Sociological Theorists: Max Weber

By | January 19, 2017

Max Weber was long called the ‘sociologist’s sociologist’, principally in acknowledgement not only of the wide-ranging reach of his scholarship and his general analyses of societal development and change, as well as of particular substantive issues, but of his work on the philosophy and methods of research. I once gave a talk in Munich directly beneath a bust of Weber and was duly intimidated.

He is regarded as a ‘methodological individualist’. This distinguishes him from both Marx and Durkheim, who both, if differently, regard concepts like social class and organic solidarity as carrying meaning beyond the thoughts and acts of those individuals they subsume. For Weber, notions like these only have purchase if they can be rooted in and generated from what individuals think and do.

Let’s stick with philosophy and methods for a bit. One distinction Weber made was between ‘value reference’ and ‘value judgement’. The former recognises that sociologists – inevitably and unavoidably – take decisions on what to investigate: to decide to research one issue is to avow its personal significance as well as to reject rival possibilities. In this sense research projects reflect the personal values of investigors, as well, increasingly, of sources of institutional funding. We need to be reflexive about this. Having opted for an area, phenomenon or topic, however, it is crucial that sociologists avoid value judgements, that is, the invasion of the conduct of their research by personal or institutional ‘biases’. Studies must in this sense be value neutral.

Weber had much more to say about methodology. He was focused on causal explanation. His commitment was to ‘the interpretation of action in its subjective meaning’. On behalf of sociology he sought an objective account of subjective worlds. A vital component of sociolgical enquiry, he maintained, was verstehen, or empathic understanding: it is essential that researchers put themselves into the roles and ‘heads’ of others. One means to this end was his notion of ‘ideal types’. These are deployed to propose logically and formally precise statements about possible causal relationships. The classic example is his hypothesised causal relationship between the ‘protestant ethic’ and the ‘spirit of capitalism’. What was it to ‘be a Calvinist’ and to ‘be a capitalist’? Weber constructed ideal types of (what he meant by) the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, then pursued an empirical examination to see if the former led to the latter. Importantly, ideal types specify what sociologists ‘mean by them’; they need not have empirical referents, that is, reflect actually existing states of affairs. Weber’s conclusion in this particular study is often misunderstood. He found an ‘elective affinity’ between the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. He did not assert that the protestant ethic caused capitalism to take off in the west, that is, that ideas trumped (Marx’s) material conditions. Rather he argued that the breakaway Calvinist emphasis on the doctrine of predestination (one’s salvation or otherwise was ‘predetermined’) led indirectly to the view that an individual’s spiritual destination was implicit in ‘his’ material circumstances: in other words, the accumulation of capital, and disavowal of hedonism, indicated salvation. To be clear: Weber argued that the structural/material circumstances for the advent of capitalism had existed prior to its take-off in the west (in China for example), but that it was protestantism/Calvanism that provided the ‘trigger’ to translate structural/material circumstance into a new economic system and era. Capitalism was in this sense an unintended consequence of the protestant ethic. Ideas do not have to be causally decisive to be causally relevant. Weber appended and revised rather than supplanted Marx’s account of the origins of capitalism.

Having said that, Weber’s orientation to social stratification differed from Marx’s. He did not so much divorce himself from the latter’s concept of class as re-contextualise it. For Weber, there are three dimensions to stratification: class, to be sure, but also status/honour and party (or political organization/affiliation). While status and party tend to follow class, they do not necessarily do so and sometimes diverge. Social stratification, in short, is multidimensional, more complex and less sociologically straightforward than Marx claimed.

At the core of much of Weber’s sociology is the notion of ‘rationalisation’. He maintained that modern, western, complex and highly differentiated societies bore witness to the spread of one of various forms of authority. He distinguished three types of “authority’. He referred, first, to instrumental or means-ends rationalisation. Dennis Wrong writes:

‘by ‘rationalisation Weber meant the process by which explicit, abstract, intellectually calculable rules and procedures are increasingly substituted for sentiment, tradition and rule of thumb in all spheres of activity. Rationalisation leads to the displacement by specialist science as the major source of intellectual authority; the substitution of the trained expert for the cultivated man of letters; the ousting of the skilled handworker by machine technology; the replacement of judicial wisdom by abstract, systematic statutory codes. Rationalisation demystifies and instrumenalises life. It means that … there are no mysterious, incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted.(my emphasis).

Weber conterposes: (a) traditional authority and (b) charismatic rationality to the inexorable rise of this instrumental or means-ends rationlaity. The former denotes a largely premodern form of authority, though one that survives into the present, while the latter acknowledges, and ultimately invests faith in, the emergence of personalites with a vital, out-of-the-box (thus ‘charismatic’) appeal. Hitler, sadly, is the most obviously candidate, as too are Trump and, closer to home, UKIP’s populist and prosperous, ex-broker Farage. So, Weber insinuates, charisma can, and maybe this is the optimal gamble for the future, lead people out of the iron cage.            

Baring the unplanned intervention of a charismatic personality, in propitious socio-economic and socio-political circumstances, Weber considers that we are likely to continue in the iron cage, that is, in a disenchanted world of ruthlessly efficient calculation and practice, epitomized in the sciences. This is a function, he maintained, of the emergence of modern, complex, highly differentiated societies, be they capitalist of otherwise (e.g. communist). The future is bureaucratic.


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