 1949 The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood. Princeton Univ. Press.

Parsons, Talcott (1937)1949 The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory With Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → Contains an extensive discussion of Weber’s ideas and an analysis of his major works.

Parsons, Talcott (1947) 1957 Introduction. In Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated and edited by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1951 The Social System. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Schelting, Alexander Von 1934 Max Webers Wissenschaftslehre: Das logische Problem der historischen Kulturerkenntnis; die Grenzen der Soziologie des Wissens. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Schweitzer, Arthur 1964 Vom Idealtypus zum Prototyp. Zeitschrift fur die gesamte Staatswissenschaft 120:13-55.

Shils, Edward 1958 The Concentration and Dispersion of Charisma: Their Bearing on Economic Policy in Underdeveloped Countries. World Politics 11:1-19.

Shils, Edward (1959-1960) 1962 Political Development in the New States. The Hague: Mouton. → First published in Volume 2 of Comparative Studies in Society and History.

Shils, Edward 1965 Charisma, Order and Status. American Sociological Review 30:199-213.

Smith, M. G. 1960 Government in Zazzau: 1800-1950. Oxford Univ. Press.

Weber, Marianne (Schnitzer) (1926) 1950 Max Weber: Ein Lebensbild. Heidelberg (Germany): Schneider. → Contains a chronologically arranged bibliography of Max Weber’s writings.

Winckelmann, Johannes 1960 Verzeichnis der Schriften Max Webers. Pages 490-507 in Max Weber, Soziologie, weltgeschichtliche Analysen, Politik. Stuttgart (Germany): Kröner.

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Weber, Max

Weber, Max 18641920





Max Weber helped establish sociology as a social scientific discipline at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (1920) he analyzed modern bureaucracies, the structure of stratification, origins of the city in the West, types of political domination, the genesis of modern legal systems, the importance of religion for social life, and other topics. Perhaps no sociologist, before or since, has displayed his intellectual range and sophistication.


Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfurt, Germany. A gifted child, Weber became politically astute at a young age. His father, a lawyer and politician, entertained prominent people in his salon and the young Weber participated in their discussions.

Webers parents were mismatched. His father, a hedonist who enjoyed bourgeois living, ruled the household absolutely. His mother, while loving and affectionate, adhered to strict Calvinist standards of hard work, ascetic behavior, and personal morality. Webers wife, Marianne, later reported that he believed he needed to choose between his parents. This dilemma became a source of emotional agony throughout his life. Indeed, his sociological writings may constitute an attempt at working through this inner conflict.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Weber became a successful lawyer and college professor. He had political aspirations. According to Marianne, a distant cousin whom he married in 1893, Weber lived an ascetic life, strictly regulated by the clock. On completing each task he immediately took on a new one. He was chronically overworked, which may have contributed to his eventual collapse.

In 1897 his mother planned a visit with Max and Marianne that his father opposed. Father and son clashed and parted without reconciliation. Shortly thereafter, the old man died. Within weeks, Weber suffered a complete nervous breakdown. At that time, before psychotherapy, the only treatment for such ailments was rest. Weber resigned his teaching position and remained incapacitated for five years. In 1903 Max and Marianne toured America, witnessing its vitality. The trip seemed to rekindle his ability to work.


In 1904 Weber posed a simple question: In what sense are there objectively valid truths in those disciplines concerned with social and cultural phenomena? ([1904] 1949, p. 51). His subsequent writings provide an answer to this query.

Webers first goal was to show that objective social scientific research is possible, a controversial position at that time and one that remains divisive. He insisted that sociologists should not infuse research with their personal values, economic interests, or political agendas. As he put it, research should be value free, as unbiased and objective as possible.

This goal carries an important implication: Sociology should not be a politically committed discipline. Rather, Weber distinguished between what ought to be, the sphere of values, and what is, the sphere of science. Science, Weber said, cannot tell people either how to live or what public policies to adopt. Objective social scientific knowledge can, however, provide them with information necessary to make such decisions ([1904] 1949, p. 54).

In order to achieve this goal, Weber argued that sociologists should apply a rational method to their work; that is, they should use clear concepts and systematic observations and then make logical inferences ([1920] 1946a, p. 143; [1904] 1949, p. 105). But this task is difficult. After all, researchers participate in social life, which means they often approach topics with preconceived opinions. Moreover, any specific study only provides a partial picture, which can imply taking sides. The solution to these difficulties is for scholars to critically evaluate and replicate research. Although this practice is imperfect (since human beings are imperfect), it leads to a self-correcting process that produces research findings that are as objective as possible. Given accurate information, Weber argued, sociologists can sometimes suggest strategies for achieving policy goals and possible consequences. At that point, values intrude, since the problem becomes what is to be done. Weber addressed this issue in his essay Politics as a Vocation, where he described politics as a process by which competing interest groups seek to affect public policies and the state as monopolizing the use of force in implementing them. The political problem of evaluating and applying scientific findings to practical matters is perennial in modern societies.

Another implication of Webers argument for value-free sociology is that the new discipline reflected an ongoing historical process that he called rationalization, in which social life becomes methodically organized based on the use of reason and observation. Weber saw that this process permeates every sphere of modern life: education, work, law, economy, and family. The sciences, of course, including sociology, are the archetypal methodical disciplines. They provide new ways of understanding and controlling our environment, natural and social, opening up dizzying new possibilities. Industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and scientific advance are linked historically, leading to improved lives for most people. For example, they have straight teeth, better diets, andthe ultimate giftlonger lives. All reflect the process of rationalization. In modern societies, then, people look for explanations based on reliable knowledge. They seek solutions to problems rather than accepting fate. This orientation becomes generalized to every sphere: Anyone who uses modern technology learns to approach problems methodically, rather than by relying on magical thinking. But the impact can be disquieting, even frightening, because choices sometimes must be made between competing moral imperatives.

Weber, like many others, feared the impact of rationalization on social life. Knowledge based on reason and observation destroyed magical explanations that had provided meaning for people throughout history. In his essay Science as a Vocation, he mused about the disenchantment of the world that characterizes modern societies ([1920] 1946a, p. 139). This evocative phrase suggests that humans have passed from an enchanted world of mystery and spirituality into one that is colder, more heartless, perhaps bereft of moral guidance. In a rationalized world, Weber lamented, there are no longer simple answers to the fundamental questions of human existence.

Webers second goal was to understand the origin of modern societies. He confronted this issue in his most important book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (19041905), and subsequent studies in the sociology of religion. They constitute an exercise in historical hypothesis testing in which Weber constructed a logical experiment using ideal types as conceptual tools.

Ideal types are concepts that identify the essential characteristics of a social phenomenon in the purest form possible. As he put it, they are designed to be perfect on logical grounds, which has the merit of clear understandability and lack of ambiguity ([1920] 1968, p. 6). Empirical observations, of course, will deviate from the ideal (or pure form). By providing a common point of comparison, however, ideal types set up a logical experiment. They function like a control group in an experiment, and observed variations reflect the impact of causal forces (a stimulus in an experiment) that can be discovered.

In The Protestant Ethic and other studies, Weber explained why capitalism arose in Western Europe and helped to usher in modern life by using ideal types to systematically compare Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with China and India. What distinguished Europe, he found, was not the level of technology, a free labor force, or other factors. Rather, the West became unique due to the rise of the culture (or spirit) of capitalism as an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Ethic opens with a then-common finding: Wherever capitalism has had a free hand a relationship existed between Protestantism and economic success ([19041905] 1958a, p. 25). Why might this be so?

Weber began his answer by describing the spirit of capitalism as it existed in the eighteenth century: (1) work is an end in itself; (2) economic success reflects personal virtue; (3) a methodically organized life is inherently proper; and (4) immediate pleasure should be postponed in favor of future satisfaction. Although expressed as ideal types, these cultural values could be observed in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and others at that time, and can be observed today as well. Weber argued that such values became historically significant as religious asceticism (self-denial) emerged from the monastery and convent into everyday life. The modern world is rationalized (in Webers sense) to the degree that ordinary people organize their lives in light of values like these.

Such values originated in the peculiar beliefs of the protesting faith groups. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber examined Puritanism as the ideal type. Puritan life was dominated by unusual ethical norms, which could be observed in pastoral directives: people should work hard, take a methodical approach to everyday life, and use their possessions for purposes that enhance the glory of God. The believers underlying motive was purely religious: to ensure they were among the elect going to heaven. The unintended impact, however, was that many of those adhering to such norms became successful, even rich. Moreover, because these religious principles displayed what he called an elective affinity with other historical changes occurring at about the same timethe rise of science, democracy, and industrializationthey spread and became secular values. Together, Weber argued, these interrelated changes produced modern rationalized capitalist societies, with their improved lives and potential for disenchantment.

Webers third goal was to develop a set of concepts that would be useful for describing and understanding modern societies. This conceptual map comprises the opening sections of Economy and Society.

The types of social action illustrate both his theoretical intent and his interpretation of the modern world. According to Weber, peoples actions can be classified in four ways. Instrumentally-rational action occurs when means and ends relate to each other based on knowledge. The model for instrumentally-rational action is scientific knowledge. Because it is based on reason and observation, science avoids self-deception and thus becomes effective in solving problems. Value-rational action is based on values. It always involves demands that people believe compel them to act. Parents educating children; soldiers obeying orders; citizens supporting or opposing abortion; all behave rationally in being faithful to their values. As the examples imply, value-rational action constitutes an end in itself, not a reflection of economic interest. Traditional action is determined by ingrained habituation ([1920] 1968, p. 25). In contexts where people are subject to fate, they regulate behavior by custom, often religiously sanctified. Affectual action is determined by emotions, and it occurs in all times and places. The parent slapping a child and the basketball player punching an opponent are examples.

Weber argued that traditional action occurs typically in preindustrial societies, where choices are limited (because knowledge is limited) and people have little control over their lives or environment. In such situations, the family usually constitutes both a productive and a consumptive unit, which means that people make economic, legal, and most other decisions in the light of tradition. Tradition (or custom) nearly always precludes the logical evaluation of means and ends based on reason and observation.

Understanding modern societies, Weber said, requires the distinction between instrumentally-rational and value-rational action, although they are interrelated in practice. The pervasiveness of instrumentally-rational action reflects the process of rationalization. People use values, however, to channel behavior. For example, they emphasize increasing knowledge, individual autonomy, protecting life, and equal opportunity, among other fundamental moral guides. In such contexts, bureaucracies become the means of administration. Their common objective is to create and enforce rules efficiently, fairly, flexibly, and competently in order for government to operate in the public interest or companies to produce goods and services. In their pure (or ideal type) form, bureaucracies constitute a model of instrumentally rational action. Ideally, administrators obtain positions based on qualifications, personal and official affairs are kept separate, decision-rules are based on reason and knowledge, and rules are applied uniformly.

In the real world, of course, human beings comprise bureaucracies, which means they do not meet these standards perfectly. For example, corruption occurs and rules are not always applied uniformlywho one knows often makes a difference. Moreover, bureaucratic procedures (following the rules) sometimes become more important than the goals they are designed to achievean irrational result. The ideal type, however, provides a point of comparison, a way of evaluating peoples performance in bureaucratic organizations.

Still, Weber was pessimistic about the future. The ability to obtain objectively valid truths about both natural and social phenomena has radically increased human understanding and improved peoples lives. But it also stripped the supernatural of its ability to explain the meaning of life. At the same time, Weber showed in The Protestant Ethic that while the religious roots of the spirit of capitalism have died out, Puritanism bequeathed to modern people an amazingly good, we may even say a pharisaically good, conscience in the acquisition of money ([19041905] 1958a, p. 176). The Puritan, he wrote, wanted to work hard for the glory of God; we are forced to do so. But for what reason? In a disenchanted world, this question becomes hard to answer. In this context, Weber feared, the culture of capitalism, combined with capitalist social, economic, and political institutions, would place people in a bureaucratic iron cage from which there might be no escape and for which there is no longer a religious justification. This possibility led to Webers last, sad lament: specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved (p. 183).


The problem of objectivity remains one of the most vexing in sociology. On the one hand, some reject the goal, arguing that sociology must be politically engaged. Among the classical theorists, both Karl Marx and émile Durkheim embraced this position, although in quite different ways. Many early American sociologists also held this view and some continue to do so in the twenty-first century. The idea is that an activist discipline can be a force for good, liberating people from oppression. On the other hand, the logic of Webers argument suggests that a discipline committed to political change would produce unreliable knowledge and, hence, become politically irrelevant. Many, perhaps most, sociologists agree that the goal of objectivity should animate the discipline, even though its achievement can be difficult.

The Protestant Ethic thesis became controversial immediately and remains so today. A typical criticism is that capitalism has existed in some form throughout history. This is correct, but not Webers point. He distinguished between the traditional enterprises of a few adventurer capitalists, who sought windfall profit sufficient to last a lifetime, and a modern rationalized capitalist economy, which is based on the mass production of consumer goods in an environment where everyone strives to make money as an ethical duty. A more accurate criticism is that Weber missed the existence of functional equivalents to the protestant ethic in other parts of the world, such as China and Japan. This assessment provides a simple example of how the social sciences can be self-correcting. The Protestant Ethic also became important because its logic suggested some of the limitations of Marxs analysis. Marx argued that political and economic interests guide action. Weber agreed but added that ideas and values function like railroad switchmen: They determine the tracks along which interests push action. For example, people sometimes vote against their economic interests because of their values. In fact, in todays rationalized world, people lead methodical lives and use reason buttressed by knowledge to achieve their values.

Weber and Marx constitute opposing poles among the classical sociologists. Both were structuralists, emphasizing the importance of understanding the context in which people make decisions. But while Marx posited the existence of historical laws of development in which feudalism led inevitably to capitalism and the latter to communism, Weber replied that history has no direction.

Rather, as it occurs, history is messy and disorderly. Observers see patterns only in retrospect. Capitalism, he pointed out, arose in the West based on a series of unpredictable historical accidents, such as the Protestant Reformation. Both stressed the importance of human decision making, but again in different ways. Marx argued that inequality would increase to unsustainable levels in capitalist societies. In this context, he claimed, alienated people who did not own the means of production would rebel and usher in a new, communal society. Marx was wrong. Writing a half-century later, Weber saw that capitalism combined with industrialization to produce a middle class. He worried instead about the possibility of reason run amok: In a disenchanted world, rationalized bureaucracies would oppress people, creating conformists without a sense of ethical responsibility.

Although Weber may have been too pessimistic, the historical process of rationalization creates huge dilemmas that are not easily resolved. It is secularizing, thus frustrating a deeply felt human need for what Weber called theodicies, ways of understanding and coping with suffering and evil. It is individuating, which leads to a paradox: People come to value both individual autonomy and communal bonds. And it is liberating, as so many areas previously determined by fate become opportunities for choiceby individuals, the state, or both. For example, one of the benefits of modernity is the gift of long life and an increasing ability to control the circumstances of death. In this context, what ethical criteria should individuals use in making end of life decisions? As interest groups offer their competing solutions, how should policy makers evaluate the political, economic, and ethical considerations surrounding this dilemma? The simple answer provided by traditionthou shall not killbecomes difficult to maintain when individuals right to life must be balanced against their freedom and autonomy. Moral imperatives collide. Weber saw this essential feature of modern capitalist societies perhaps more clearly than any other classical sociologist.

Toward the end of his life, Weber seemed to find release from his psychic wounds.

Marianne reported that his ability to work became steadier and sleep more regular. He began teaching for the first time in more than twenty years, giving two of his most famous lectures: Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation. He also reworked his explanation of the origins of capitalism and began composing the conceptual map that frames the substantive portions of Economy and Society. During the summer of 1920 Max Weber developed pneumonia. He died on June 14; he was only fifty-six years old.

SEE ALSO Capitalism; Protestant Ethic; Tawney, R. H.


Becker, Howard. 1967. Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems 14 (2): 239247.

Bellah, Robert N. 1985. Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan. New York: Free Press.

Berger, Peter L. 1977. Toward a Critique of Modernity. In Facing Up to Modernity, ed. Peter L. Berger. New York: Basic Books.

Buroway, Michael. 2005. 2004 Presidential Address: For Public Sociology. American Sociological Review 70 (1): 428.

Swatos, William H., and Lutz Kaelber. 2005. The Protestant Ethic Turns 100. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Turner, Jonathan H., Leonard Beeghley, and Charles Powers. 2002. The Emergence of Sociological Theory, 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Weber, Marianne. [1926] 1975. Max Weber: A Biography. New York: Wiley.

Weber, Max. [1904] 1949. Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy. In The Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. [19041905] 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribners Sons.

Weber, Max. [1913] 1951. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, trans. and ed. Hans Gerth. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Weber, Max. [19161917] 1958. The Religion of India: Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, trans. Hans Gerth. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Weber, Max. [1920a] 1946. Politics as a Vocation. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. [1920b] 1946. Science as a Vocation. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. [1920c] 1968. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. New York: Bedminster Press.

Weber, Max. [19221923] 1946c. The Social Psychology of the World Religions. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leonard Beeghley

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Max Weber

Max Weber

The German social scientist Max Weber (1864-1920) was a founder of modern sociological thought. His historical and comparative studies of the great civilizations are a landmark in the history of sociology.

The work of Max Weber reflects a continued interest in charting the varying paths taken by universal cultural history as reflected in the development of the great world civilizations. In this sense, he wished to attempt a historical and analytical study of the themes sounded so strongly in G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy of history, especially the theme, which Weber took as his own, of the "specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture." Along with this emphasis on universal cultural history, Weber's detailed training as a legal and economic historian led him to reject the overly simplistic formulas of economic base and corresponding cultural superstructure that were so often used to account for cultural development and were a strong part of the intellectual environment of Weber's early years as student and professor. His historical and comparative erudition and analytical awareness required that he go beyond both the Hegelian and Marxian versions of historical development toward a deep historical and comparative study of sociocultural processes in West and East.

Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfaut, Thuringia, the son of a lawyer active in political life. An attack of meningitis at the age of 4 and his mother's consequent overprotectiveness helped contribute to Weber's sedentary yet intellectually precocious youth. He read widely in the classics and was bored with the unchallenging secondary education of his time, which he completed in 1882. He then attended Heidelberg University, where he studied law, along with history, economics, and philosophy.

After three terms at Heidelberg, Weber served a year in the military, which he found to be largely an "incredible waste of time" with its continued attempts to regiment the human intellect. Resuming his studies at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen in 1884, he passed his bar examination in 1886 and would later practice law for a time. He completed his doctoral thesis in 1889 with an essay on the history of the medieval trading companies, which embodied his interests in both legal and economic history. His second major work, a customary "habilitation" thesis that would qualify him to teach at the university level, appeared in 1891 and involved a study of the economic, cultural, and legal foundations of ancient agrarian history.

In 1893 Weber married Marianne Schnitger. The following year he received an appointment as professor of economics at Freiburg University; in 1896 he accepted a professorship at Heidelberg. Shortly after his father's death in 1897, Weber began to suffer from a psychic disturbance that incapacitated him almost completely until 1902. By the next year he was well enough to join Werner Sombart in editing the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft and Sozialpolitik (Archives for Social Science and Social Policy), the most prominent German social science journal of the period.

Protestantism and Capitalism

Having assumed his full work load again, Weber began to write perhaps his most renowned essays, published in the Archivin 1904-1905 under the title The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In them he attempted to link the rise of a new sort of distinctly modern capitalism to the religious ethics of Protestantism, especially the Calvinist variety, with its emphasis on work in a calling directed toward the rational ascetic mastery of this world.

Weber argued that, when the asceticism of the medieval Catholic monastery, oriented toward salvation in a world beyond this one through self-denial exercised by a religious few, was brought into the conduct of everyday affairs, it contributed greatly to the systematic rationalization and functional organization of every sphere of existence, especially economic life. He viewed the Reformation as a crucial period in western European history, one that was to see a fundamental reorientation of basic cultural frameworks of spiritual direction and human outlook and destined to have a great impact on economic life as well as other aspects of modern culture. Within the context of his larger questions, Weber tended to view Protestant rationalism as one further step in the series of stages of increasing rationalization of every area of modern society.

In 1904 Weber was invited to attend the St. Louis Exhibition in Missouri and to deliver a popular sociological lecture. While in America, he had substantial opportunity to encounter what he saw as added evidence for his special thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as for his more general philosophic and historical concerns. In the United States the religious foundations of modern economic life had seen perhaps their greatest fruition in the enormous "towers of capital, " as Weber called them, of the eastern industrial centers of the country. However, he also recognized that the contemporary American economic life had been stripped of its original ethical and religious impulse. Intense economic competition assumed the character almost of sport, and no obvious possibilities appeared for the resuscitation of new spiritual values from what appeared to be the extensive mechanization of social and economic existence.

Employing a method that isolated the similarities and differences between features of sociocultural development in different societies, Weber attempted to weigh the relative importance of economic, religious, juridical, and other factors in contributing to the different historical outcomes seen in any comparative study of world societies. This larger theme formed one of his central intellectual interests throughout the remainder of his life, and it resulted in the publication of The Religion of China (1915), The Religion of India (1916-1917), and Ancient Judaism (1917-1919). Although he also planned comparable works on early Christianity, medieval Catholicism, and Islamic civilization, he died before they could be completed.

Later Work

After the essays of 1904-1905, Weber took on an even heavier burden of activities than before his illness. His break with the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Union for Social Policy), a long-standing German political and social scientific organization, over the question of the relation of social scientific research to social policy led to the establishment in 1910, with the collaboration of other great social scientists of his day, of the new Deutsche Soziologische Gesellschaft (German Sociological Society).

Weber and his collaborators argued that social science could not be simply subordinated to political values and policies. Rather, there was a logical distinction between the realms of fact and value, one which required a firmly grounded distinction between the analyses of the social scientist and the policies of any political order. Social science must develop "objective" frames of reference, ones "neutral" to any particular political policies and ethical values. This ever-renewed tension between particular ethical stances and "objectivity" in the sciences remained a central part of Weber's concerns in his political activities during and after World War I as well as in his academic writings and lectures.

Economy and Society

In 1909 Weber took over the editorship of a projected multivolume encyclopedic work on the social sciences entitled Outline of Social Economics. It was to contain volumes authored by prominent social scientists of the time. Although he was originally to contribute the volume Economy and Society to this effort, difficulties in obtaining completed manuscripts from some participants led Weber to expand his contribution into what became a prodigious attempt at the construction of a systematic sociology in world historical and comparative depth, one which was to occupy a large portion of his time and energies during the remainder of his life. He published his first contributions in 1911-1913, other still unfinished sections being published after his death.

Economy and Society differed in tone and emphasis from Weber's comparative studies of the cultural foundations of Chinese, Indian, and Western civilizations. This massive work was an attempt at a more systematic sociology, not directed toward any single comparative, historical problem but rather toward an organization of the major areas of sociological inquiry into a single whole. Weber never believed it possible to write a truly systematic sociology that would have separate analytical sections on each area of interest and that would form a general system of theory. Containing large sections on sociological analysis, the economy and social norms, economy and law, domination, and legitimacy, and still unsurpassed sections on religion, the city, and political rulership, Economy and Society remains today perhaps the only systematic sociology in world historical and comparative depth.

Last Years

Despite time spent in the medical service during World War I, Weber's efforts were largely devoted from 1910 to 1919 to the completion of his studies on China, India, and ancient Judaism and to his work on Economy and Society. Many younger as well as more established scholars formed part of Weber's wide intellectual circle during these years. Always desirous of championing the cause of scholars whose work was judged unfairly because of religious, political, or other external criteria, Weber on numerous occasions attempted to aid these young scholars—despite sometimes substantial intellectual differences with them— by securing for them the academic appointments they deserved. Often these attempts were unsuccessful and led Weber into bitter conflicts with many established scholars and political figures over the relation of science to values and the application of extrascientific criteria to the evaluation of a writer's work.

In 1918 Weber resumed his teaching duties. One result was a series of lectures in 1919-1920, "Universal Economic History, " which was published posthumously from students' notes as General Economic History. Along with this lecture series, Weber delivered two addresses in 1918, "Science as a Vocation" and "Politics as a Vocation, " in which he voiced ethical themes that had occupied him in his scholarly work and in his numerous discussions of social policy. In these two addresses he contrasted the ethic of unalterable ultimate ends so characteristic of uncompromising religious and political prophets with the ethic of consequences so necessary in political life, in which possible outcomes of actions and policies are agonizingly weighed and the least undesirable course determined in light of a plurality of given goals. Variants of this distinction pervaded much of Weber's own view of political and religious life and formed a central aspect of his ethical philosophy.

Thus, Weber sounded ethical themes that have become a central part of the "existentialist" philosophical orientation of our time. Understanding the dilemma of modern men caught between the older religious systems of the past and the cynical power politics of the present, he gave no simple solutions and was willing neither to wait for new prophets nor to abdicate all ethical responsibility for the conduct of life because of its seeming ultimate "meaninglessness."

Weber died in Munich on June 14, 1920. His work forms a major part of the historical foundation of sociology.

Further Reading

Biographical background on Weber as well as an analysis of his major intellectual orientation can be found in the "Introduction" to From Max Weber:Essays in Sociology, edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1946). An interpretation of Weber's life and work, emphasizing analytical motifs derived from Freudianism and the sociology of knowledge, is provided by Arthur Mitzman, The Iron Cage: An Historical Interpretation of Max Weber (1970).

There are a number of readily accessible general treatments of Weber's sociology. Volume 2 of Raymond Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought (2 vols., 1965-1967), contains an excellent treatment of Weber, recommended for beginning students. Julien Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber (1966; trans. 1968), is overly systematic, yet chapters 1 and 2 are helpful as an introduction to Weber's vision of society and his method. Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (1960), gives a depth analysis of Weber's historical works but is recommended for more advanced study. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (1937; 2d ed. 1949), gives a penetrating and difficult treatment of some elements of Weber's theoretical perspective.

In addition to Mitzman's study, helpful insights into the social, political, and intellectual background of the period are in Koppel S. Pinson, Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization (1954; 2d ed. 1966), and Walter M. Simon, Germany: A Brief History (1966). □

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Weber, Max

Weber, Max (1864–1920) Weber, together with Émile Durkheim, is generally regarded as the founder of modern sociology as a distinct social science. Of the two, his work is the more complex and ambitious, still providing a rich source for interpretation and inspiration. His life, too, possesses a certain fascination. A mental breakdown in 1897 was followed by four years of intellectual inactivity. His wife Marianne was an early feminist, and the Webers were the heart of the most impressive intellectual circle in early twentieth-century Germany, centred on regular Sunday seminars at their Heidelberg home. Max Weber's contribution to sociology was immense. He offered a philosophical basis for the social sciences; a general conceptual framework for sociology; and a range of learned studies covering all of the great world religions, ancient societies, economic history, the sociology of law and of music, and many other areas.

Whereas Durkheim's attempt to found a science of sociology was based on the scientific positivism of his day, Weber's intellectual training was in the neo-Kantian school of philosophy associated with the names of Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert (see GEISTESWISSENSCHAFTEN and NATURWISSENSCHAFTEN), dominant in Germany at that time. This philosophy involved a radical distinction between phenomena (the external world we perceive) and noumena (the perceiving consciousness). In Weber's sociology, this became a distinction between the natural and social sciences, the latter concerned with the forms in which we apprehend the world. Thus, whilst we might wish to establish universal laws in the natural sciences, this was not the task of the social sciences—since their interest is in the causal explanation and understanding of social actions in their particular historical contexts. At the same time, human society was not a matter of chance but of ‘probabilities’, and what made social science possible was the fact that human beings act rationally for at least a large part of the time.

The proper object of social science, then, is social action: action directed towards significant others and to which we attach a subjective meaning. Sociology attempts an interpretative account of such action using an ideal-type methodology. Weber developed a fourfold classification of social action: traditional action undertaken because it has always been so performed; affectual action based on or driven by emotion; value-rational action directed towards ultimate values; and end-rational or instrumental action. Only the last two of these fall within the scope of rational action—although Weber also argued strongly that there can be no rational choice either of ends or ultimate values. However, once these have been adopted, they can certainly be pursued by more or less rational means. Weber saw the development of modern societies as a process of increasing rationalization in which the world loses its mystery. The growth of large-scale modern bureaucracy is a major part of that process and one of Weber's criticisms of socialism was that it would simply hasten this ‘disenchantment’ of life.

On a philosophical level, Weber's other main contribution was a theory of value-freedom, a complex formulation often mistakenly interpreted as a naïve belief in objectivity. For Weber, the choice of science and of sociology was a value choice, which could not be justified in terms of instrumental rationality. This was true also of the selection of a particular object of study. However, once these choices were made, a sociological study could be value-free in the sense that its rational coherence was subject to the criticisms of the scientific community. What might be meant by rational, however, was itself open to historical change. In this sense, social scientific work is hemmed in by values, not only the values of the individual sociologist but also those of the community of social scientists and the prevailing culture as a whole.

It is common to juxtapose Weber to Marx, and to see him as developing an alternative sociology, at once both more scientific and more bourgeois. In fact Weber's intellectual mentors are numerous and diverse. For example, in formulating the protestant ethic thesis (often read as an alternative to Marxist accounts of the rise of capitalism), Weber was explicitly building upon earlier theories of capitalism and of money propounded by Werner Sombart and Georg Simmel. Weber does, however, provide an important alternative to Marxist conceptions of class and politics. For Weber, class is defined not by relationship to the means of production, but by the sharing of a common market position leading to shared life-chances. This has enabled sociologists to talk about, for example, housing classes (owner-occupiers, tenants of private rentals, and so forth) as well as classes defined by possession of skills and other marketable assets. Beyond this he introduced the concept of status group as an important element of stratification: that is, groups differentiated according to positive or negative honorific criteria, and sharing a common style of life (such as ethnic groups or castes). He also argued that organized conflicts over power were an important aspect of social life and one not necessarily linked to economic class conflict.

There is considerable disagreement about Weber's political views, which are as ambivalent and complex as many of his sociological analyses. Was he, as some have claimed, a precursor of fascism; or, as seems much more plausible, a sophisticated liberal? The problem is that, as with much of his other work, his political writings do not fit the rather simplistic categories into which social theorists now try to fit them.

His publications are as voluminous as they are diverse, but his most important works (all available in English translation) are probably Economy and Society (1922, translated 1968), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905, translated 1930), General Economic History (1923), The Religion of China (1916, translated 1951), The Religion of India (1916–17, translated 1958), Ancient Judaism (1917–19, translated 1952), and the essays on methodology collected and translated as The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1949). Marianne Weber's fascinating biography of her husband (Max Weber: A Biography, 1975) is a sociological classic—though frequently economical with the truth about Weber's private and public life. The best short introduction to the main elements of Weber's sociological work is Frank Parkin's (often highly critical) Max Weber (1982). See also ABSOLUTISM; ACTION THEORY; CHARISMA; DOMINATION; FEUDALISM; FORMAL RATIONALITY; HINDUISM; INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY; INTERPRETATION; LAW, SOCIOLOGY OF; LEGITIMACY; PATRIMONIALISM; RELIGION, SOCIOLOGY OF.

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Weber, Max


Max Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who is best known for his theory of the development of Western capitalism that is based on the "Protestant Ethic." In addition, Weber wrote widely on law and religion, including groundbreaking work on the importance of bureaucracy in modern society. He also worked to establish the discipline of sociology based on an objective scholarship.

Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfurt, Germany, into a wealthy manufacturing family. He studied at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin and joined the faculty at Heidelberg in 1896. A prolific writer and scholar, Weber resigned his professorship in 1907 after coming into an inheritance that made him financially independent, allowing him to devote all his energies to scholarship.

"[The] modern judge is a vending machine into which the pleadings are inserted together with the fee and which then disgorges the judgment together with the reasons mechanically derived from the Code."
—Max Weber

Weber's most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), introduced the concept of the "Protestant Ethic." Weber theorized that certain Protestant religious beliefs promoted the growth of capitalism. He claimed a relationship existed between success in capitalist ventures and Protestant (in particular, Calvinist and Puritan sects) theology. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination posited that individuals could never know if they were to receive God's salvation. This doctrine bred psychological insecurity in John Calvin's followers, who eventually looked for signs that might indicate they were in God's grace. From this search for signs developed the Protestant Ethic, which called for unceasing commitment to work and ascetic abstinence from any enjoyment of the profit realized from such labors. The result, Weber argued, was the

rapid accumulation of capital that fueled the rise of Western capitalism.

Weber also analyzed how politics, government, and law have developed in Western and non-Western cultures. He proposed the idea of the charismatic leader, who exhibited both religious and political authority. Weber was more interested, however, in the development of modern government and the growth of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a method of organization based on specialization of duties, action according to rules, and a stable order of authority. For Weber, bureaucracy was an expression of "rationality," which in his terminology meant the use of rules and procedures to determine outcomes rather than sentiment, tradition, or rules of thumb.

Weber's sociological theories had a great impact on twentieth century sociology. He developed the notion of "ideal types," which were examples of situations in history that could be used as reference points to compare and contrast different societies. This approach analyzes the basic elements of social institutions and examines how these elements relate to one another.

Weber died on June 14, 1920, in Munich, Germany.

further readings

Kim, Sung Ho. 2004. Max Weber's Politics of Civil Society. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Milovanovic, Dragan. 1989. Weberian and Marxian Analysis of Law: Development and Functions of Law in a Capitalist Mode of Production. Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury.

Schroeder, Ralph, ed. 1998. Max Weber, Democracy and Modernization. New York: St. Martin's Press.

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Weber, Max

Weber, Max (1864–1920). Major scholar and sociologist, who is regarded, alongside E. Durkheim, as a founder of the sociology of religion.

Weber's essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–5) encapsulates the central tenets of Weber's sociological approach to religion. Popular accounts notwithstanding, Weber did not claim that Protestantism caused capitalism. Rather, by postulating an ‘elective affinity’ between the ethic of Protestantism and the spirit of modern rational capitalism he articulated one specific link in a complex causal chain of socio-cultural elements. Rejecting the determinism of both Hegelian idealism and Marxian materialism, Weber saw religion as a potential independent variable in a multivariate formula: a proactive as well as a reactive element in social life.

For Weber, the study of religion is not an end in itself but simply an indispensable means of understanding human society. From this perspective, religion represents humanity's continuous effort to impose intellectual and moral order on the chaos of existence and, in the process, to discover the ultimate meaning of the cosmos for both individuals and collectivities. Contributing their own distinctive solutions to the problem of meaning (for example, in theodicies which explain the existence of suffering and evil), the great world religions provide the main focus of Weber's vast comparative-historical analysis of civilizations and constitute the essential background to his penetrating account of the emergence of the modern world.

The transformation of a collective desire for salvation from a diffuse sentiment to a new religious dispensation is, according to Weber, the achievement of the prophet. By claiming a special gift of divine grace (charisma), this type of religious leader (whether in exemplary or ethical guise) challenges the legitimacy of the established religious and social order and attempts a breakthrough into a realm of new values. In decisively breaking with tradition, the prophet initiates a more systematized cultural order and is thus a prime mover in the process of rationalization which dominates Weber's broad vision of social dynamics and underlies his dark ruminations on the fate of the world.

(See further IDEAL TYPE).

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JOHN BOWKER. "Weber, Max." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. 30 May. 2016 <>.

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Weber, Max

Weber, Max

Max Weber (18641920) is one of the most influential and prolific writers of sociological theory. In conceptualizing modernity, Weber focused on the rationalization of the world where a society becomes dominated by cultural norms of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control resulting in dehumanizing rationalization where the average man is less important than the clock and the calculator. Just as the fast-food industry has become rationalized, so have the industries associated with dying and disposal of the dead.

Although Weber never actually dealt with the issue of death, many theorists using this definition of rationalization have shown that it can be extended to how society deals with death. As a society becomes more rational, efficiency in dealing with the dead becomes more important. There are funeral directors and other professionals who specialize in the systematic and routine caring for the deceased. Calculability is also evident in American society's view of death. Many actuarians and physicians focus on disease and death statistics in an attempt to better predict the causes and timing of death. The rationalization of society is evident in the demystification of death. Death is no longer "a journey to the next world" but simply an end to life. As a society moves toward rationality as its norm, death becomes a systematic and logical event, eliminating some of the most human aspects of dying.

See also: Death System; Social Functions of Death


Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1996.

Ritzer, George. Sociological Theory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.


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WARD, JOHNETTA M.. "Weber, Max." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. 30 May. 2016 <>.

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Weber, Max (German sociologist)

Max Weber (mäks vā´bər), 1864–1920, German sociologist, economist, and political scientist. At various times he taught at Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Heidelberg. One of Weber's chief interests was in developing a methodology for social science, and his works had a considerable influence on 20th-century social scientists. As a technique of sociological analysis, he devised the concept of "ideal types," generalized models of historical situations that could be used as a basis for comparing societies. He opposed the orthodox Marxian view of the time that economics was the preeminent determining factor in social causation and instead stressed the plurality and interdependence of causes. Weber emphasized the role of religious values, ideologies, and charismatic leaders in shaping societies. In his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1920, tr. 1930) he developed a thesis concerning the intimate connection between the ascetic ideal fostered by Calvinism and the rise of capitalist institutions. A keen observer of politics in his own time, he first admired, then repudiated Otto von Bismarck, and he later advocated for Germany a democratic form of government somewhat on the American model. He has also been influential in using statistical sociology in the study of economic policy. Among his other books are Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [economy and society] (4th ed. 1956) and General Economic History (1924, tr. 1927).

See From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (with a biography and appraisal by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 1946); studies by J. Freund (1968), A. Mitzman (1969), W. G. Runciman (1972), D. Beetham (1974), W. J. Mommsen (1974), G. Roth (1979), and J. Alexander (1983).

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Weber, Max (American painter)

Max Weber (mäks wĕb´ər), 1881–1961, American painter, b. Russia. At 10 he accompanied his family to Brooklyn, N.Y. He studied art at Pratt Institute and in 1905 went abroad. In Paris he studied under J. P. Laurens, later visiting Spain and Italy and returning to New York in 1909. Weber's work in the following decade was fauvist and then cubist inspired. Characteristic of the latter trend is his well-known Chinese Restaurant (Whitney Mus., New York City). He began to introduce Jewish subjects into his work c.1917. During the 1920s, Weber alternated painting with teaching. Contemporary and social themes were his subjects in the 1930s, when his work became increasingly abstract and revealed a new energetic use of line. Weber is represented in leading galleries throughout the United States. He wrote several essays on art theory.

See study by L. Goodrich (1949).

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Weber, Max

Weber, Max (1864–1920) German sociologist. He advanced the concept of ‘ideal types’, generalized models of social situations, as a method of analysis. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), he put forward the idea that Calvinism was influential in the rise of capitalism.

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