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Max Weber

by Malcolm Richardson and Andrew Roberts
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what he said

German political economist who became a founder of what we call sociology

Born 1864, Died 1920.

Weber as a political economist

At Heidelberg University, Weber was a student of Karl Knies, who wrote "The economic life of a people is so closely interwoven with other areas of its life that any particular observation can only be made if one keeps in view its relation with the whole."

The sociology of Weber

Max Weber wrote in the tradition that treats society as something created by individuals, rather than as something that is real.

A key concept for this approach is social action and, because action is defined by its meaning, the approach has been called interpretive sociology (Although many other terms are used)

Weber wrote in Germany at a time when a strong academic culture argued that the natural and social sciences are radically different. See, for example, the work of Wilhelm Dilthey. In the modern world, on of the most outspoken supporters of Dilthey's "Hermeneutics" is Zygmunt Bauman

Weber's life and works

Born in Germany before it was one country

21.4.1864 Born into a German middle-class family. His family was a lawyer and they soon moved to Berlin, the capital of Prussia.

The war

1870-1871 Prussia defeated France in a war of expansion. Followed by the unification of Germany in which Berlin became the capital of the new German Empire.

"Sociologically", Weber later argued said later, the modern state can only be defined "in terms of the specific means peculiar to it... namely the use of political force"

The struggle over culture

The three headed hell dog is set on the catholic priest
From 1871: Kulturkampf The battle over culture between the Germany and the Catholic Church.

Prussian "Falk Laws" of May 1873 completely subordinated the church to state regimentation.

Weber later argued that although force is essential to the modern state, it is not its "normal or ... only means". The state had to engage in a struggle over culture: over what its citizens believed about it

"If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. When and why do men obey? Upon what inner justifications ... does this domination rest?"

Studied law

In army uniform 1884
1882 Weber a law student at Heidelberg University. He studied law in a broad social sense that included classes in economics, history, philosophy, and theology.

About this time he also served in the army. Later he practised law in Berlin. In 1892 he prepared for Privatdozent (lecturer) status in Roman, German and commercial law at Berlin. In 1893 [Aged 29] he married Marianne Schnitger, who became a leading German feminist. Until he married he lived with his parents.

Studied economics

1892 Researching the condition of workers in large-scale capitalist agriculture stimulated interest in development of modern capitalism.

1894 Professor of Economics at Freiburg University. 1895: Inaugural address on The National State and Economic Policy - "The brutality of my views have caused horror:"

"There can be no peace in the economic struggle for existence.. It is not for us to show our successors the way to peace and human contentment, but rather to show them the eternal struggle for the maintenance and cultivation of our national integrity."

Weber's mother and father
1897 Weber's father's death followed by Weber's mental breakdown.

He was granted indefinite leave of absence from the University.

It was the period after his breakdown which produced Weberian Sociology.

Much of Weber's sociology was produced as an editor and contributor to the Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare,

It was in this that his best known work was published in 1904 and 1905.

1904: Most well-known work, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

1914-1919 First World War

14.6.1920 Died of pneumonia

Some of his works:

Recommended starters

"The Social Reasons for the Decline of Ancient Culture"

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation [Includes The City]

The Economic Ethics of World Religions

Politics as a Vocation

Science as a Vocation

The Rational and Social Foundations of Music

Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion
Ancient Judaism
The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism
The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism

General Economic History

Methodology of the Social Sciences

Interpretative Sociology

Weber studied power and domination. To understand how human beings dominate one another in society he argued that we need to understand more than force (politics) and production (economics) we also have to understand culture.

Culture' refers to all those things which individuals find meaningful and significant, and which are related to their ideas, values and beliefs. He said that The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was

"a contribution to the understanding of the manner in which ideas become an effective force in history... we are ... attempting to clarify the part which religious forces have played in forming the developing web of our specifically worldly modern culture" (p.90)

To understand why people act in certain ways, means understanding what motivates their actions

Usually, we can understand what people are doing by direct observation. In the picture we can see people are chopping wood. But why are they chopping wood? To understand whay they are so acting, we have to interpreting (make sense of) their actions in a wider context of meaning [See below]

Weber's Sociology: the Study of Social Action

Weber wrote that

"Sociology is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects.

In action is included all human behaviour when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it. Action in this sense may be either overt or purely inward or subjective; it may consist of positive intervention in a situation, or of deliberately refraining from such intervention or passively acquiescing in the situation.

Action is social 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 orientated in its course"

Ideal types

Weber operates with what he calls "ideal types". These are sociological concepts constructed to analyse the social world. The ideal types exist as concepts. The real world is much more complicated.

In the The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber speaks of the

"ideal type of the capitalist entrepreneur... He avoids ostentation and unnecessary expenditure..." (p.71)
He does this to contrast with some actual (real) businessmen in Germany who tried to "cover up their social origin" by living like aristocrats. The ideal type helps one to analyse the actual social reality.

In another book he says

"sociological analysis both abstracts from reality and at the same time helps us to understand it...

the same historical phenomenon may be in one aspect "feudal," in another "patrimonial," in another "bureaucratic," and in still another "charismatic." In order to give a precise meaning to these terms, it is necessary for the sociologist to formulate pure ideal types of the corresponding forms of action which in each case involve the highest possible degree of logical integration... "

Sociologists develop 'ideal models' of reality or ideal-types. This is done by selecting out and emphasising the most significant features, and ignoring the rest.

Weber's concept of modern rational capitalism is based on ideal types of what rationality is. In the introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that we need to identify the type of rationality specific to western capitalism because

"rationalizations of the most varied character have existed in various departments of life and in all areas of culture."

"here is, for example, rationalization of mystical contemplation, that is of an attitude which, viewed from other departments of life, is specifically irrational, just as much as there are rationalizations of economic life, of technique, of scientific research, of military training, of law and administration. Furthermore, each one of these fields may be rationalized in terms of very different ultimate values and ends, and what is rational from one point of view may well be irrational from another"

To analyse this complex reality, Weber creates four ideal types of social action. Just two of these are rational. The other two are non-rational types. The four are: Rational in pursuit of a goal - value- related conduct - affectual, especially emotional - traditional

Ideal types of social action: Rational Instrumental

Instrumentally-rational action. Choosing most effective means to secure desired objective. For example: cutting costs in order to boost company profits.

Raymond Aron suggests that Rational action in relation to a goal is the action of the engineer who is building a bridge, the speculator at the stock exchange who is trying to make money, the general who wants to win a victory.

Ideal type of social action: Rational Value

28.8.1864 The founder of the General German Workers' Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein), Ferdinand Lassalle fought, a duel in Switzerland over his love for Helene von Donniges. He had no hope of reclaiming her, but fought it to defend his honour as a jew, a socialist and a lover. He was wounded, and died on 31.8.1864. He is buried in Poland.

Raymond Aron says "the action is rational, not because it seeks to attain a definite and external goal, but because" Lassalle sought "to remain faithful to his own idea of honour".

Ideal type of social action: Affectual

Affectual action. Expresses an emotion, such as happy laughter, or shouting in anger.

The smiling girl is Beatrice Wallich, photographed for Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) by her father G. C. Wallich. weblink

Ideal type of social action: Traditional

Traditional action. Performed because of custom and tradition, e.g state ceremonies, as in this photograph where an army band marches past the German Emperor Wilhelm 2nd in Weber's time.

Postcard from the collection of of Mike Brubaker

Interpretative Understanding (Verstehen)

Interpretative Understanding. To understand something is to interpret its meaning correctly, like a word in a sentence. Two types:

(1) Direct Observational (Descriptive) Understanding - understanding what someone is doing, e.g. woodcutter chopping wood by direct observation. However, observation cannot necessarily tell us why they are doing it. Hence, we also need:

(2). Explanatory Understanding - making sense of an action by placing it in a wider context of meaning.
Abel Grimmer (1570-1619)
Winter Landscape with Peasants Chopping Wood
To understand why the woodcutter is cutting wood we need to consider it as part of a wider sequence of meaningful events. Are they chopping wood to earn a wage, to light a fire to keep warm, or for physical exercise?

Interpretative Sociology: Is it Scientific?

"the nature of the relationship of scientific work and its presuppositions varies widely according to their structure. The natural sciences, for instance, physics, chemistry, and astronomy, presuppose as self-evident that it is worth while to know the ultimate laws of cosmic events as far as science can construe them." (Weber 1919Science)

Weber argues that unlike physical objects, human beings are endowed with reason and consciousness, feelings and emotions, will and intention.

Explanations of human behaviour have to take account of subjective states of mind. Individuals often respond to the same or similar circumstances in very different ways - which general laws cannot accurately predict, precisely because they are general.

Interpretative sociology is not a precise science.

Human behaviour is not like the behaviour of physical objects which can be accurately predicted by the laws of physics.

Human actions are governed by ideas, values and beliefs.

Sociological inquiry therefore must use different methods to say physics, which relies upon observation and experiment.

The aim is an interpretation of human behaviour which is the most probable in the light of the evidence (including statistical and other data).

We can inquire into people's motives and intentions, through surveys etc., but we can never be certain the answers they give are truthful, or unambiguous. In many instances, such as historical studies, it is not possible to conduct surveys, and we have to rely on other types of evidence.

This does not mean that one interpretation is as good as another. Evidence is crucial. The more evidence, and the more varied the evidence supporting a particular interpretation, the more scientifically plausible it is likely to be.

Marx, Weber and Durkheim had different ideas about what it is to be scientific. Frank Pearce argues that we benefit from making a creative synthesis of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. This would mean creating a creative synthesis of their methods as well.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit (Geist) of Capitalism

The Capitalist Spirit (Geist)

itf grafik design Hegel argued that mind (geist) operates through logic on nature (the material world).

Geist can be translated spirit or mind. Weber wrote about "der Geist des Kapitalismus" (the spirit of capitalism)

Weber considers the influence of culture on material production. To what extent can a mind-set be considered the driving force of capitalism?

The zeitgeist (time spirit) that Hegel, Saint Simon and John Stuart Mill studied is usually translated "Spirit of the Age"

picture The spectre of communism that Marx and Engels said was haunting Europe's rulers in 1848 was not a Geist but a Gespenst (ghost).

Marx and Engels thought the ghost had material foundations in the rising working class. So Marx and Engels were offering materialism as an alternative to Hegel's idealism.

Without denying the material foundations of social reality, Weber considers how Geist (mind/spirit) might have an independent influence on economic development.

The Catholic Church and the Protestants

This anonymous Dutch engraving (1640-1684), published by Hugo Allard, includes the words Het licht is op de kandelaar gestelt [Perspectives on the light from the candle]. It is an anti-Catholic cartoon showing protestants, led by Martin Luther (Germany) and John Calvin (Switzerland), sitting at the back and sides of a table on which a candle burns brightly from a candlesick placed on the Christian Gospel (Bible). At the front of the table, the devil, the Pope, a cardinal and a monk try desperately, but unsuccesfully to blow out the candle. See Rijksmuseum online catalogue

Weber starts by saying:

"A glance at the occupational statistics of any country of mixed religious composition brings to light with remarkable frequency ... the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labour, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant.
The same thing is shown in the figures of religious affiliation almost wherever capitalism, at the time of its great expansion, has had a free hand to alter the social distribution of the population in accordance with its needs, and to determine its occupational structure. The more freedom it has had, the more clearly is the effect shown.
A number of those sections of the old Empire which were most highly developed economically and most favoured by natural resources and situation, in particular a majority of the wealthy towns, went over to Protestantism in the sixteenth century
There arises thus the historical question: why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church? The answer is by no means so simple as one might think."

Modern Rational Capitalism

Weber argues that modem rational capitalism is a unique feature of 'Western' historical development (i.e. Western Europe and North America). It's key features are:

(i) economic activity which is oriented exclusively to the market,

(ii) the use of double-entry (income vs expenditure) bookkeeping for the precise calculation of profit and loss,

(iii) the systematic pursuit of profit by lawful means,

(iv) the employment of wage-labour on freely negotiated terms and conditions.

Benjamin Franklin quotes exemplify the (secular) spirit of Capitalism

Benjamin Franklin was not a great capitalist. He made a small fortune from popular printing and publishing in the British American colony of Philadelphia.

The quotations Weber made from him are from obscure writings. Franklin's best know writings a scientific ones on electricity and lightning.

Nevertheless, Weber argues, they exemplify the spirit of capitalism. Weber uses these quotations as what he later calls an "ideal type"

In 1748, Franklin wrote a letter "To my friend A.B." containing "Advice to a Young Tradesman" from "An Old Tradesman". Here are some of the points he made:

"1. Remember, that time is money. "The person who can earn ten shillings a day by their labour, but who works only half a day has thrown away five shillings";

2. Work diligently. "The sound of your hammer", heard by your creditors early in the morning and late at night, makes them go easy on you for another six months. But, if they see you idling when you should be at work, they will demand their money back the very next day;

3. Be prudent in your financial affairs. "Beware of thinking that everything you possess is belongs to you, and live accordingly. It is a mistake that many people who have credit fall into. Keep an exact account of income and expenditure, and you will soon see how what may appear as trifling expenses soon mount up to large sums, and put your credit worthiness in jeopardy."

Weber argues that the ethic contained in Franklin's writing s of earning more and more money, but strictly avoiding all spontaneous enjoyment of life.

"Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs."

"The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling; and this virtue and proficiency are, as it is now not difficult to see, the real Alpha and Omega of Franklin's ethic, as expressed in the passages we have quoted, as well as in all his works without exception."

The secular spirit of capitalism has a religious origin

The capitalist spirit has a religious origin in the ethical doctrines of 16 century Protestantism, and specifically Calvinism (after the 16 century Swiss theologian John Calvin).

Calvin taught that whether you go to heaven or hell after death is a free gift of God - It is a result of divine "grace", not something you earn by good deeds

This led to a calvinist belief in predestination: No individual knows their fate in afterlife (heaven or hell). It is pre-ordained by God, and only known to God.

Weber argues that those Protestants who accepted the idea of predestination would have suffered acute psychological anxiety - 'salvation anxiety' - from not knowing their fate in the afterlife. The only way to cope was to behave in a 'Christian manner', doing good and living a simple, hard working life, in belief these would be tangible signs that one would enter heaven.

Calvinism demanded rigorous discipline in everyday 'conduct. Any slip, any lapse in behaviour could not be redeemed, and was a sign of eternal damnation. The pressure to be highly disciplined and righteous was intense, including in one's business or occupation. This was the essence of the Protestant ethic - and its affinity with the 'capitalist spirit'.

By endowing economic activity, with religious meaning and significance, Calvinism assisted the development of capitalism . Idleness and pleasure were sins, but not the pursuit of profit. Austere lifestyle and the continuous accumulation of wealth, acted as a powerful lever for the development of modern capitalism.

Modern Capitalism

Once securely established modern capitalism abandons its religious roots. It is now a 'way of life'. We are born into this 'culture', and its 'rational', competitive spirit shapes our everyday activities.

"The capitalist economy of today is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him... as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, insofar as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalist rules of action. The manufacturer who in the long run acts counter to these norms, will just as inevitably be eliminated from the economic scene as the worker who cannot or will not adapt himself to them will be thrown into the streets without a job. Thus the Capitalism of today, which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest. Victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs (religious) support no longer.. . the idea of a duty in one's calling prowls the ghost of dead religious beliefs.. The Puritan wanted to work in a calling: we are forced to do so" (Weber, The Protestant Ethic etc., pp. 54-5; pp 181-2).

Capitalism Bureaucracy, Democracy, Power and Domination

We come now to some of the tools that Weber created to help us analyse politics and government.

Ideal types for - Power (Macht) - Rule (Herrschaft) - and legitimate Rule (legitime Herrschaft)

Writing about "types of order in corporate groups", Weber distinguishes (in German) between Macht and Herrschaft and legitime Herrschaft: - which I will translate as Power and Rule and Legitimate rule

Herrschaft has also been translated as Domination. Legitime Herrschaft can be translated as authority.

Weber defines power (Macht) as

"the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests."

This is a very general concept, and Weber says

"The concept of power is highly comprehensive from the point of view of sociology. All conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation"
The power of glamour:

This lady has the power to attract attention

To analyse order in groups we clearly need a more specific concept. Weber selects three:

Herrschaft [Rule or domination], which he defines as "the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons".

Disziplin [Discipline]: "the probability that by virtue of habituation a command will receive prompt and automatic obedience in stereotyped forms, on the part of a given group of persons."

Authority or Legitimate rule: A corporate group, whose members, by virtue of their membership, are subjected to the legitimate exercise of rule (authority) is called an Herrschaftsverband or association of the rule. Or, to put it another way, groups are governed by different kinds of rules.

The power of the church:

This man has the power and authority to subordinate the group

Weber creates three ideal types of legitimate rule:

Traditional Domination: command based on claim that people should obey because this is what people have always done - For example 'Black Rod' summoning MP's to listen to the Monarch's speech in the House of Lords.

Charismatic Domination: command based on claim that people should obey because their lives will be transformed. Obeyed because they are believed to possess extraordinary qualities: divine, superhuman, or supernatural powers -

For example, the power exercised by Prophet Muhammad, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King.

28.8.1963 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Or Jesse Jackson

Legal-rational domination: command based on claim that people should obey because command is lawful. Based on formal rules, like the criminal law, contracts of employment, or the rules and regulations governing entitlement to welfare payments. Bureaucracy is the typical organisational form of legal-rational domination in modern society.

Ideal type of Bureaucracy

1. A Functional Division of labour

Various functions of the organisation divided between different offices, departments, and staff. "The regular activities required for the purposes of the bureaucratically governed structure are distributed in a fixed way as official duties".

Private and public organisations could be organised like this. Private organisations included factories and businesses. Public organisations included the Civil Service.

But you could also imagine the whole of society as a functional organisation. This is what George Cruikshank did in 1840 when he made the first sketch for this picture of Britain as a beehive with everyone serving a function.

The British Beehive

2. A Formal hierarchical structure

Organised into a hierarchy of authority - clear chain of command, with subordination of the lower levels to the upper levels. "The authority to give the commands required for the discharge of ... duties is distributed in a stable way, and is strictly delimited by rules"

3b. Officials do not own their 'office' "Clear your desk" means to take all your possessions away from your desk or office because you have been told to leave your job (Cambridge Dictionaries)

The word bureaucracy was created from bureau the French word for a writing desk, such as one would find in an office, and ocracy meaning rule. It is rule by people in an office.

Weber says

"The management of the modern office is based upon written documents ('the files'), which are preserved... There is, therefore, a staff of subaltern officials and scribes of all sorts. The body of officials actively engaged in a 'public' office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files, make up a 'bureau.' In private enterprise, 'the bureau' is often called 'the office.'"

" In principle, the modern organisation of the civil service separates the bureau from the private domicile of the official, and, in general, bureaucracy segregates official activity as something distinct from the sphere, of private life "
But it was not always like that. See The London Clerk's Office of the Metrpolitan Commissioners in Lunacy 1828

4: Officials recruited on grounds of technical competence
Appointment to a position is based on technical qualifications. Officials are full-time, salaried employees, and promotion is based on merit/seniority. "Office management, at least all specialized office management - and such management is distinctly modern - usually presupposes thorough and expert training. This increasingly holds for the modern executive and employee of private enterprises, in the same manner as it holds for the state official."

In the United Kingdom, the Northcote Trevelyan Report of 1854 led, eventually, to a Civil Service appointed on the basis of merit by open, competitive examinations in which promotion was on the basis of merit rather than "preferment, patronage or purchase".

6: Bureaucracy: Management by rules

A bureaucracy follows a consistent set of rules that control the functions of the organisation. All decisions, rules and actions are formulated and recorded in writing

"The theory of modern public administration ... assumes that the authority to order certain matters by decree - which has been legally granted to public authorities - does not entitle the bureau to regulate the matter by commands given for each case, but only to regulate the matter abstractly."

Technical Advantages of Bureaucratic Organisation

Bureaucracy's impersonal nature and the impartiality of its officials makes it the most efficient form of organisation in modern society. Its spread is inevitable and irreversible: once established it is virtually indestructible.

In the 21st century Bureaucracy is associated with inefficiency. But would you want to take on the United States state machine descibed in James Wilson's book?

Max Weber said:

"The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organisation has always been its technical superiority over any other form of organisation.precision, speed, unambiguity knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction, and of material and personal costs - these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration..."

Bureaucracy, Capitalism and Democracy

As capitalism develops its promotes the spread of bureaucracy, which threatens the basis of individuality, freedom, and democracy. Individuals lose control over key aspects of their lives, and become dependent on bureaucracy to satisfy their needs, from hospitals and schools, to public utilities and banks.

Politicians become dependent on the technical knowledge and expertise of officials to formulate and implement government policy. Democracy suffers as a result: (i) citisens and their political representatives lose more and more power; (ii) bureaucrats lack political vision, are cautious and averse to risk taking.

A socialist society would be worse, according to Weber. It would entail one unified state bureaucracy, where the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (workers) would be replaced by the dictatorship of the party/state official. Capitalism was preferable because it left room for competing and conflicting bureaucratic interests which might preserve vestiges of individual freedom and initiative.

Weber feared bureaucratisation of politics would produce cautious leaders without political vision, and subservient to bureaucratic interests, who controlled the flow of information. He therefore favoured the rise of charismatic leaders, directly elected by the people, to counteract the bureaucratisation of the state and party machines.

Citation suggestion


Suggested bibliography entry:

Richardson, M. and Roberts, A. 2013- Max Weber. London: Middlesex University. Available at

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Index and contents


Interpretive Sociology

Society constructed
Life and works
Studied law
Studied economics
Breakdown followed by sociology
Some of his works
Interpretive Sociology
Social Action
Ideal Types
Rational Instrumental Action
Rational Value Action
Affectual Action
Traditional Action
InterpretativeUnderstanding (Verstehen)
Is it Scientific?
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
The Capitalist Spirit (Geist)
The Catholic Church and the Protestants
Weber starts by saying
Modern Rational Capitalism
Benjamin Franklin quotes exemplify the (secular) spirit of Capitalism
The secular spirit of capitalism hasa religious origin
Modern Capitalism
Capitalism, Bureaucracy, Democracy, Power and Domination
Ideal types for power - rule - and legitimate rule
Three ideal types of legitimate rule