Max Weber (1864-1920) - Warren Wilson College

Max Weber
Social Theory notes
Biographical Details
 1864: born to upper middle class Protestant German family;
autocratic politician father and devout, shy, Calvinist mother
 1882: goes to college and joins father’s fraternity: drinks, brawls, gets
hugely fat, acquires dueling scar
 1893: marries cousin, Marianne
 1894: becomes college professor
 1897-1902: struck by paralyzing nervous breakdown after father’s
death; unable to work
 1904-05: writes The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
after visit to U.S.
 1910: founds German Sociological Association
 1914: supports German involvement in World War I as legitimate
defense against Russia and struggle for “honor”
 1918: returns to teaching after 20 years, begins Economy and Society,
seems to finally recover from mental trauma and enjoy life
 1919: politically active with coalition of center-left parties
 1920: dies of pneumonia
Marx and Weber
 “silent dialogue” with Marx
 “rounding out” Marx’s views on capitalism (transformative impact of
Puritanism and cultural values)
 Agreements:
– 1. Structural factors giving rise to modern society
– 2. Mapping connections between factors influencing individual action –
“The social order is of course conditioned by the economic order to a
high degree, and in turn reacts upon it.”
– 3. Structural limitations on individual actions (importance of class,
alienation and “iron cage”)
 Key disagreements:
– 1. The nature of science
– 2. The inevitability of history
– 3. Economic determinism
The Nature of Science
 Advocated “value-free” research with clearly defined concepts for
objective sociology
 Values may influence choice of topic, but not actual analysis
 Argues that Marxists confuse “what is” and “what ought to be”
 Importance of Understanding (verstehen) subjective perceptions
instead of positing “scientific” laws – “The reduction of empirical
reality… to ‘laws’ is meaningless… A systematic science of
culture… would be senseless” – instead he looks for contextualized
The Inevitability of History
 Denies predictable “laws” of historical
 Capitalism arose from series of accidents,
including free labor force, industrialization,
rationalized accounting, codified law and
ownership, and “spirit of capitalism”
Economic Determinism
 Refutes Marxist determinism:
– Protestant Ethic: importance of religious ideas
in shaping behavior
– Economy and Society: systems of domination
maintained because they are viewed as
legitimate, overwhelming class divisions
Ideal Types
 A definition of an institution or type of
society that enumerates key or essential
features of the phenomenon
 May not match perfectly with any real,
concrete example
Weber’s Ideal Type Analysis of
 1. Charismatic Domination – based on force of personality of inspirational
– Emerges in times of crisis when old values fail
– unstable over long periods--problem of routinization (succession and
day to day operations)
– Examples: Hitler, Gandhi
 2. Traditional Domination – legitimacy claimed and believed in by virtue of
the sanctity of ancient custom that cannot be challenged by reason
 3. Rational-Legal Domination – by statute and legal norms – procedure
– Seen in modern bureaucracies and in system of political parties
– Separation of personal and legal affairs
– High degree of specialization
– Uniformly applied rules
Ideal Types of Social
 1. Class
 2. Status Group
 3. Party
Power vs. Honor
 Not all power is “economically conditioned”
 Not all power entails “social honor”
 But, “the social order is of course conditioned by the economic order
to a high degree, and in turn reacts upon it”
 Persons who have a common life chances represented by
economic interests
 Statistical aggregates – not communities – based on
market situation
 Marx (2 classes) vs. Weber (more differentiated)
Communal Action and Class
 Possibilities of group formation and unified political action
– Rare, since they usually fail to recognize common interest
– Happens under certain cultural conditions:
1. Large numbers perceive themselves in same class situation
2. Ecologically concentrated (i.e. in urban areas)
3. Clearly understood goals articulated by an intelligentsia
4. Clearly identified opponents
5. Naked, transparent exercise of class power
 “Communalization” = “feeling of the actors that they belong together.”
 “Societal Action” = “rationally motivated adjustment of interests”
 Examples
– Russia, Nicaragua, Oaxaca
 Misdirected Class Struggle (examples?)
Status Group
 Persons who share “a specific, positive or negative, social estimation
of honor”
 Subjective rather than Objective
 Expressed and reinforced through lifestyle rather than market
situation or economic behavior
 Lifestyle and taste reinforcing status (Bourdieu)
 Emergence of Global Status Groups (Appadurai)
 Rests on distance and exclusiveness
– Limiting of social interaction, marriage partners, social conventions and
activities, organizations and clubs, and “privileged modes of acquisition”
(such as property or occupations)
Status vs. Class
 Consumption
 More important in times of
Importance of fashion/lifestyle (“all
‘stylization’ of life either originates in
status groups or is at least conserved
by them”)
 Subjective Position
Reaction against “pretensions of
purely economic acquisition” (new
– James Bond
 Ethnicity (horizontal) and Caste
 Dignity in this world (high) vs.
next world (low)
 Production
 Becomes particularly
important in times of
 Objective economic
 Not necessarily
Ethnicity, Caste, Race
 Perception, not reality (they “believe in
blood relationship and exclude exogamous
marriage and social intercourse”)
 Ethnicity: horizontal (each allowed to
believe in superior honor)
 Caste (vertical) includes race (subjective,
not biological)
 Pariah peoples
 Oriented around a specific goal (can be a
“cause” or personal power)
 Related to, but separate from class and
status as three distinct stratification
 From use of money and credit in free markets to mediate transactions
and social relationships, and from unintentional changes in religion
 Formal rationality: means-to-ends calculation (distinct from
substantive rationality)
 Rise of bureaucratic rationalized state
 Replaces tradition, patronage, and other ways of regulating markets
 Reinforced and stimulated by random historical events and cultural
factors (religion)
 Rationalized economic system and state continually reinforce each
other; creating a monolith that cannot be opposed
 “disenchantment” of social world leads to “iron cage” of
bureaucracy, where social life is calculable, rational, efficient, and
dull – no liberating utopia should be expected from socialism or
The Protestant Ethic and the
Spirit of Capitalism
 1. Goodness of Work: Work valued as an end in itself
 2. Trade and profit taken as indicators of personal virtue
 3. Methodically organized life governed by reason valued not only as
means to economic success, but as proper and righteous state of
 4. Delayed Gratification: Immediate happiness should be forgone in
favor of future satisfaction (avoidance of spontaneous enjoyment and
 Taken together, this “spirit” of capitalism one of 7 factors that led to
rise of rationalized capitalist economies in West

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