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The Sociology of Max Weber

By hefercat Nov 11, 2008 2307 Words
Max Weber was one of the most influential figures in sociological research and helped found sociology as a science. Being raised in a family of scholars and politicians gave Weber the leverage to succeed. At first, Weber studied law and economics, but he later switched his focus onto, or rather intertwined it with, society. According to Stephen Kalberg, Weber was the one founder of sociology that went beyond the standards of his peers; his most famous achievements include his study of religion: from Christianity in America to Buddhism in China, as well as government (8). Eventually, Weber took on the interactionist perspective and developed four main points on social action (Knox 11, Elwell). The Life of Max Weber

Maximilian Carl Emil Weber was born in Erfurt, Thuringia, Prussia (modern day Germany) in 1864. His mother, Helene Fallenstein, came from a wealthy Huguenot family and valued her religion. Max Weber Senior, however, was an active and domineering politician (Poggi 1). Weber gained an early perspective on politics and government from his father and his father’s associates. His mother’s Huguenot dynasty reached far beyond Germany, feeding his interest in economics. During Weber’s childhood, Germany had taken on the appearance of an authoritarian society (Poggi 2). In 1869, Max Weber Senior took his family and moved to Berlin for a political faction where Weber got his educational start. While at school in Berlin, Weber often sent home letters with references to Homer, Virgil, and Cicero, clearly showing an interest in the social sciences (Bendix 1).

In 1882, Weber enrolled at the University of Heidelberg where he studied law (Poggi 4). He spent the next few years doing military service, something he was quite proud of. In 1884, he went from the University of Berlin to the University of Göttingen. In order to receive his doctorate in law, Weber wrote The History of Commercial Partnerships in the Middle Ages in 1889. Two years later, Weber earned the title “Privatdozent,” which allowed him to become a professor (Poggi 5).

Weber became increasingly interested in social politics and joined the “Verein für Socialpolitik,” a group of professionals that saw the economy as something that could solve the problems of society (Poggi 7). In 1893, Weber married his distant cousin, Marianne Schnitger, who claimed most of the responsibility for publishing his works after his death. The next year, they moved together to Freiburg, where Weber was appointed professor of economics at Freiburg University. He later took the same position at the University of Heidelberg (Poggi 8). In 1897, Weber went to a sanatorium after his father’s death. This forced him to quit his job, and, ultimately, retire from being a professor in 1903.

In 1904, Weber published his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Poggi 8). During World War I, he became the director of hospitals in Heidelberg as well as a teacher at the University of Munich (Poggi 12). It was at Munich that he created the first German university solely dedicated to sociology. Because Weber took a very left-wing, liberal view during the German Revolution, many of his colleagues and students argued against him and even took up pickets outside of his home (Mommsen 227). Max Weber passed away on March 14, 1920, in Munich, after catching pneumonia.

Weber had many achievements, including his contribution to the interactionist perspective (also known as symbolic interactionism) of sociology (Knox 11). The interactionists “[generalize] about everyday forms of social interaction in order to explain society as a whole” (Schaeffer 16). Interactionists pay special attention to symbols used in everyday language on a micro level, such as tattoos, dress codes, and posture (Schaeffer 16-17). Max Weber argued that in order to understand social behavior, sociologists have to see the world from the eyes of that society (Knox 12). This approach was called “Verstehen”, which in German means "insight," “empathy” or “understanding” (Knox 12, Schaeffer 11). In fact, many of the sociological terms that we use today were coined by Weber during his studies. Among those terms are “value neutrality” and “ideal type”; in an attempt to make sociological research less influenced by the researcher, Weber demanded value neutrality as part of their ethical obligation (Schaeffer 43). Another term coined by Weber is the “ideal type,” defined as a “construct or model for evaluating specific cases” (Schaeffer 11), which is used to this day to determine how practical an organization is. It’s important to know, however, that a real-life ideal type does not exist to Weber’s exact standards, because the ideal type is meant to be a perfect model. Weber helped to create a clear division between social science and natural science because of his ideas on social actions. He found sociology to be the study of four social actions. The first action is known as “zweckrational,” when a goal is set and the way it will be achieved is in a rational manner (Elwell). The second action is ‘wertrational,’ which is when one sets a goal that may not be rational, but the way they strive to achieve it is still by rational means (Elwell). The third action, according to Dr. Frank Elwell, known as “affective,” is an “action that is anchored in the emotional state of the actor rather than in the rational weighing of means and ends” (Elwell). Finally, “traditional” is an action that is guided by customary thought and depends on the “eternal yesterday” (Elwell). Sociology of Religion

Religion is an important aspect of life because, for some reason, religion gives us a supernatural means to make it through difficult times in our lives (Schaeffer 323). Max Weber wanted to know why. His most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, paved the way for his sociological study of religion. After his study of religion’s effect on economics, he went on to write The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: the Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Ancient Judaism (Bendix 285). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was a study of how Protestantism (particularly Calvinism) helped to create capitalism, the economic system that allows private business in a free market economy (Bendix 60). Weber was predominantly interested in Protestantism, in relation to economics, because unlike other religions that reject self gain and prosperity, it seems to embrace those aspects of life (Bendix 57). He saw that the majority of the business leaders during his time were Protestant, and the workers that were more laid back were mostly Catholic (Schaeffer 323). John Calvin called for a disciplined work ethic, known as the Protestant ethic; so Weber came to the conclusion that Protestantism, especially Calvinism, favored monetary gain as long as it was in a moral way and had positive spiritual meaning (Schaeffer 323, Bendix 61). While this theory may have been valid at the time, it’s important to see that this work ethic has been adopted all over the world and now has almost no correlation to religion at all (Schaeffer 323). In 1915, Max Weber published his second religion-related work, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Weber was curious to know why capitalism hadn’t developed in China and why Chinese religion differed so much from occidental religion, such as Protestantism (Bendix 98-99). Chinese citizens had strong ties to family because of their religious belief in ancestral spirits. Also, business owners never teamed up to get more rights, but rather competed with each other for favor from the Emperor. These two sociological differences left Chinese citizens with an unstable and controlled market while eliminating the opportunity for a separate status class (Bendix 99-100). Weber understood that Confucianism allowed one to become wealthy as long as one wasn’t trying to become wealthy. It placed the citizen who chose community service socially above the citizen that chose business (Bendix 124). In all, Confucianism and Taoism allowed for any belief that didn’t disturb the social order, but ancestral worship was mandatory of all (Bendix 126-127). Weber concluded that the reason the Chinese lacked capitalism and the classes that western regions had was because Western religion called for the improvement of the world, while Chinese thought required acceptance and preservation (Bendix 135-141). In The Religion of India: the Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, Max Weber dissects the social classes of India because their social system is directly related to religion. The highest in this social order are the Brahmins (priests), then the Kshatriyas (warriors), followed by the Vaisyas (merchants), and finally the Shudras (laborers) (Bendix 142-158). With the Brahmins at the top of the social order, Weber wanted to know what the Hindu religion had to do with everyday life and economics. His conclusion was that Hinduism’s idea of reincarnation is what developed the caste system in India and ultimately slowed the country’s economic growth (Bendix 181). Weber noted that society was divided between the educated people, who believe in a prophet, and uneducated people, who believe in magic. He thought that with a messianic leader to guide them, Western societies would never have an economy like the Chinese and Indian (Bendix 199). In an attempt to prove his theory, Weber’s next religion of interest was Ancient Judaism. Weber used Judaism as a way to prove the differences between Western and Oriental religions. Christianity, the religion of the West, is directly derived from Judaism. Weber examined the relationship that Jewish people had to Yahweh, the influence of foreign religions, and the struggle against idolatry (Bendix 213). Reinhard Bendix summarized Weber’s ideas on Ancient Judaism: [Ancient Judaism is] 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 civilization. (256) Weber saw that Ancient Judaism played a large role in developing Christianity and Islam, because of the division that occurred after the exodus and settlement of the Israelites (Bendix 204-205). Weber’s study of Ancient Judaism could not be completed, however, because of his sudden death in 1920.

Types of Authority
Authority is defined as “institutionalized power that is recognized by the people over whom it is exercised” (Schaeffer 355). Weber identified three different types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal (or Rational-Legal). A charismatic authority would be a family or a study group. The second, traditional, has examples like feudalism and patriarchs. The last, legal, include law, state and bureaucracy (Mommsen 46). These ideal types of authority can appear all at once within a company or organization, but which is most prominent is what sparked Max Weber’s curiosity.

When politics are based on traditional authority power is known and respected by custom (Schaeffer 355). No matter how that person is viewed by people, it is still conferred that they have legitimate power because that’s the way they have always done things. When someone is given power by law, that person has rational-legal power (Schaeffer 355). His or her power comes from laws that have been written down and are followed regularly. Weber thought that, apart from the previously noted powers, one could receive power through charisma: his or her personnel or appeal to followers (Schaeffer 356). This type of person inspires people to follow them regardless of rules and tradition. So, according to Weber’s theory, a person in a position of power can be appointed power by law, but they can also have charismatic power as well.

Characteristics of Bureaucracy
Richard T. Schaeffer defines bureaucracy as “a component of formal organization that uses rules and hierarchal ranking to achieve efficiency” (119). Max Weber first saw the importance in bureaucratic structure in relation to religion, government, and even education (Schaeffer 119). The first of the five characteristics is the division of labor. Under this characteristic everyone has their job that they do, so that they are more likely to become highly skilled in their area (Schaeffer 119). The second is the hierarchy of authority, which means that everyone is working under someone else (Schaeffer 120). The third characteristic that a bureaucracy is known for is that they have written rules and regulations (Schaeffer 120). That means standards are given and are expected to be followed. The fourth characteristic is impersonality meaning all emotion is gone when one is in the work place (Schaeffer 121). Lastly, employment is based on skill; favoritism is not tolerated and performance is measured against set standards (Schaeffer 121).

Weber was truly one of the most influential social scientists in all of history. He brilliantly tied the most personal—religion—with the least personal—business—into one beautiful, intricate cause and effect relationship. Few social scientists have brought or will bring the brilliance and creativity to the field that Weber brought.  

Works Cited
Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. New York: University of California, 1978. Elwell, Frank. Student Lecture. “Max Weber.” Rogers State University, Claremore, OK. 1 June 1999. 14 Sept 2008 < Whome.htm>. Path: Verstehen: The Sociology of Max Weber.

Kalberg, Stephen ed. Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity. Malden: Blackwell, 2005. Knox, David, Linda A. Mooney, and Caroline Schacht. Understanding Social Problems. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008. Mommsen, Wolfgang J. The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber: Collected Essays. New York: University of Chicago, 1992. Poggi, Gianfranco. ¬Weber: a short introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 2006. Schaefer, Richard T. ¬Sociology: A Brief Introduction. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

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