Jurist, political economist, sociologist; b. Erfurt, Germany, April 21, 1864; d. Munich, June 14, 1920. A precocious child, Weber began the study of history and philosophy at an early age. In 1882 he enrolled in the juridical faculty at Heidelberg and later transferred to Göttingen and Berlin where he studied law, history, and theology. He passed his bar examination in 1887; then, while practicing law in Berlin, he obtained a doctorate in 1889, with a thesis on the history of medieval commercial associations. In 1891 he qualified as a university lecturer in Roman and commercial law with a masterful work on the history of agrarian institutions in Rome. A study on the conditions of agrarian workers in East Prussia, published in 1892, established his reputation as a social scientist. He was called to Freiburg as professor of economics in 1894. In 1896 he moved to Heidelberg to succeed Karl Knies. Brilliant lecturer and great conversationalist though he was, his leadership as an academician was cut short by a severe nervous breakdown in 1898. For four years he was virtually incapacitated physically and mentally. He never fully recovered. Although he had to give up teaching, he resumed scholarly activities and in 1919 accepted a chair of sociology at Munich, where soon afterward he succumbed to influenza.
In 1903 Weber became associate editor of the Archivs für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, in which all his scholarly writings were published. There was a posthumous edition of his collected works. He visited the U.S. in 1904 and spent several months collecting material on American Protestant sects. The trip greatly improved his mental health and on his return to Germany he plunged into intensive work. In the period from 1905 to 1914 he wrote his major essays on the nature of social science and on the sociology of religion. He undertook several empirical investigations, produced his classic study on agrarian conditions in antiquity, and prepared the manuscript of his magnum opus, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tubingen 1922). In 1908 Weber and Georg Simmel organized the German Sociological Society.
During World War I Weber served for a year as a captain in charge of a field hospital. He foresaw the eventual defeat of Germany. In editorials written for the Frankfurter Zeitung he tried to forestall the event by advocating peace without annexation, abandonment of unrestricted submarine warfare, and democratic government. After the war Weber helped draft the Weimar Constitution.
Religion and Society. Weber's most original contribution to sociology is his analysis of the relation between religion and social organization. His basic work on the subject is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York 1958), devoted to the appearance at the end of the 17th century of an unprecedented set of norms regulating the conduct of business in western European societies. According to these norms, business is a calling (Beruf ), work is a way, not a means, of living, and its fruits are not to be enjoyed, but to be held in temporary stewardship. This "spirit of capitalism" involved a break with traditional norms and, according to Weber, it coincided with the propagation of a new conception of life preached by Protestant reformers like Calvin, and by the
Puritans. Weber concluded that the "ethos of ascetic Protestantism" exerted a determining influence because the majority of middle class merchants of the 17th and early 18th centuries were ardent members of the new evangelical sects. Since Weber's thesis has often been misinterpreted, it should be noted that the "spirit of capitalism" refers only to the professional ethics of entrepreneurs, not to the form of economic organization. The thesis has nothing to do with the origin or function of the capitalist system as such.
After completing his study of Protestant ethics, Weber made a systematic analysis of other religions: Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These studies support the general proposition that there exists a meaningful congruence between the religious ethos of a culture and its prevailing norms of conduct. They also show that there is no equivalent to Protestant asceticism in other religions, and this is taken as one possible reason for the fact that capitalism in other cultures did not evolve the characteristic forms. In The Sociology of Religion (Boston 1963), Weber analyzed the evolution of religion and showed it to have been a dynamic factor in social change.
Method of Social Science. Weber's sociopolitical studies of charismatic leadership and bureaucracy were as clearly an innovation as his studies of religion. The development of a set of concepts and general rules, called ideal-types, designed to serve as tools for the establishment of causal explanations of concrete and culturally significant phenomena, was an important methodological contribution to social science.
Weber defined social science as the attempt to apply the methods and techniques of scientific inquiry to the study of concrete situations, events, or conditions that directly influence social goals and values. He claimed that in this respect social science differs from physical science, since the latter aims to discover universal laws that are independent of human motivations and evaluations.
Bibliography: r. bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Garden City, N.Y. 1962). t. parsons, The Structure of Social Action (New York 1937). t. abel, Systematic Sociology in Germany (New York 1929). h. s. hughes, Consciousness and Society (New York 1961) 278–335. m. weber, Max Weber: Ein Lebensbild (Heidelberg 1950), contains a full bibliography of his writings.