Weber, Max (1864-1920)

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WEBER, MAX (1864-1920)

Max Weber was one of the founding figures of sociology. His work is important to students of communication for several reasons, including his methodological and theoretical innovations as well as a diversity of useful concepts and examples for the analysis of social behavior, economic organization and administration, authority, leadership, culture, society, and politics.

Weber grew up in Berlin, where his father was a lawyer and politicians and scholars were family friends. He studied law, economics, history, and philosophy at the universities in Heidelberg, Göttingen, and Berlin. He taught law briefly at the University of Berlin and became professor of economics at Freiberg in 1894 and then at Heidelberg in 1896. Depression and anxiety interrupted his career in 1898. He returned to his research in 1903 but did not hold another teaching post until just a few years prior to his death. All of his important work comes from the later period, including his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), and his studies of The Religion of China (1916), The Religion of India (1916), and Ancient Judaism (1917-1918). The masterwork, Economy and Society, was left fragmentary; it was edited and published posthumously in 1922.

Weber's work provides an example of historical and comparative social science that successfully negotiated between attention to theoretical concepts and empirical details. Rather than concluding an investigation with a generalization or theoretical claim—that all economic behavior is rational, for example—Weber would use the concept of rational behavior as a comparison point in conducting his research. In this way, his work explored particular differences and contingencies rather than generalizing across them.

Weber's work provides the origin of action theory as such. Weber defines action as meaningfully oriented behavior, and takes it to be the fundamental unit of sociological investigation. This is crucially important for communication studies, for it defines a model of social science distinct from behaviorism. Unlike behaviorism, in action theory the meanings that people have for their behaviors are taken to be crucially important. For example, "her arm went up" is a statement of behaviorism; "she raised her arm" is a statement of action theory. In behaviorism, all implications of meaning and motivation are avoided in favor of simple descriptions of physical events. In action theory, meanings and motives are the point of investigation. For students of communication, simple behavior is an important substratum of their investigations, but it is never enough. The study of communication without attention to motive and meaning can never be complete. Thus, Weber's example of a scientific approach to such problems is crucially important.

How could Weber claim a scientific approach to motives and meanings, which cannot be directly observed? His resolution of this problem has been widely admired and imitated. On the one hand, he combined logic, empathy, and interpretation to construct ideal types for the analysis of historical cases. He constructed, for example, ideal type models of how the perfectly rational or perfectly traditional actor would make choices in ideal circumstances. These expectations would then be compared with what real people did in actual circumstances. When historical actors deviated from the ideal types, Weber did not take that as evidence of their cognitive shortcomings (their irrationality, for example) but as clues to additional concepts he needed to develop for further analysis. Working from the other direction, he interpreted historical records empathetically, striving to identify how the actors in a particular situation could have seen their action as a rational response to their circumstances. In this way, he was able to construct models of a range of types of rational action, opening up his theory to a greater range of human situations than either the behaviorists or the economists. Prayer, for example, as Weber pointed out, is rational behavior from the point of view of the faithful.

Weber's work also provides many useful concepts and examples for communication studies, in addition to the wide-ranging importance of his action theory and his methodological innovations. His analysis of economic organization and administration is the standard model of rational organization in the study of organizational communication. His studies of authority and leadership are important to students of both organizational and political communication. His studies in the sociology of religion explore the range of possibilities in the relation between ideas and social structures, a problem that continues to be at the heart of cultural studies. His contrasts of rational and traditional and his analysis of modern bureaucracy are starting points for analysis of modern industrial-commercial culture and communication and the effect of the media on culture and politics.

See also:Cultural Studies; Models of Communication; Organizational Communication.


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

Gerth, Hans H., and Mills, C. Wright, eds. (1958). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. ([1904] 1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, tr. Talcott Parsons. New York: Scribner.

Weber, Max. ([1916] 1964). The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, tr. Hans H. Gerth. New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. ([1916] 1958). The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, trs. Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. ([1917-1918] 1958). Ancient Judaism, trs. Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. ([1922] 1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eric W. Rothenbuhler