Max Weber as a Founder of Modern Sociology

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Max Weber was a German sociologist and political economist, who is regarded today as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology, alongside Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. He is one of the most significant theorists on the development of modern Western society (Caves, 2004). Weber is best known for his thesis of ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (1905), in which he studied the relationship between ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism, introducing the concept of rationalisation. 

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Weber’s ideas in this book can be seen as a significant criticism of Marx’s theories of capitalism, as he implied that religious movement fostered capitalism and not the other way around (Weber, 1905). In this essay, however, I will be critically analysing Weber’s work in ‘Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology’ (1968), focusing on chapter 1, ‘Basic Sociological Terms’. This chapter is an attempt to lay out the basic tools of sociology in Weber’s view. 

I will be discussing the concepts Weber explores throughout this chapter, such as social action, legitimate order and ideal types, power and domination, the theoretical approach of interpretivism and more. I will also examine other perspectives of Weber’s work, as I will discuss the criticisms and supporting arguments of Weber from other social theorists. These include Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and Karl Marx.

The main focus of the first chapter in the book, ‘Basic Sociological Terms’, is exactly what is describes it as. In this chapter, Weber very simply lays out and explains some of the basic terms and concepts in his own words. The first chapter establishes the foundation for the next chapter, and the rest of the book, by operationalising and defining many terms. He begins by defining sociology as ‘a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences’, however, he notes and takes into consideration how much of an ambiguous term ‘sociology’ really is. 

Weber also refers to the chapters he wrote as ‘my sociology’, and yet failed to discuss the differences between ‘his’ sociology and that of other contemporary social theorists. Positivistic sociologists would reject this definition of sociology as they would not agree with Weber’s interpretivistic approach. Weber developed the approach of interpretive sociology, which centres on meaning and action when studying social action and phenomena. Interpretative sociology concentrates on the meaning people associate to their social world, and strives to show that reality is constructed by people themselves in their daily lives (Macionis, Clarke & Gerber, 1994). 

Weber’s sociology sought to combine explanation with understanding; social action was both subjective and objective; but subjective understanding was the specific characteristic of sociological knowledge (Swingewood, 2000). Interpretivism is dominant in Weber’s methodology, and differs from positivism in many ways, which was the main methodological approach in 19th century social science. However Weberian sociology is anti-positivist, as it sees reality as being constructed by people and focuses on action, as opposed to positivism, which focuses on the meanings attached to behaviour. Weber created the concept of ‘Verstehen’, or human understanding, which is emphasised further in Weber’s classic study, 

‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. Georg Simmel was seen as a major developer in the creation of the concept of Verstehen. His neo-Kantian approach laid the foundations for sociological antipositivism (Levine, 1971). Weber and Simmel, both classical sociologists, developed interpretive sociology because they saw imperfections in positivistic sociology, founded by Emile Durkheim. Weber and Simmel identified that sociological positivism is not able to capture all social phenomena, nor is it able to fully explain why all social phenomena occur or what is important to understand about them. This approach focuses on objects and data, whereas interpretive sociologists focus on subjects and people (Outhwaite, 2009).

Verstehen applies to interpretive sociology and helped begin the analysis of social action (Tharakan, 2006). Weber is well known for the development of social action theory. In the chapter, ‘Basic Sociological Terms’, he defines social actions as ‘acts which take into account the actions and reactions of individuals’. According to Weber, an action is ‘social’ if the acting individual takes into account the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course. There are four types of social action; instrumentally rational, which is determined by expectations as to the behaviour of objects or persons in the environment, value rational, which is determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical behaviour, affectual, which is determined by the actor’s specific states and feelings, and lastly, traditional which is determined by ingrained habit (Weber, 1968).

However, on the other hand, Emile Durkheim’s definition of sociology surrounds social facts, as opposed to social action, in which he focused on when he developed his methodology. Durkheim worked to make sociology be seen as a science by centering empirical, quantitative data as its practice. Durkheim’s concept of social facts represents a different vision of sociology, emphasising the power of the social structure, as opposed to considering the role of individual agency (Gane, 1988). 

Unlike Weber, Durkheim was not concerned with individual motivation behind actions, but instead saw that ‘there are ways of acting, thinking and feeling which possess the remarkable property of existing outside the consciousness of the individual’ (Durkheim, 1982). Durkheim explains that something external pressures individuals and determines their behaviour and actions, as well as their thoughts and emotional feelings. Although, it may be possible to link Weberian and Durkheimian sociology, despite their many differences. Through maintaining the dominance of the ‘social’ over the individual in society, Durkheim does not dismiss individual action and behaviour as irrelevant or non-existent. Instead, he identified the interaction between individuals as the premise for a social fact to come into being (Durkheim, 1982). 

Weber also shared with Durkheim the idea that sociology stands alone against philosophy, psychology, economics, and other social science disciplines by arguing that society was an entity of its own (Hadden, 1997). Unlike Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, a major proponent of social action theory, supported Weber’s methodology on this concept, as he argued that social action is a process that has motivational significance to the individual actor. He identified various aspects of the systems of social action: personality, cultural and social. These correspond to unique identity, cultural symbols and social interaction (Parsons & Shils, 1951).

History and the comparative method are no doubt central to Weber’s sociology, as his writings are best known for their historical grasp of modern Western societies and their economic, political, legal and religious development. In this chapter, Weber distinguishes sociology, which seeks to formulate type concepts and generalised uniformities of empirical process, from history, which is oriented to the casual analysis and explanation of individual actions, structures and personalities possessing cultural significance (Weber, 1968). 

Weberian sociology contrasts Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Weber discards all explanations of historical causation, but however admits that the Marxian concepts, such as material conditions in relation to the ideological superstructure, are of great analytical value. In his view, it depended on the specific historical instance, whether ‘material conditions’ or ‘ideas’ are of greater causal significance (Bendix, 1946). Consequently, examples of each type of explanation may be found in Weber’s work. 

This is through his suggestion that western European monotheism seems to have originated in the desert countries of the Near East, where harvests are not produced by rain but instead, by artificial irrigation. It was likely that the concept of a God arose, who had made the earth and man out of nothing, similarly to the irrigation economy of an almighty God which had created a harvest on the desert sand. On the other hand, Weber’s analysis of ascetic Protestantism and its influence on the development of capitalism in western Europe can be seen as an example of the opposite case, in which ‘ideological’ factors influenced the ‘material conditions’ (Bendix, 1946). 

Weber rejected Marx’s theory which believed that it was historical obligation which thought to change society and history, rather than to simply observe it, resulting in his sole purpose of theoretical work being to eliminate social inequalities. Whereas, Weber disagreed, as he thought that the ultimate task of social theory was to search for historical truths and search for historical facts within society. He believed that social theory itself was a search for historical patterns and relationships, as he argued that Marx had used concepts such as inequality and class division in ways that were inconsistent with the search for historical truths (Morrison, 2006).

Weber’s key ambition was to understand contemporary Western society entirely. He described how human motivation had shifted from acting on the basis of traditions, values, or emotions in societies of the past, to acting on the basis of goal-oriented rationality (Weber, 1968). He identified this outcome as a result of an increasingly rationalised society. His view had some similarities to Marx and his concept of alienation, as they both agreed that rational organising threatened individual freedom and prevented humans from deciding their lives (Waerees, 2018). 

However, Weber did not agree with Marx’s claim that alienation occurs in capitalist systems only, as he believed that it is also a consequence of the rationalisation of society and an inevitable result of any system of rationally coordinated production. Weber was not an advocate for capitalism as he viewed it as a major force paralleling the increasing tendencies in society to rationalise. In ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (1905), he discussed the relation between Protestantism and the capitalist spirit, suggesting that this would lead to an iron cage of rationality that in turn would ignore the importance of emotions and individually differentiated behaviour. 

Weber explained that as the force of Protestantism decreased in social life over time, the system of capitalism remained, as did the social structure and principles of bureaucracy that had evolved along with it. This bureaucratic social structure, and the values, beliefs, and worldviews that supported and sustained it, became central to shaping social life. It was this very phenomenon that Weber conceived as an ‘iron cage’. In such a world, governments and organisations are not legitimate unless they display sufficient rational and goal-oriented behaviour (Waerees, 2018). This leads us to Weber’s next concepts within this chapter: power and domination, as well as legitimacy.

Throughout this chapter, Weber explored the concepts of power, domination and authority, and according to him, beliefs in the legitimacy (acceptance of an authority), of a political system go beyond philosophy, and they directly contribute to the state system stability and authority (Bendix, 1946). Weber goes onto discuss legitimate order, and explores the two types: convention and law, and that the legitimacy of an order can be guaranteed in two ways: ‘purely subjective’ and ‘by the expectation of specific, external effects, that is, by interest situations’. 

Convention indicates that an order’s ‘validity is externally guaranteed by the probability that deviation from it within a given social group will result in a relatively general and practically significant reaction of disapproval’, whilst law indicates than an order is ‘externally guaranteed by the probability that physical or psychological coercion will be applied by a staff of people in order to bring about compliance or avenge violation’. Weber discusses three major types of legitimation strategies, known as ’ideal types’ in Weberian sociology. 

These include, legal or rational authority, traditional authority and charismatic authority. Weber stated that his concept of ideals types helped to understand social forces, rather than just explaining them. However, some sociologists criticise this theory, especially Tonnies, creator of normal type theory. Supporters of this theory argue that ideal types focus on extreme phenomena, ignoring the relations between them.

To conclude, this essay has examined Weber’s first chapter, ‘Basic Sociological Terms’, in his 1968 book, ‘Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology’. Weber’s sociological concepts have been defined and explained in terms of ‘his’ sociology. These include sociology itself, social action, power and domination, legitimate order and ideal types. Weber’s overall definition of sociology clearly states the need for understanding social phenomena, as opposed to simply explaining it. Weber was greatly concerned about individual motivation behind actions and historical paradigms in sociology. 

This essay has also analysed supporting social theorists of Weber, such as Parsons and Simmel, in terms of social action and interpretive sociology, as well as discussing criticisms of Weber’s theories, with emphasis on Marx’s theories of capitalism, and Durkheim’s concept of social facts, among others theorists. There is no doubt that Weber’s classic contribution to the study of sociology is of great significance in modern society, and that the first chapter of ‘Economy and Society’ provided future sociologists with concepts and definitions of which can still be studied in contemporary sociology.

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