Sociology 250

September 30, 1999

Max Weber

1. Importance and Influence

Weber is often regarded as the most important classical sociological theorist since he investigated many areas and since his approach and methods guide much later sociological analysis. Like Marx, Weber had a wide ranging set of interests: politics, history, language, religion, law, economics, and administration, in addition to sociology. His historical and economic analysis does not provide as elaborate or as systematic a model of capitalism and capitalist development as does that of Marx. But the scope of his analysis ranges more widely than that of Marx; is examines broad historical changes, the origins of capitalism, the development of capitalism, political issues, the nature of a future society, and concepts and approaches that Marx downplayed religion, ideas, values, meaning, and social action.

In the view of some, Weber may have "spent his life having a posthumous dialogue with the ghost of Karl Marx." (Cuff, p. 97). This dialogue concerned (i) economic determinism or the extent to which developments are rooted in the material base, and (ii) the extent to which economic factors alone can be considered at the root of social structure. At the same time, the differences between Weber and Marx should not be overstated. Weber's analysis had similar scope to that of Marx, and he came from a similar historical, German tradition of thought, examining many of the same topics as Marx. Many contemporary sociologists think of Weber as complementing Marx, examining issues that Marx thought less important, providing a way of thinking about the individual within a structural approach, and laying out a sociological methodology. Weber's writing had an influence on structural functionalism, critical theory, some of the social interaction approaches, and much contemporary sociological theory, including some Marxist approaches that use ideas from Weber.

2. Structure, History and Sociology

The historical, economic, and political analyses of Marx and Weber is largely structuralist. That is, they attempted to understand the large structures and institutions that affect the lives of people, and how these changed over time and space. For Marx, these were primarily economic structures involving factors such as the development of the productive forces and ownership or non-ownership of the means of production. For Weber, "the economic order was of paramount importance in determining the precise position of different communities" but other important structures such as religion, ideas, status, and bureaucracy "could influence people's actions in ways not directly derivative from purely 'economic' interests (Hadden, p. 126). In particular, for Weber "rational bureaucracy, rather than class struggle, was the most significant factor" (Hadden, pp. 126-7).

Marx had little concern over the division of knowledge into different academic disciplines and developed a social theory with widespread applications in the political realm. In contrast, Weber adopted a more academic approach, helping to establish sociology as an academic discipline. Weber realized that the structures of society are both historical and sociological, and described the the distinction between these Weber as follows:

Sociology seeks to formulate type concepts and generalized uniformities of empirical processes. This distinguishes it from history, which is oriented to the causal analysis and explanation of the individual actions, structures, and personalities possessing cultural significance. ... [The ideal procedure is to make] the sure imputation of individual concrete events occurring in historical reality to concrete, historically given causes through the study of precise empirical data which have been selected from specific points of view." (Ritzer, 3rd edition, pp. 112-114)

In adopting this method, Weber was an historical sociologist. Weber considered the study and examination of empirical data necessary and these data must be carefully selected and interpreted. Out of this, a sociologist develops concepts and "generalized uniformities of empirical processes." Sociology is more than description of events and as Ritzer (p. 114) notes

history is composed of unique empirical events; there can be no generalizations at the empirical level. Sociologists must, therefore, separate the empirical world from the conceptual universe that they construct. The concepts can never completely capture the empirical world, but they can be used as heuristic tools for gaining a better understanding of reality.

One example of how Weber does this is contained in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Compared with Marx, Weber was less attracted to the idea of "laws" by which society can be described, and was less concerned with constructing an overall theoretical model of society and its development. Rather, Weber was impressed by the complexity of society, and the difficulty of understanding society as a whole. He uses many more concepts than did Marx and does not develop these into a single, theoretical model. As a result, Weber's concepts and methods are usually more specific and less general than those of Marx but are applicable to a broad range of social issues.

3. The Individual, Understanding, and Social Action

In addition to the large structural features and observed regularities, both Marx and Weber considered human action to be an important feature of social structure and social change. For Marx, this was more likely to be group rather than individual action, with classes, trade unions, workplace organizations, political parties, and lobby groups providing the setting within which human action took place. Marxian analysis is not particularly concerned with individual human action within these structures and provides few guidelines concerning methods of analysis of social action and interaction.

Weber's analysis helps bridge the gap between the large structures of society and individual social action and interaction. Weber argued that sociologists can develop an understanding of actions of individuals and groups, and thereby of historical processes. Weber described this as verstehen or understanding, whereby the sociologist becomes empathetic with the individual, developing an understanding of the meaning that individuals attach to various courses of action. Understanding and meaning are key elements of Weber's approach these are not just intuition or sympathy with the individual, but the product of "systematic and rigorous research" (Ritzer, p. 116). This approach is

a method aiming at identifying a human design, a "meaning" behind observable events, we shall have no difficulty in accepting that it can be just as well applied to human interaction as to individual actors. From this point of view all history is interactions, which has to be interpreted in terms of the rival plans of various actors. (Ritzer, p. 116).

At both the individual level, and at the larger group or structural level, individual and group interpretations of situations, the meaning attached to these, the motivation for action, all must be understood. Meaning also includes constraints and limitations on action, as a result of institutions and structures. Weber attempts to do this, and develop a methodology so that others can also do this.

Note that Weber argued that this gives the sociologist an advantage over the natural scientist an ability to understand social phenomenon. In Weber's words,

We can accomplish something which is never attainable in the natural sciences, namely the subjective understanding of the action of the component individuals. (Weber, Economy and Society, p. 15).

Often the study of human society is thought to be too difficult because of the complexity of human thought an action. Weber attempts to turn this into an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

Hadden emphasizes the method of ideal types developed by Weber as a way of "comparing the grounds and consequences of action in different historical contexts" (Hadden, pp. 127-8). These ideal types are concepts developed by the social scientist to isolate key features of interest to the analyst, permitting comparison of various aspects of social action in different societies and over time. For Weber, these help to "achieve a causal explanation of results by isolating the key feature in two or more cases" (Hadden, p. 128). Among ideal types are the protestant ethic, the spirit of capitalism, rationality, bureaucracy concepts that are constructed by the social scientist through careful study, observation, and thought. While all social scientists develop concepts that crystallize particular aspects of society in a way that a theoretical model can be built, Weber outlined his methodology in more detail than most writers. His method of ideal types has been widely adopted by sociologists and Weber's methodological writings constitute an important basis for sociological methodology.

4. Max Weber's Life

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German writer, academic (historian and sociologist), who was sometimes involved in the field of politics. He was born near Erfurt, Saxony (in central Germany) part of Prussia at that time. His family background was not all that dissimilar from that of Marx both were born into middle class professional families, although Marx was Jewish and Weber's family was better off than Marx's.

Politics played an important role in Weber's life and intellectual activity. Prussia was dominated by the Junkers, aristocratic landowners who were opposed to free trade in grain and to liberal, capitalistic reforms. Germany was still divided into separate principalities at the time of Weber's birth, at was at war with Austria and France. By 1871, Count Bismarck had unified Germany and Prussia "attained complete control over most of German-speaking Europe" (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 264). Bismarck was able to balance the interests of the Junkers and the western German industrialists, and was able to push through some progressive reforms, such as social security or pension plans. The unification of Germany helped encourage the expansion of industry, German capitalism and the German working class. The latter supported various socialist parties, and Marxist influences were strong in the working class. The German political system was not liberal and democratic, but "administered by monarchists, militarists, and industrialists." (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 266). Weber also lived during the first world war, and the Versailles settlement that was imposed on Germany. After this, politics was dominated by the fights between the governing Social Democratic Party and the power of the nationalist and right-wing elements. This ultimately led to the Nazi triumph in 1933. Hadden notes that Germany was generally in a chaotic political situation during much of Weber's lifetime, and as a result Weber was pessimistic about achieving national unity and cohesion, political aims that he valued highly (p. 126).

Weber's father (Max Weber, Sr.) was a bureaucrat, part of the German establishment, and a member of the National Liberal Party who sat in the Prussian House and the Reichstag.

Within the political debates of this period, Weber's father was a supporter of the "conservative, reactionary policies of the German Kaiser and Chancellor ... Bismarck." (Grabb, p. 44). Bismarck opposed constitutional rule and was a representative of the Junkers, the aristocratic, eastern German landowners, and practised power politics. While Weber's father supported compromise and pragmatism (as did Bismarck) Weber later had disputes with his father, partly because Weber was a liberal, who supported "democracy and human freedom." (Grabb, p. 44).

Weber's mother, Helene Weber, was a Protestant and a Calvinist, with strong moral absolutist ideas. Weber was strongly influenced by her views and approach to life. Although Weber did not claim to be religious himself, religion did was an important them through much of his thought and writings. Weber studied religion extensively, and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his most famous work, is a model of Weber's historical and sociological method. In this work, his main contribution was to show the connection of Calvinism with the emergence of capitalism.

Weber studied at Heidelberg and Berlin (earning a Ph. D.) and, unlike Marx, was not prevented from taking up an academic career because of his politics, but became an important German professor. As Marx had done, he studied law and became a lawyer. He began studying the conditions of agricultural workers in east Prussia in 1892 and by 1894 became a professor of economics. His studies branched out into the study of history, economics, sociology, religion and languages. Like Marx, he tackled practically any subject which interested him, and both were products of a broad intellectual tradition. "Max Weber belonged to a generation of universal scholars ... ." (Gerth and Mills, p. 23).

Weber married in 1893, although the relationship with his wife Marianne was more intellectual than physical. Marianne Weber provided important support to her husband and later wrote a biography of him. Marianne Weber later became a prominent leader of German feminism, and lived until 1953. Much of Weber's life was preoccupied with his personal relationships with his parents. According to Ritzer, "There was a tension in Weber's life and, more important, in his work, between the bureaucratic mind, as represented by his father, and his mother's religiosity. This unresolved tension permeates Weber's work as it permeated his personal life." (Ritzer, p. 101). In 1896, Weber criticized his father severely concerning his father's treatment of his mother. His father died soon after, and Weber had a nervous breakdown. Weber was not able to teach regularly again, although most of his writings were undertaken after this.

After his psychological depression, Weber traveled to the United States in 1904. This visit influenced Weber greatly, Weber being impressed with mass political parties, voluntary citizens' organizations and other institutions which he felt helped promote freedom and democracy (Grabb, p. 46). He also became aware of machine politics and the necessary role of bureaucracy in 'mass democracy.' His attempt to promote liberalism in Germany was guided partly by his observations concerning American democracy, in particular, his view that the German president's power should be strengthened to counteract the power of the Reichstag. (Gerth and Mills, p. 18).

After his return to Germany, Weber completed The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). In the next years, he published some methodological essays The Methodology of the Social Sciences, and continued his studies of major world religions in "world-historical perspective" (Ritzer, p. 101). He also did extensive writing on economics and history and began his major work Economy and Society in 1909, although this work was never finished.

Weber lived in Heidelberg and his home became a meeting place for intellectuals. The first world war broke out in 1914, and this interrupted Weber's work. He worked as a reserve officer in military hospitals. Later, he became disillusioned with the war, questioning the competence of the military and political regime. Weber tried to convince the generals to stop fighting, but this had no effect. After the war, Weber served as an advisor to the German delegation at Versailles, helped draft a German constitution and became an important political figure. He opposed the Kaiser's conservative government, but was also opposed to the socialist parties. Given that there was not a middle grouping in Germany at the time, this left him little opportunity to make much positive contribution.

Weber took up teaching again late in his life, this time at Munich. He debated Marxists concerning the nature of capitalism, and seemed ready to resume an active role again. In 1920 he caught pneumonia, and he died at age 56.

5. Intellectual Influences

Weber was familiar with, and part of, the major German intellectual debates of his time, first in his parents' household, and then in his own and through his professional, academic contacts. As Ritzer notes (pp. 113-114), Weber was concerned with the debate concerning science and history, and attempted to establish a foundation for sociology. Weber felt that historical sociology should be "concerned with individuality and generality." (Ritzer, p. 114). The philosopher who dominated German philosophical thought during Weber's time was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that "the methods of the natural sciences give us true knowledge about the external phenomenal world the world we experience through our senses." (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 268). At the same time, Kant argued that moral philosophy or a system of morality, is also important and "involves reflection on moral axioms that appear to be innate and are understandable without reference to human experience." (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 268). That is, empirical analysis and moral judgment are two separate systems sociology could not set out moral values, but could discuss the effects of these. While sociology must be concerned with empirical analysis of society and history, the method of sociology would have to be different from that of the natural sciences. Sociological analysis would have to examine social action within a context of social interaction, and would have to be interpretive, not viewing people as object just driven by impersonal forces. Marianne Weber's biography argued that Max Weber believed that the purpose of political and social institutions is the development of autonomous, free personality. These influences can be seen in Weber's approach to methodology, understanding and social action. (Paragraph based on Ashley and Orenstein, pp. 267-271).

One of Marx's major influences and struggles was with Hegelian idealism. While Weber never seemed to have a similar set of problems with philosophical views, the political situation of Germany occupies a similar position in Weber's thought. That is, a large part of Weber's writing and analysis was an attempt to make sense of political features in Germany, and an attempt to promote a liberal economic system in a country torn between reaction and socialism.

Germany was backward economically, compared with France and Britain. Landowners still held political power, but wanted free trade so they could export food to Britain, the liberal Friedrich List advocated protective tariffs, and it was Bismarck and the aristocrats who unified Germany, not the emerging bourgeoisie. The liberal intellectuals were detached from the entrepreneurial middle class. Thus Weber could not find an easy model from France, Britain or the United States, from which he could draw practical political lessons. (from Gerth and Mills, p. 45). This may have been part of what led Weber to look on the political sphere as disconnected from the strictly economic, at least in the Marxian manner.

For example, Weber considered European political history as a struggle by different rulers "to appropriate the financial and military means that in feudal society were relatively dispersed." (Gerth and Mills, p. 48). That is, economic factors affected politics, but not through the direct route from the bourgeoisie to the ruling class of Marx. Military factors, the control of territory, and political power in itself all played important roles in affecting politics and history.

Weber also looked toward the national units as the "historical ultimates that can never be integrated into more comprehensive and harmonious whole." (Gerth and Mills, p. 48). This is part of what made Weber antagonistic to socialism, especially the international socialism of this period. In addition, Weber viewed the rationality of capitalism within a national unit as the most that could be hoped for in terms of achieving human freedom. To integrate the state with control of the economy, as socialist doctrine urged, would mean an even further centralization, with a consequent loss of freedom. According to Weber, "the state had 'nationalized' the possession of arms and of administrative means [from the feudal estates]. Socialization of the means of production would merely subject an as yet relatively autonomous economic life to the bureaucratic management of the state. The state would indeed become total, and Weber, hating bureaucracy as a shackle upon the liberal individual, felt that socialism would thus lead to a further serfdom." (Gerth and Mills, p. 50). While Weber sympathized with the struggle of the proletariat, he was too individualistic to join this struggle.

6. Example - Nationalism and Independence

As an example of the Weberian approach, consider the power of ideas such as nationalism and independence. While Weber himself did not analyze these in great detail, these have become extremely important today, and have developed as guiding notions and political programs for large groupings of people. Examples include independence or separatist movements in Québec, Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, and many other parts of the world as well as aboriginal movements with demands for self determination or self government. The power of these ideas show the contemporary relevance of Weber's approach.

Ideas of independence and the demands for autonomy may be promoted by economic considerations. A group may be economically oppressed or exploited, and out of this can come demands for more political and economic autonomy and a felt need for economic and political independence. The struggle for independence could then be interpreted in a fairly straightforward Marxist fashion. People band together to overthrow their oppressors, and gain more control over their economic and political situation. For Marxists the solution may be to oust the oppressors (capitalist and imperialist exploiters) and develop the movement for independence in the direction of socialism. A Marxist would likely recognize that these movements carry with them a number of other features. Considerations such as language, territory, culture, religion, the notion of a common history and the idea of a people are often expressed through these movements and the ideas that go along with them. For the Marxist though, it is likely to be oppression and exploitation, and the economic factors that dominate the discussion. The others are features that help concentrate and form opinion, but economic considerations are central.

The Weberian approach may provide some useful insights and an alternative approach to these issues. Ideas related to nationalism and independence may override economic factors, or even be in opposition to the best economic interests of the population. Struggle against groups that have exploited people may be associated with the emergence of a new groups of exploiters and oppressors. Possible examples of this may be Québecois nationalism, some of the declarations of independence in Eastern Europe, and certainly the results of what is happening in Yugoslavia. Features such as culture, language and religion may dominate some of these movements, and they may be characterized by a situation whereby the notion of independence becomes more important than purely economic considerations. In the case of Eastern Europe, the desire to get rid of "communist" rule appears to have been motivated as much by ideas as by the practical consequences of this.

If this is so, then Weber's approach may tell us as much or more about what is happening than does a Marxian approach which concentrates mostly on economic issues. The ideas of independence take on a real meaning to the participants in the struggle for independence, acquiring enough meaning that some people are willing to sacrifice their lives. Note that features such as culture and language are real each having a history and a real presence. While a Marxist may consider religion as an ideological device that masks exploitation, for many people religion is a force in daily life and a set of experiences that has real meaning in many aspects of life. Language and culture are similar, and for Weber, these cannot be reduced to the economic situation, but present forces that do affect people in a real sense.

A careful study of these movements would look not only at the possible economic changes as a result of independence, but at how the ideas of independence are stated and interpreted. Participants may view these in quite a different manner than what is at first apparent.

In addition to the importance of ideas in themselves, Weber's approach also demonstrates the multiple bases from which people act, and from which power is derived. Economic factors are important for Weber, but language, culture, religion, etc. are also important. These can all be seen in nationalist struggles. In addition, the economic base is not the only source of power, with political power in nationalist struggles being a result of military power, charismatic leadership, ability to express the nationalist ideal well, and so on. While Weber did not analyze independence movements as they have emerged in the contemporary setting, Weber's approach provides a useful method of looking at them.

For Weber, it is the meaning that people attach to ideas, affecting how people act, that is the proper subject of sociology. Weber is most concerned with actions that are considered and contemplated by actors, where decisions must be made. Reflexive actions are not of sociological interest, and as a result, Weber was not very concerned with psychology and mental processes. Where the individual or the group contemplates various course of action, the processes of deciding among these, within institutional and structural constraints, is the concern of Weber.

Another example might be the independent influence of ideology on the voting patterns of people. People do not always vote for the party which might represent them best, but may be tied to a certain political party for ideological reasons. A Marxian might say that working class voting Reform or Saskatchewan Party represents a false consciousness. For Weber, such an equation would be too simple. It is necessary for the sociologist to study such behaviour and attempt to determine what thought processes are occurring here. The possibility of the influence of other factors -- ethnicity, sex, age, etc. -- which cannot all be reduced to the economic base, should also be considered.

While Weber does consider ideas to have an independent influence on society and on the course of history, history is the study of the concrete reality, how people live, the institutions and structures people create, etc. Much of this could be considered a materialist form of analysis. While Weber did study religion as part of his historical work, much of Weber's writings was concerned with political and economic issues. Thus, while ideas have more autonomy for Weber than for Marx, the difference may not be all that large. Neither were idealists, and neither was a simple or crude materialist or economic determinist. Note that some of Weber's later writings, where the development of rationalism as an underlying force was decisive, would seem to make him almost more of an economic determinist than was Marx. For Marx, there was always class struggle.

In some of the above senses, Weber may be considered as a complement to Marx, and today we certainly have to be aware of the contributions of both. At the same time, there are some other definite differences between the two. Weber felt the influence of certain followers of Marx, and Weber had different political views than did these Marxists. Weber was concerned with social justice, but was not a socialist, and debated with the socialists. Weber considered himself a liberal and he tended to favour a parliamentary democracy within a capitalist organization of the economy. He viewed socialism as no solution to the problem of achieving human freedom. If anything, he thought of socialism as an economic and social system which would result in even greater limits on human freedom than does capitalism, even modern, bureaucratic capitalism.

Because of this different vision, and since he was active in political matters, he appeared as an opponent of socialism and Marxism in Germany, early in this century. Some writers have taken this to mean that his sociological analysis is an attempt to refute Marx, and stands in basic opposition to that of Marx. From today's standpoint, we should be able to use the analysis of both Marx and Weber. Weber's analysis of socialism comes quite close to much of what happened in large parts of Eastern Europe, both with respect to the establishment of bureaucracies, and with respect to the importance of "ideas of freedom and democracy" which have come to the fore in the last few years. At the same time, the Marxian vision remains, and the Marxian analysis still provides the most powerful method of explaining the basic inequalities in capitalist society.

Finally, one might also note that the analyses of both Weber and Marx are inadequate with respect to the private sphere. Both are analyses of the economy and politics, the public sphere, with no attempt to explain the private sphere of life, or the manner in which the two spheres interact.


Ashley, David and David Michael Orenstein, Sociological Theory: Classical Statements, third edition, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1995. HM24 A77

Cuff, E. C., W. W. Sharrock and D. W. Francis, Perspectives in Sociology, third edition, London, Routledge, 1992. HM66 P36 1984

Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990. HT609 G72

Peter Knapp, One World -- Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory, New York, Harper-Collins, 1994.

Hadden, Richard W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 1997.

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938.

Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, New York, Bedminster Press, 1968. HM57 W342 

Last edited on September 30, 1999.

Return to Sociology 250.