Analyzing Sociology Through a Historical Lens: Max Weber's Theories

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Max Weber, always had a different perspective on sociology relative to his colleagues and other theorists. Some of the theorists that Weber’s theorist differ the most is Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. In addition, Weber’s theories on social action, authority and ideal types can be used to analyze the universe of Harry Potter and its popularity in pop culture.


Weber was the first sociologist to take notice of the difference between sociology and history. According to Weber, “sociology seeks to formulate type concepts and generalize uniformities of empirical processes” whereas history “is oriented to the causal analysis and explanation of individual actions, structures, and personalities possessing cultural significance” (Ritzer, 2011). Weber was able to combine the two concepts, which became the new concept of historical sociology. Simply put, his concern as a historical sociologist was to develop clear concepts and analyze them through historical lenses.

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In addition to merging the two concepts of sociology and history, Weber had his own opinions on the relationship between history and sociology. The two schools of thought were the positivists and the subjectivists. Positivists thought that history composed of general laws and can be treated as a social science. Subjectivists however, viewed history as a culmination of distinct actions and events. They also viewed history as separate and different from natural science (Ritzer, 2011). Weber rejects both extremes; although he believes that history is a culmination of empirical events, he disagrees with the notion that history is just a set of laws. (Ritzer, 2011).

Weber’s view on stratification is worthy to note. Weber asserts that stratification also exists outside the realm of economic inequality. Stratification occurs on the basis of status class and parties (Calhoun et al., 2012). Class can be defined, according to Weber, a group who share the same criteria in a class situation. The three criteria are defined by the life chances of the people in relations to economic goods under a system of market economy (Calhoun et al., 2012). Status situations can be defined as communities that share a set of privileges, and has the honor that the group may have or earn from others (Calhoun et al., 2012). Parties, according to Weber, have only one concern, which is to gain power relative to other parties. Regardless of how parties are assembled, whether on the basis of class, status, or both, parties will always want to gain power (Calhoun et al., 2012).

Weber began his analysis of authority structures in a way consistent with his assumptions of social action. He asserts that a difference occurs between legitimate and illegitimate rule. Weber, though, only concerns himself with legitimate authority (Ritzer, 2011). There are three types of authority that Weber defines. The first is legal authority. Legal authority is based purely on laws. People who come into legal authority gain power due to meeting the criteria of the statutes. The opinions of others serve little to no importance in the context of legal authority (Ritzer, 2011). Traditional authority is similar to legal authority in terms of the presence of set laws or rules. However the main difference is that the laws that legitimizes traditional authority stem from historical tradition of the people and the personality of the leader that makes him/her fit to rule. In addition the person in traditional authority becomes the law, so to speak (Ritzer, 2011). Lastly, charismatic authority comes from the leader’s ability to rally a group of individuals together despite any differences that may occur between individuals. Unlike the previous two authorities that deal with some sort of law or tradition to legitimize their authority, charismatic leaders have the trust and loyalty of the people based on leaders personality (Ritzer, 2011).

The next concept Weber covered is the topic of social action. Action, according to Weber was the set of actions performed by an individual based on their thought processes (Ritzer, 2011). “Action in the sense of subjectively understandable orientation of behavior exists only as the behavior of one or more individual human beings” (Calhoun et al., 2012). This was different than reactive behavior. Reactive behavior is the automatic response that occurs within the individual without much thought on the stimulus that caused the response (Ritzer, 2011). Weber showed no interest towards the concept of reactive behavior and focused his analysis on action instead.

Weber had a typology for social action. The first type is means-end rationality. This is based on the notion that an action is performed empirically and logically. The process in which a solution is reached holds lesser of an importance to the total outcome of the action. The means in which the solution is reached does not have to meet any ethical standards necessarily (Ritzer, 2011). The second type of social action is value rational action. According to Weber, action that was value rational was based on the values or morals of the specific individual. Religious beliefs, cultural norms, nationalism etc. all play a role in an action carried out by an individual (Ritzer, 2011). The third type is affectual action. Even though Weber finds this type unimportant, it is the action that is carried out solely from the emotional state of the actor. Affectual action can be impulsive and illogical (Ritzer, 2011). Lastly traditional action is based on the customs of the society the actor is in. because the action is traditional, actors may not spend time pondering on the said action; it would be almost automatic. In addition, taking action that deviates from the tradition would be considered peculiar and unheard of (Ritzer, 2011).

Lastly, Weber’s concept of ideal types. Weber asserts that it is the sociologist main responsibility to develop conceptual tools. Ideal types is one of those conceptual tools. Ideal type is an abstract model of a concept. It is not a material thing at all. The concept is a mental image; the purest form of that concept that would be used to compare to concrete situations that happen in real life (Ritzer, 2011). “The Ideal typical concept will develop our skill in imputation in research. It is not a description of reality but it aims to give unambiguous means of expression to such a description” (Calhoun et al., 2012).

Analysis- Max Weber introduces many new concepts to the discipline of sociology. Some of his theories are stark opposites of other theories from other sociologists. Emile Durkheim’s concept of social facts is an example of that difference. According to Durkheim, every individual is manipulated by external forces that influences their behaviors. Social facts are can be cultural norms, values, institutions that external to individuals (Ritzer, 2011). Some examples of social facts that Durkheim recognized were legal rules, moral obligations and social conventions (Ritzer, 2011). Durkheim’s theories and concepts led him to be considered a functionalist. Weber, on the other hand was considered a symbolic interactionist. The concept of social action supports that fact. Again, social action according to Weber, is the set of actions performed by an individual based on their thought processes (Ritzer, 2011). One of the main differences between social fact and social action is whereas social facts are external forces, social action is internal to the individual. Additionally, Weber recognized the importance of social action relative to the interactions between individuals (Calhoun et al. 2012). Durkheim however, did not see the same relationship between social facts and interaction; since social factors are external to the individuals themselves (Calhoun et al., 2012).

The difference between Karl Marx and Weber is also notable. Marx is known for his theories and concepts based on economic stratification. Marx asserted that life is a constant struggle between the two main classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (Calhoun et al., 2012). Weber recognized that economic stratification existed, but he also acknowledged that other forms of stratifications were just as prominent. Thus the reason he created the categories between class, status, and parties. Even though the nature of each type differs, the commonality is the stratification within them. For example, stratification occurs in status within individuals (e.g. CEO vs office secretary) (Ritzer, 2011).

Weber’s concepts and theories although dated, can be related to modern phenomena. The fictional universe of Harry Potter is a perfect example of Weber’s concepts portrayed. One aspect of Harry Potter that viewers and readers are introduced to is the difference between wizards and muggles or humans. Some wizards view themselves as superior to muggles since they have the power to wield magic. In addition many wizards have influential roles in the human world, even though humans are unaware of this (Harry Potter and the Soccerer’s Stone, 2001). Weber would see this as an example of class stratification. Status stratification exists in the Harry Potter world as well. Within the wizard population bloodline is also seen as important. Pureblood wizards are those who have parents that have full wizard ancestry, with no intermingling of the human race. Half-bloods are wizards whose ancestry are a mix of humans and wizards. Muggle-born wizards are those who are born from two human parents. Wizards in this scenario are often called mudblood by those who find wizards inherently superior to humans. For many, the purity of the blood of wizards often dictated how they were treated in the wizard society (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 2002). Lastly, Weber’s concept of parties is a prevalent theme in the Harry Potter films. The biggest stratification of parties that drew the plot of the whole story was between the Death Eaters, whose main goal is to “cleanse” the wizard race and the Order of the Phoenix whose goal was to combat with the Death Eaters to ensure they never rose to power in the wizard world (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007). The successes and failures of both of the parties had powerful consequences in the wizard world. This perfectly coincides with Weber’s idea that the struggle of parties is simply the fight to gain power over the other party (Ritzer, 2011).

There are many examples of authority within the Harry Potter universe. An example of legal authority is the headmaster of the wizard school, Albus Dumbledore. Even though it is not clear what the rules and laws of gaining the said authority is, Dumbledore adheres to the rules and regulations of being a headmaster and leader of the students and other faculty (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001). On the other hand charismatic authority is manifested within the character of Lord Voldermort. He became the leader of the Death Eaters from his ability to rally other wizard supremacists (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005). There was no law that dictated his official rise to power however, he was able to gain the trust and allegiance to his cause which fits Weber’s analysis of charismatic authority.

There are many instances of Weber’s theory of social action in the Harry Potter universe. The best of example of means-end action is of the Death Eaters. Their goal is to purify the wizard race. It is evident that the means in which they do so matters so little to them as they resort to violence and other immoral measures to reach that goal (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005). Interestingly enough, value rational action is illustrated in the goal of the Order of the Phoenix. Members of the Order of the Phoenix sees the worth of wizard lives, regardless of their ancestry and aim to protect them. This is manifested in their goal to ultimately defeat the Death Eaters. Lastly affectual action is observed best when one of the characters seemingly were the reason that Harry Potter’s parents were murdered. Harry was so enraged that he vowed passionately to kill that person (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2003). His action to kill said character was purely affectual because there was no mention of the steps in which he would carry out the deed (Ritzer, 2011).

It’s noteworthy to question Harry Potter’s popularity. One idea may be because it’s a classic tale of good versus evil. Weber states the importance of sociologists to use conceptual tools like ideal types (Ritzer, 2011). It is plausible that regular people have ideal types for concepts, good and evil being one. If we were consider the two main characters in the film and movies, Harry Potter and Voldermort, they would fit most people’s typology of good and evil, respectfully. It could be argued that because the story is so close to our ideal type, we are inclined to deeply appreciate the story of Harry Potter.

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