Weber, Max

Weber, Max
(1864-1920)
Weber, together with Émile Durkheim, is generally regarded as the founder of modern sociology as a distinct social science. Of the two, his work is the more complex and ambitious, still providing a rich source for interpretation and inspiration. His life, too, possesses a certain fascination. A mental breakdown in 1897 was followed by four years of intellectual inactivity. His wife Marianne was an early feminist, and the Webers were the heart of the most impressive intellectual circle in early twentieth-century Germany, centred on regular Sunday seminars at their Heidelberg home. Max Weber's contribution to sociology was immense. He offered a philosophical basis for the social sciences; a general conceptual framework for sociology; and a range of learned studies covering all of the great world religions, ancient societies, economic history, the sociology of law and of music, and many other areas.
Whereas Durkheim's attempt to found a science of sociology was based on the scientific positivism of his day, Weber's intellectual training was in the neo-Kantian school of philosophy associated with the names of Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert (see Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften ), dominant in Germany at that time. This philosophy involved a radical distinction between phenomena (the external world we perceive) and noumena (the perceiving consciousness). In Weber's sociology, this became a distinction between the natural and social sciences, the latter concerned with the forms in which we apprehend the world. Thus, whilst we might wish to establish universal laws in the natural sciences, this was not the task of the social sciences-since their interest is in the causal explanation and understanding of social actions in their particular historical contexts. At the same time, human society was not a matter of chance but of ‘probabilities’, and what made social science possible was the fact that human beings act rationally for at least a large part of the time.
The proper object of social science, then, is social action: action directed towards significant others and to which we attach a subjective meaning . Sociology attempts an interpretative account of such action using an ideal-type methodology. Weber developed a fourfold classification of social action: traditional action undertaken because it has always been so performed; affectual action based on or driven by emotion; value-rational action directed towards ultimate values ; and end-rational or instrumental action. Only the last two of these fall within the scope of rational action-although Weber also argued strongly that there can be no rational choice either of ends or ultimate values. However, once these have been adopted, they can certainly be pursued by more or less rational means. Weber saw the development of modern societies as a process of increasing rationalization in which the world loses its mystery. The growth of large-scale modern bureaucracy is a major part of that process and one of Weber's criticisms of socialism was that it would simply hasten this ‘disenchantment’ of life.
On a philosophical level, Weber's other main contribution was a theory of value-freedom, a complex formulation often mistakenly interpreted as a naïve belief in objectivity. For Weber, the choice of science and of sociology was a value choice, which could not be justified in terms of instrumental rationality. This was true also of the selection of a particular object of study. However, once these choices were made, a sociological study could be value-free in the sense that its rational coherence was subject to the criticisms of the scientific community. What might be meant by rational, however, was itself open to historical change. In this sense, social scientific work is hemmed in by values, not only the values of the individual sociologist but also those of the community of social scientists and the prevailing culture as a whole.
It is common to juxtapose Weber to Marx, and to see him as developing an alternative sociology, at once both more scientific and more bourgeois. In fact Weber's intellectual mentors are numerous and diverse. For example, in formulating the protestant ethic thesis (often read as an alternative to Marxist accounts of the rise of capitalism ), Weber was explicitly building upon earlier theories of capitalism and of money propounded by Werner Sombart and Georg Simmel. Weber does, however, provide an important alternative to Marxist conceptions of class and politics. For Weber, class is defined not by relationship to the means of production, but by the sharing of a common market position leading to shared life-chances . This has enabled sociologists to talk about, for example, housing classes (owner-occupiers, tenants of private rentals, and so forth) as well as classes defined by possession of skills and other marketable assets. Beyond this he introduced the concept of status group as an important element of stratification: that is, groups differentiated according to positive or negative honorific criteria, and sharing a common style of life (such as ethnic groups or castes ). He also argued that organized conflicts over power were an important aspect of social life and one not necessarily linked to economic class conflict.
There is considerable disagreement about Weber's political views, which are as ambivalent and complex as many of his sociological analyses. Was he, as some have claimed, a precursor of fascism; or, as seems much more plausible, a sophisticated liberal? The problem is that, as with much of his other work, his political writings do not fit the rather simplistic categories into which social theorists now try to fit them.
His publications are as voluminous as they are diverse, but his most important works (all available in English translation) are probably Economy and Society (1922, translated 1968), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905, translated 1930), General Economic History (1923), The Religion of China (1916, translated 1951), The Religion of India (1916-17, translated 1958), Ancient Judaism (1917-19, translated 1952), and the essays on methodology collected and translated as The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1949). Marianne Weber's fascinating biography of her husband (Max Weber: A Biography, 1975) is a sociological classic-though frequently economical with the truth about Weber's private and public life. The best short introduction to the main elements of Weber's sociological work is Frank Parkin's (often highly critical) Max Weber (1982). See also absolutism ; action theory ; charisma ; domination ; feudalism ; formal rationality ; Hinduism ; industrial society ; interpretation ; law, sociology of ; legitimacy ; patrimonialism ; religion, sociology of.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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