Max Weber

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Human Scientists

Maximilian Weber

Born 21 April 1864(1864-04-21)
Erfurt, Prussian Saxony
Died 14 June 1920 (aged 56)
Munich, Bavaria
Cause of death Pneumonia

Maximilian Carl Emil Weber (pronounced [maks 'veːbɛɐ]) ( 21 April 1864 14 June 1920) was a German political economist and sociologist who was considered one of the founders of the modern study of sociology and public administration. He began his career at the University of Berlin, and later worked at the universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg, and Munich.

Weber's major works deal with rationalization in sociology of religion and government. His most famous work is his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which began his work in the sociology of religion. In this work, Weber argued that religion was one of the non-exclusive reasons for the different ways the cultures of the Occident and the Orient have developed, and stressed importance of particular characteristics of ascetic Protestantism which led to the development of capitalism, bureaucracy and the rational-legal state in the West. In another major work, Politics as a Vocation, Weber defined the state as an entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, a definition that became pivotal to the study of modern Western political science. His analysis of bureaucracy in his Economy and Society is still central to the modern study of organizations. His most known contributions are often referred to as the ' Weber Thesis'.


Weber was born in Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber Sr., a prominent liberal politician and civil servant, and Helene Fallenstein, a moderate Calvinist. Weber Sr.'s engagement with public life immersed the family home in politics, as his salon received many prominent scholars and public figures.

The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber's 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled "About the course of History of Germany">German history, with special reference to the positions of the emperor and the pope" and "About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations". At the age of fourteen, he wrote letters studded with references to Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Livy, and he had an extended knowledge of Goethe, Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer before he began university studies. It seemed clear that Weber would pursue advanced studies in the social sciences.

Max Weber and his brothers, Alfred and Karl, in 1879
Max Weber and his brothers, Alfred and Karl, in 1879

In 1882 Weber enrolled in the University of Heidelberg as a law student. Weber joined his father's duelling fraternity, and chose as his major study Weber Sr.'s field of law. Along with his law coursework, young Weber attended lectures in economics and studied medieval history and theology. Intermittently, he served with the German army in Strasbourg.

In the autumn of 1884, Weber returned to his parents' home to study at the University of Berlin. For the next eight years of his life, interrupted only by a term at the University of Göttingen and short periods of further military training, Weber stayed at his parents' house; first as a student, later as a junior barrister, and finally as a Dozent at the University of Berlin. In 1886 Weber passed the examination for " Referendar", comparable to the bar association examination in the British and American legal systems. Throughout the late 1880s, Weber continued his study of history. He earned his law doctorate in 1889 by writing a doctoral dissertation on legal history entitled The History of Medieval Business Organisations. Two years later, Weber completed his Habilitationsschrift, The Roman Agrarian History and its Significance for Public and Private Law. Having thus become a " Privatdozent", Weber was now qualified to hold a German professorship.

In the years between the completion of his dissertation and habilitation, Weber took an interest in contemporary social policy. In 1888 he joined the " Verein für Socialpolitik", the new professional association of German economists affiliated with the historical school, who saw the role of economics primarily as the solving of the wide-ranging social problems of the age, and who pioneered large-scale statistical studies of economic problems. He also involved himself in politics, joining the left leaning Evangelical Social Congress. In 1890 the "Verein" established a research program to examine "the Polish question" or Ostflucht, meaning the influx of foreign farm workers into eastern Germany as local labourers migrated to Germany's rapidly industrialising cities. Weber was put in charge of the study, and wrote a large part of its results. The final report was widely acclaimed as an excellent piece of empirical research, and cemented Weber's reputation as an expert in agrarian economics.

Max Weber and his wife Marianne in 1894
Max Weber and his wife Marianne in 1894

In 1893 he married his distant cousin Marianne Schnitger, later a feminist and author in her own right, who was instrumental in collecting and publishing Weber's journal articles as books after his death. The couple moved to Freiburg in 1894, where Weber was appointed professor of economics at Freiburg University, before accepting the same position at the University of Heidelberg in 1896. Next year, Max Weber Sr. died, two months after a severe quarrel with his son that was never resolved. After this, Weber became increasingly prone to nervousness and insomnia, making it difficult for him to fulfill his duties as a professor. His condition forced him to reduce his teaching, and leave his last course in the fall of 1899 unfinished. After spending months in a sanatorium during the summer and fall of 1900, Weber and his wife traveled to Italy at the end of the year, and did not return to Heidelberg until April 1902.

After Weber's immense productivity in the early 1890s, he did not publish a single paper between early 1898 and late 1902, finally resigning his professorship in fall 1903. Freed from those obligations, in that year he accepted a position as associate editor of the Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare next to his colleagues Edgar Jaffé and Werner Sombart. In 1904, Weber began to publish some of his most seminal papers in this journal, notably his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It became his most famous work, and laid the foundations for his later research on the impact of cultures and religions on the development of economic systems. This essay was the only one of his works that was published as a book during his lifetime. Also that year, he visited United States and participated in the Congress of Arts and Sciences held in connection with the World's Fair ( Louisiana Purchase Exposition) at St. Louis. Despite his successes, Weber felt that he was unable to resume regular teaching at that time, and continued on as a private scholar, helped by an inheritance in 1907. In 1912, Weber tried to organise a left-wing political party to combine social-democrats and liberals. This attempt was unsuccessful, presumably because many liberals feared social-democratic revolutionary ideals at the time.

Max Weber in 1917
Max Weber in 1917

During the First World War, Weber served for a time as director of the army hospitals in Heidelberg. In 1915 and 1916 he sat on commissions that tried to retain German supremacy in Belgium and Poland after the war. Weber's views on war, as well as on expansion of the German empire, changed throughout the war. He became a member of the worker and soldier council of Heidelberg in 1918. In the same year, Weber became a consultant to the German Armistice Commission at the Treaty of Versailles and to the commission charged with drafting the Weimar Constitution. He argued in favour of inserting Article 48 into the Weimar Constitution. This article was later used by Adolf Hitler to institute rule by decree, thereby allowing his government to suppress opposition and obtain dictatorial powers. Weber's contributions to German politics remain a controversial subject to this day.

Weber resumed teaching during this time, first at the University of Vienna, then in 1919 at the University of Munich. In Munich, he headed the first German university institute of sociology, but ultimately never held a personal sociology appointment. Weber left politics due to right-wing agitation in 1919 and 1920. Many colleagues and students in Munich argued against him for his speeches and left-wing attitude during the German Revolution of 1918 and 1919, with some right-wing students holding protests in front of his home. Max Weber contracted the Spanish flu and died of pneumonia in Munich on June 14, 1920.


Along with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, Weber is regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology, although in his times he was viewed primarily as a historian and an economist. Whereas Durkheim, following Comte, worked in the positivist tradition, Weber created and worked – like Werner Sombart, his friend and then the most famous representative of German sociology – in the antipositivist, hermeneutic, tradition. Those works started the antipositivistic revolution in social sciences, which stressed the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences, especially due to human social actions (which Weber differentiated into traditional, affectional, value-rational and instrumental). Weber's early work was related to industrial sociology, but he is most famous for his later work on the sociology of religion and sociology of government.

Max Weber began his studies of rationalisation in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he shows how the aims of certain ascetic Protestant denominations, particularly Calvinism, shifted towards the rational means of economic gain as a way of expressing that they had been blessed. The rational roots of this doctrine, he argued, soon grew incompatible with and larger than the religious, and so the latter were eventually discarded. Weber continues his investigation into this matter in later works, notably in his studies on bureaucracy and on the classifications of authority. In these works he alludes to an inevitable move towards rationalization.

It should be noted that many of his works famous today were collected, revised, and published posthumously. Significant interpretations of Weber's writings were produced by such sociological luminaries as Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills.

Sociology of religion

Weber's work on the sociology of religion started with the essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and continued with the analysis of The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Ancient Judaism. His work on other religions was interrupted by his sudden death in 1920, which prevented him from following Ancient Judaism with studies of Psalms, Book of Jacob, Talmudic Jewry, early Christianity and Islam. His three main themes were the effect of religious ideas on economic activities, the relation between social stratification and religious ideas, and the distinguishable characteristics of Western civilization.

His goal was to find reasons for the different development paths of the cultures of the Occident and the Orient, although without judging or valuing them, like some of the contemporary thinkers who followed the social Darwinist paradigm; Weber wanted primarily to explain the distinctive elements of the Western civilization. In the analysis of his findings, Weber maintained that Calvinist (and more widely, Protestant) religious ideas had had a major impact on the social innovation and development of the economic system of Europe and the United States, but noted that they were not the only factors in this development. Other notable factors mentioned by Weber included the rationalism of scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration, and economic enterprise. In the end, the study of the sociology of religion, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the freedom from magic, that "disenchantment of the world" that he regarded as an important distinguishing aspect of Western culture.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Cover of the original German edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Cover of the original German edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Weber's essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus) is his most famous work. It is argued that this work should not be viewed as a detailed study of Protestantism, but rather as an introduction into Weber's later works, especially his studies of interaction between various religious ideas and economic behaviour. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber puts forward the thesis that Calvinist ethic and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. This theory is often viewed as a reversal of Marx's thesis that the economic "base" of society determines all other aspects of it. Religious devotion has usually been accompanied by rejection of mundane affairs, including economic pursuit. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addresses that paradox in his essay.

According to Weber, one of the universal tendencies that those individuals had to fight was the desire to profit. After defining the spirit of capitalism, Weber argues that there are many reasons to look for its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation. Many observers like William Petty, Montesquieu, Henry Thomas Buckle, John Keats, and others have commented on the affinity between Protestantism and the development of the commercial spirit.

Weber showed that certain types of Protestantism – notably Calvinism – favoured rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities which had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct – the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain. A common illustration is in the cobbler, hunched over his work, who devotes his entire effort to the praise of God. In addition, the Reformation view "calling" dignified even the mundanest professions as being those that added to the common good and were blessed by God, as much as any "sacred" calling could. This Reformation view, that all the spheres of life were sacred when dedicated to God and His purposes of nurturing and furthering life, profoundly affected the view of work.

Weber stated that he abandoned research into Protestantism because his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, a professional theologian, had initiated work on the book The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Sects. Another reason for Weber's decision was that the essay has provided the perspective for a broad comparison of religion and society, which he continued in his later works. The phrase " work ethic" used in modern commentary is a derivative of the " Protestant ethic" discussed by Weber. It was adopted when the idea of the Protestant ethic was generalised to apply to Japanese people, Jews and other non-Christians.

The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism

The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism was Weber's second major work on the sociology of religion. Weber focused on those aspects of Chinese society that were different from those of Western Europe and especially contrasted with Puritanism, and posed a question why capitalism did not develop in China. In Hundred Schools of Thought Warring States Period, he concentrated on the early period of Chinese history, during which the major Chinese schools of thoughts (Confucianism and Taoism) came to the fore.

By 200 BC, the Chinese state had developed from a loose federation of feudal states into a unified empire with patrimonial rule, as described in the Warring States Period. As in Europe, Chinese cities had been founded as forts or leaders' residences, and were the centres of trade and crafts. However, they never received political autonomy and its citizens had no special political rights or privileges. This is due to the strength of kinship ties, which stems from religious beliefs in ancestral spirits. Also, the guilds competed against each other for the favour of the Emperor, never uniting in order to fight for more rights. Therefore, the residents of Chinese cities never constitute a separate status class like the residents of European cities.

Early unification of the state and the establishment of central officialdom meant that the focus of the power struggle changed from the distribution of land to the distribution of offices, which with their fees and taxes were the most prominent source of income for the holder, who often pocketed up to 50% of the revenue. The imperial government depended on the services of those officials, not on the service of the military ( knights) as in Europe.

Weber emphasised that Confucianism tolerated a great number of popular cults without any effort to systematise them into a religious doctrine. Instead of metaphysical conjectures, it taught adjustment to the world. The "superior" man ( literati) should stay away from the pursuit of wealth (though not from wealth itself). Therefore, becoming a civil servant was preferred to becoming a businessman and granted a much higher status.

Chinese civilisation had no religious prophecy nor a powerful priestly class. The emperor was the high priest of the state religion and the supreme ruler, but popular cults were also tolerated (however the political ambitions of their priests were curtailed). This forms a sharp contrast with medieval Europe, where the Church curbed the power of secular rulers and the same faith was professed by rulers and common folk alike.

According to Confucianism, the worship of great deities is the affair of the state, while ancestral worship is required of all, and the multitude of popular cults is tolerated. Confucianism tolerated magic and mysticism as long as they were useful tools for controlling the masses; it denounced them as heresy and suppressed them when they threatened the established order (hence the opposition to Buddhism). Note that in this context, Confucianism can be referred to as the state cult, and Taoism as the popular religion.

Weber argued that while several factors favoured the development of a capitalist economy (long periods of peace, improved control of rivers, population growth, freedom to acquire land and move outside of native community, free choice of occupation) they were outweighed by others (mostly stemming from religion):

  • technical inventions were opposed on the basis of religion, in the sense that the disturbance of ancestral spirits was argued to lead to bad luck, and adjusting oneself to the world was preferred to changing it.
  • sale of land was often prohibited or made very difficult.
  • extended kinship groups (based on the religious importance of family ties and ancestry) protected its members against economic adversities, therefore discouraging payment of debts, work discipline, and rationalisation of work processes.
  • those kinship groups prevented the development of an urban status class and hindered developments towards legal institutions, codification of laws, and the rise of a lawyer class.

According to Weber, Confucianism and Puritanism represent two comprehensive but mutually exclusive types of rationalisation, each attempting to order human life according to certain ultimate religious beliefs. Both encouraged sobriety and self-control and were compatible with the accumulation of wealth. However, Confucianism aimed at attaining and preserving "a cultured status position" and used as means adjustment to the world, education, self-perfection, politeness and familial piety. Puritanism used those means in order to create a "tool of God", creating a person that would serve the God and master the world. Such intensity of belief and enthusiasm for action were alien to the aesthetic values of Confucianism. Therefore, Weber states that it was the difference in prevailing mentality that contributed to the development of capitalism in the West and the absence of it in China.

The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism

The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism was Weber's third major work on the sociology of religion. In this work he deals with the structure of Indian society, with the orthodox doctrines of Hinduism and the heterodox doctrines of Buddhism, with modifications brought by the influence of popular religiosity, and finally with the impact of religious beliefs on the secular ethic of Indian society.

The ancient Indian social system was shaped by the concept of caste. It directly linked religious belief and the segregation of society into status groups. Weber describes the caste system, consisting of the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisyas (merchants) and the Shudras (labourers). Then he describes the spread of the caste system in India due to conquests, the marginalisation of certain tribes and the subdivision of castes.

Weber pays special attention to Brahmins and analyses why they occupied the highest place in Indian society for many centuries. With regard to the concept of dharma he concludes that the Indian ethical pluralism is very different both from the universal ethic of Confucianism and Christianity. He notes that the caste system prevented the development of urban status groups.

Next, Weber analyses the Hindu religious beliefs, including asceticism and the Hindu world view, the Brahman orthodox doctrines, the rise and fall of Buddhism in India, the Hindu restoration, and the evolution of the guru. Weber asks the question whether religion had any influence upon the daily round of mundane activities, and if so, how it impacted economic conduct. He notes the idea of an immutable world order consisting of the eternal cycles of rebirth and the deprecation of the mundane world, and finds that the traditional caste system, supported by the religion, slowed economic development; in other words, the "spirit" of the caste system militated against an indigenous development of capitalism.

Weber concludes his study of society and religion in India by combining his findings with his previous work on China. He notes that the beliefs tended to interpret the meaning of life as otherworldly or mystical experience, that the intellectuals tended to be apolitical in their orientation, and that the social world was fundamentally divided between the educated, whose lives were oriented toward the exemplary conduct of a prophet or wise man, and the uneducated masses who remained caught in their daily rounds and believed in magic. In Asia, no Messianic prophecy appeared that could have given "plan and meaning to the everyday life of educated and uneducated alike." He argues that it was the Messianic prophecies in the countries of the Near East, as distinguished from the prophecy of the Asiatic mainland, that prevented Western countries from following the paths of China and India, and his next work, Ancient Judaism was an attempt to prove this theory.

Ancient Judaism

In Ancient Judaism, his fourth major work on the sociology of religion, Weber attempted to explain the "combination of circumstances" which resulted in the early differences between Oriental and Occidental religiosity. It is especially visible when the interworldly asceticism developed by Western Christianity is contrasted with mystical contemplation of the kind developed in India. Weber noted that some aspects of Christianity sought to conquer and change the world, rather than withdraw from its imperfections. This fundamental characteristic of Christianity (when compared to Far Eastern religions) stems originally from ancient Jewish prophecy. Stating his reasons for investigating ancient Judaism, Weber wrote that

Anyone who is heir to the traditions of modern European civilisation will approach the problems of universal history with a set of questions, which to him appear both inevitable and legitimate. These questions will turn on the combination of circumstances which has brought about the cultural phenomena that are uniquely Western and that have at the same time (…) a universal cultural significance.

Further on he adds:

"For the Jew (…) the social order of the world was conceived to have been turned into the opposite of that promised for the future, but in the future it was to be overturned so that Jewry could be once again dominant. The world was conceived as neither eternal nor unchangeable, but rather as being created. Its present structure was a product of man's actions, above all those of the Jews, and God's reaction to them. Hence the world was a historical product designed to give way to the truly God-ordained order (…). There existed in addition a highly rational religious ethic of social conduct; it was free of magic and all forms of irrational quest for salvation; it was inwardly worlds apart from the path of salvation offered by Asiatic religions. To a large extent this ethic still underlies contemporary Middle Eastern and European ethic. World-historical interest in Jewry rests upon this fact. (…) Thus, in considering the conditions of Jewry's evolution, we stand at a turning point of the whole cultural development of the West and the Middle East".

Weber analyses the interaction between the Bedouins, the cities, the herdsmen and the peasants, including the conflicts between them and the rise and fall of the United Monarchy. The time of the United Monarchy appears as a mere episode, dividing the period of confederacy since the Exodus and the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan from the period of political decline following the Division of the Monarchy. This division into periods has major implications for religious history. Since the basic tenets of Judaism were formulated during the time of Israelite confederacy and after the fall of the United Monarchy, they became the basis of the prophetic movement that left a lasting impression on the Western civilisation.

Weber discusses the organisation of the early confederacy, the unique qualities of the Israelites' relations to Yahweh, the influence of foreign cults, types of religious ecstasy, and the struggle of the priests against ecstasy and idol worship. He goes on to describe the times of the Division of the Monarchy, social aspects of Biblical prophecy, the social orientation of the prophets, demagogues and pamphleteers, ecstasy and politics, and the ethic and theodicity of the prophets. Weber notes that Judaism not only fathered Christianity and Islam, but was crucial to the rise of modern Occident state, as its influence were as important to those of Hellenistic and Roman cultures. Reinhard Bendix, summarising Ancient Judaism, writes that

free of magic and esoteric speculations, devoted to the study of law, vigilant in the effort to do what was right in the eyes of the Lord in the hope of a better future, the prophets established a religion of faith that subjected man's daily life to the imperatives of a divinely ordained moral law. In this way, ancient Judaism helped create the moral rationalism of Western civilisation.

Sociology of politics and government

In the sociology of politics and government, one of Weber's most significant contribution is his Politics as a Vocation essay. Therein, Weber unveils the definition of the state that has become so pivotal to Western social thought: that the state is that entity which possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, which it may nonetheless elect to delegate as it sees fit. In this essay, Weber wrote that politics is to be understood as any activity in which the state might engage itself in order to influence the relative distribution of force. Politics thus comes to be understood as deriving from power. A politician must not be a man of the "true Christian ethic", understood by Weber as being the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, that is to say, the injunction to turn the other cheek. An adherent of such an ethic ought rather to be understood to be a saint, for it is only saints, according to Weber, that can appropriately follow it. The political realm is no realm for saints. A politician ought to marry the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility, and must possess both a passion for his avocation and the capacity to distance himself from the subject of his exertions (the governed).

Weber distinguished three pure types of political leadership, domination and authority: charismatic domination (familial and religious), traditional domination ( patriarchs, patrimonalism, feudalism), and legal domination (modern law and state, bureaucracy). In his view, every historical relation between rulers and ruled contained such elements and they can be analysed on the basis of this tripartite distinction. He also notes that the instability of charismatic authority inevitably forces it to "routinize" into a more structured form of authority. Likewise he notes that in a pure type of traditional rule, sufficient resistance to a master can lead to a "traditional revolution". Thus he alludes to an inevitable move towards a rational-legal structure of authority, utilising a bureaucratic structure. Thus this theory can be sometimes viewed as part of the social evolutionism theory. This ties to his broader concept of rationalisation by suggesting the inevitability of a move in this direction.

Weber is also well-known for his critical study of the bureaucratisation of society, the rational ways in which formal social organizations apply the ideal type characteristics of a bureaucracy. It was Weber who began the studies of bureaucracy and whose works led to the popularization of this term. Many aspects of modern public administration go back to him, and a classic, hierarchically organised civil service of the Continental type is called "Weberian civil service", although this is only one ideal type of public administration and government described in his magnum opus Economy and Society (1922), and one that he did not particularly like himself – he only thought it particularly efficient and successful. In this work, Weber outlines a description, which has become famous, of rationalization (of which bureaucratization is a part) as a shift from a value-oriented organisation and action (traditional authority and charismatic authority) to a goal-oriented organization and action (legal-rational authority). The result, according to Weber, is a "polar night of icy darkness", in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in an " iron cage" of rule-based, rational control. Weber's bureaucracy studies also led him to his analysis – correct, as it would turn out, after Stalin's takeover – that socialism in Russia would lead to over-bureaucratization rather than to the " withering away of the state" (as Karl Marx had predicted would happen in communist society).


While Max Weber is best known and recognised today as one of the leading scholars and founders of modern sociology, he also accomplished much in other fields, notably economics, although this is largely forgotten today among orthodox economists, who pay very little attention to his works. The view that Weber is at all influential to modern economists comes largely from non-economists and economic critics with sociology backgrounds. During his life distinctions between the social sciences were less clear than they are now, and Weber considered himself a historian and an economist first, sociologist distant second.

From the point of view of the economists, he is a representative of the "Youngest" German historical school of economics. His most valued contributions to the field of economics is his famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This is a seminal essay on the differences between religions and the relative wealth of their followers. Weber's work is parallel to Sombart's treatise of the same phenomenon, which however located the rise of Capitalism in Judaism. Weber's other main contribution to economics (as well as to social sciences in general) is his work on methodology: his theories of " Verstehen" (known as understanding or Interpretative Sociology) and of antipositivism (known as humanistic sociology).

The doctrine of Interpretative Sociology is one of the main sociological paradigms, with many supporters as well as critics. This thesis states that social, economic and historical research can never be fully inductive or descriptive as one must always approach it with a conceptual apparatus, which Weber termed " Ideal Type". The idea can be summarised as follows: an ideal type is formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. Weber's Ideal Type became one of the most important concepts in social sciences, and led to the creation of such concepts as Ferdinand Tönnies' " Normal Type".

Weber conceded that employing "Ideal Types" was an abstraction but claimed that it was nonetheless essential if one were to understand any particular social phenomena because, unlike physical phenomena, they involve human behaviour which must be interpreted by ideal types. This, together with his antipositivistic argumentation can be viewed as the methodological justification for the assumption of the " rational economic man" ( homo economicus).

Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with Social class, Social status and party (or politicals) as conceptually distinct elements.

  • Social class is based on economically determined relationship to the market (owner, renter, employee etc.).
  • Status is based on non-economical qualities like honour, prestige and religion.
  • Party refers to affiliations in the political domain.

All three dimensions have consequences for what Weber called " life chances".

Weber's other contributions to economics were several: these include a (seriously researched) economic history of Roman agrarian society, his work on the dual roles of idealism and materialism in the history of capitalism in his Economy and Society (1914) which present Weber's criticisms (or according to some, revisions) of some aspects of Marxism. Finally, his thoroughly researched General Economic History (1923) can be considered the Historical School at its empirical best.

Critical responses to Weber

Influence from and on the Austrian school

During his own lifetime, Weber was critical of the neoclassical economic approaches of authors such as Carl Menger and Friedrich von Weiser, whose formal approach was quite different from his own historical sociology. The work of these authors eventually led to the creation of the Austrian School of economics. This includes followers of Friedrich von Hayek and, more recently, authors Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. In their pro-globalization book Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, they attack Weber for claiming that only Protestantism could lead to a work ethic, pointing to the " Tiger Economies" of Southeastern Asia. (Likewise, Weber's blending of economics with Calvinism has been satirized by such works as "America's Keenest City" by Mongo.)

However, in these debates, it is easy to overlook that the methods advocated by these later generations of the Austrian School are heavily indebted to the work of Weber. His "action sociology", as they called it, was a frequent topic in the "Mises Circle", an influential group headed by Ludwig von Mises, a key figure in the Austrian School. Among the attendees was a student of Mises, the philosopher of sociology Alfred Schutz, who sought to clarify Weber's interpretive approach in terms of the analytic phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Hence, although Schutz's work, especially The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932), is in effect a profound critique of Weber's method, it is nevertheless an attempt to further it. Hayek also frequently attended these discussions, and the subjective method advanced in his The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason (1952) reflects these influences. Ludwig Lachmann, a later member of the Austrian School, made explicit the Austrian School's indebtedness to the Weberian method.

Interestingly, given their methodological and sociological differences, Weber and Mises were not only acquainted, they shared an admiration for each other’s work. Mises considered Weber a "great genius" and his death a blow to Germany. Likewise, Weber comments that Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit is the monetary theory most acceptable to him. Weber accepted Ludwig von Mises's criticism of socialist economic planning and added his own argument. He believed that under socialism workers would still work in a hierarchy, but that now the hierarchy would be fused with government. Instead of dictatorship of the worker, he foresaw dictatorship of the official.

Historical Critiques

The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism did not begin with the Industrial Revolution but in 14th century Italy. In Milan, Venice, and Florence the small City-state governments lead to the development of the earliest forms of capitalism. In the 16th century Antwerp was a commercial centre of Europe. It was also noted that the predominantly Calvinist country of Scotland did not enjoy the same economic growth as Holland, England, and New England. In addition, it has been pointed out that Holland, which was heavily Calvinist, industrialized much later in the 19th century than predominantly Catholic Belgium, which was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution on the European mainland.

Emil Kauder expanded Schumpeter's argument by arguing the hypothesis that Calvinism hurt the development of capitalism by leading to the development of the labor theory of value. Kauder writes "Any social philosopher or economist exposed to Calvinism will be tempted to give labor an exalted position in his social or economic treatise, and no better way of extolling labor can be found than by combining work with value theory, traditionally the very basis of an economic system." In contrast, Catholic areas that were influenced by the late scholastics were more likely to adhere to the subjective theory of value.

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