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Weber, Max


WEBER, MAX (1864–1920), German social scientist.

While posterity views Max Weber primarily as a sociologist, his contemporaries knew him as an economist. He also made seminal contributions to economic history, political science, the history of law, and the philosophy of social science. Weber, in brief, is one of the giants of social science and his knowledge was truly encyclopedic.

Weber was born into a wealthy and well-connected upper-middle-class family in Erfurt. His father was a magistrate and later a member of the Reichstag, and his mother a deeply religious person of Huguenot ancestry. As a child Weber already showed a strong interest in reading and taking notes, especially in historical topics. As a student he focused on law, especially the history of law, but he also studied history, philosophy, and economics.

Though he wrote his dissertation as well as his Habilitation thesis in the field of law, Weber was soon offered a professorship in economics; the reason for this was his impressive writings in this field as a member of the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy). His academic career continued to be spectacularly successful until the end of the 1890s, when he had a nervous breakdown that stopped him from further academic work.

Though he never fully recovered, Weber soon began to write again and lived most of his remaining years as a private scholar. In 1904–1905 he published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which made him famous inside as well as outside of Germany. A few years later he started to work on what was to become another landmark study, Economy and Society (1910–1914). He also completed several volumes in a project called The Economic Ethics of the World Religions (1920–1921).

Weber was a friend of major intellectuals of his time such as Georg Simmel (1858–1918), Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), and Georg Jellinek (1851–1911). In 1893 he married a distant relative, Marianne Schnitger (1870–1954), who became active in the women's movement and a scholar in her own right. After her husband's death, Marianne Weber organized his work for publication and in other ways nurtured his reputation.

Weber was intensely interested in politics and repeatedly tried to get a foothold in professional politics. This failed, and he was probably also temperamentally unsuited for routine political activity, which he famously described in "Politics as a Vocation" (1921) as the slow drilling through hard boards. Weber was, in contrast, quite influential through his many newspaper articles on political topics, especially during World War I. He also helped to write the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Weber wrote in several different social science disciplines. Besides his two dissertations in the history of law, he also wrote voluminously on the legal aspects of the stock exchange. In economic history, there is his famous economic and social history of antiquity, as well as his early study of rural workers in imperial Germany. A volume on general economic history also exists, reconstructed from students' notes. Weber's most important articles in the philosophy of social science have been collected in a separate volume, and so have his writings on politics. Finally, there are Weber's works in sociology: The Protestant Ethic and theSpirit of Capitalism, Economy and Society, and The Economic Ethics of the World Religions.

The Protestant Ethic is without doubt Weber's most famous as well as his most controversial work. Its main thesis is that a certain type of Protestantism ("ascetic Protestantism") helped to create the spirit of modern, rational capitalism. In doing so, it also helped to put an end to traditional capitalism and usher in a new period in the history of the West that Weber describes as an "iron cage." What had started out as an attempt by Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), and other Protestant reformers to improve the relationship of the believer to God, had paradoxically ended up as a more efficient way to make money.

Exactly how this whole development came about constitutes the most controversial part of the so-called Weber thesis. According to what may be termed Weber's hypothetical reconstruction, the typical Calvinist tried to counter religious anxiety by looking for signs that he or she was doing well in the eyes of an inscrutable God. One of these signs was material wealth, which made the Calvinists invest their business activities with religious energy and methodical intent. Soon the economic mentality of the Calvinists and other ascetic Protestants became the norm in economic life—and Western capitalism had acquired a new mentality. This mentality eventually translated into a set of new capitalist institutions, such as the modern factory, the joint-stock corporation, and so on.

The Weber thesis had hardly been published before it was attacked. Much of the criticism in Weber's time and into the twenty-first century, however, is based on a misreading of his argument. It is often claimed, for example, that Weber regarded "Protestantism" as "the cause" of "capitalism," while what he argues is that ascetic Protestantism was one of the causes of a new capitalist mentality. Nonetheless, Weber's work contains little empirical support of his thesis, perhaps because he primarily tried to show how modern rational capitalism could have emerged, drawing on the type of cultural analysis in which Weber at this point of his life was deeply interested. One way of summing up a century of debate about The Protestant Ethic is to say that while most social scientists reject Weber's argument, it still has a number of defenders.

The Protestant Ethic was part of a larger research project that Weber spent much of World War I working on. This project, which Weber called "The Economic Ethics of the World Religions," had two major goals. First, Weber wanted to explore the role of religions other than Protestantism in promoting or blocking the birth of modern rational capitalism. And second, Weber wanted to explore what role rational forms of behavior and culture played in making the West into the leader of the modern world.

Weber never completed this project, but the work that he did produce gives a clear indication of his findings. As to the first question, he established that most of the major religions in the world have in one way or another blocked the emergence of modern, rational capitalism. Hinduism, as Weber explains in The Religion of India (1958), legitimated the caste system. Buddhism, in contrast, set a high priority on withdrawing from the concerns of life in this world, something that led to a disinterest in material wealth. Taoism helped to prevent rational capitalism from emerging in Southeast Asia by exalting magic, according to The Religion of China (1951); Confucianism had a similar affect through its ethical justification of traditionalism.

The rise of the West, according to Weber, is intimately connected to the central role that rationalism came to play in a number of areas of social life. Besides the economy, there is also art, architecture, music, and the state. In all of these areas, and more can be added, the West developed a certain mentality that made it possible for Europe to take the lead in the world and impose its leadership on other civilizations.

While some see The Protestant Ethic and the volumes that make up The Economic Ethics of the World Religions as Weber's most important achievement, others point to Economy and Society. Again, this was a work that he never completed. When he died he had finished the first four chapters and various drafts for the rest of the work, leaving it to posterity to figure out what he had intended to include.

While controversy still rages over whether the content of the existing editions adequately captures Weber's intentions, the scholarly quality of his work has never been questioned. In chapter 1 of Economy and Society, Weber presents a very ambitious program for what he terms an interpretive sociology: that is, a sociology that is concerned with social action and the meaning with which actors invest their behavior. Chapter 1 also contains a famous typology of sociological concepts.

In addition, Economy and Society contains important chapters on economic sociology, sociology of law, and sociology of religion. Other chapters contain Weber's famous theory of bureaucracy, the concept of status, and the typology of domination (rational, traditional, and charismatic). To this may be added a wealth of historical material as well as a superb account (in the current English edition) of the political situation in imperial Germany.

While Economy and Society contains a highly sophisticated analysis of various social mechanisms that operate throughout society, it also gives voice to Weber's view of the modern world. According to Weber, the modern world is becoming increasingly rationalized, a process that is taking place in all of society's different spheres. Religion and the economy, for example, are becoming more methodical and rational. In several spheres, bureaucracy—defined by Weber as efficient and dutiful administration—is also becoming ever more present.

There exist good reasons to regard Weber as one of the most important social scientists of all times, and of the same stature as scholars like Montesquieu (1689–1755), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Karl Marx (1818–1883). While an enormous secondary literature has been devoted to Weber's writings, many parts of his work are still relatively unexplored or little understood. His consistent focus on the most central and difficult problems in social science—such as causality, culture, and social structure—makes his work ever modern.

See alsoCapitalism; Protestantism; Sociology.


Primary Sources

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London, 1930.

——. Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. New York, 1949.

——. The Religion of China. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth. New York, 1951.

——. The Religion of India. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. New York, 1958.

——. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Translated by Ephraim Fischoff. New York, 1978.

——. General Economic History. New Brunswick, N.J., 1981.

——. Gesamtausgabe. Frankfurt, 1984.

——. Weber: Political Writings. Edited by Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Secondary Sources

Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Garden City, N.Y., 1960. An important introduction to Weber's work, minus his methodology.

Käsler, Dirk. Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Chicago, 1988. This is the best overall introduction to Weber's work and life.

Marshall, Gordon. In Search of the Spirit of Capitalism: An Essay on Max Weber's Protestant Ethic Thesis. London, 1982. An excellent introduction to the debate surrounding The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Mommsen, Wolfgang. Max Weber and German Politics 1890–1920. Translated by Michael S. Steinberg. Chicago, 1984. The major study of Weber's political ideas.

Sica, Alan. Max Weber: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New Brunswick, N.J., 2004. A major bibliography of the secondary material on Weber as well as existing translations of his work.

Swedberg, Richard. The Max Weber Dictionary. Stanford, Calif., 2005. A helpful guide to key words and central concepts in Weber's work.

Weber, Marianne. Max Weber: A Biography. Edited and translated by Harry Zohn. New York, 1975. The only existing biography of Weber's life, written by his wife.

Richard Swedberg

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