Sociology 250

October 16 - 18, 2002

Weber’s Central Theories and Methods




1. Rationalization

Weber argues that the development of rational forms were one of the most important characteristics of the development of Western society and he describes these as powerful historical forces in many of his writings. The capitalism of Protestant Ethic is a rational capitalism, with balances carefully calculated so that a profit can be produced. Weber viewed traditional forms of conduct and action as irrational, or at least non-rational, in that they did not have the carefully thought out and calculated methods of the modern era. Traditional thought and action may be guided by religion, magic, or the supernatural – these provided a way of explaining the social world for people in earlier eras. These may have no systematic form of development, but rely on personal insight, revelation, emotions and feelings, features that are non-rational in form. In contrast, rationality consists of a set of social actions governed by reason or reasoning, calculation, plus rational pursuit of one’s interests. Actions taken by individuals in the economic sphere or in formal organizations such as universities are characteristic of Weber’s rationality. Ritzer has identified several aspects associated with Weber’s approach to rationality (Ritzer, pp. 124-125).

These principles of rationality can be applied to many activities and actions in the economic sphere, and have become highly developed and visible there. In modern society similar principles emerge in most areas of the social world, even including religion, politics, administration, sports, and music. Organizations and actions governed by rationality may produce a rational result for themselves. But this does not necessarily produce a rational result for the society or system as a whole. For example, studies of economics show how many producers, each acting rationally to maximize profits, may produce more products than consumers can purchase. This can produce bankruptcy, depression, and unemployment – an irrational result for the society as a whole.

As a result, consequences for people involved in formally rational systems may not always be desirable. Weber considered rationality to be necessary for organizations to operate efficiently, and he felt that the trend was that rationality would may take over more and more spheres of society. At the same time, Weber feared that this could result in increased control over individual action, stifling charisma and tradition, and allowing few alternatives for creative human action. As Adams and Sydie note, Weber looked on rationalization as "more efficient and predictable" but it did so by "wringing out individuality and spontaneity in life" (p. 173).

2. Ideal types

One of the methodological contributions of Weber was development of the method of ideal types – abstractions or concepts that are an "approximation to an average or pure type" (Weber, quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 176). In Weber’s view, these are concepts that capture the essence of the activity or form of thought or action, that is crystallizing the essence of each of these to illustrate the significance of the thought or action for human interaction in the social world. Examples of ideal types in Protestant Ethic are spirit of capitalism, worldly asceticism, the calling, and rationalization. No one individual or group always adopted all the essential aspects of each of these forms of thought or action, but these ideal types approximate the important forms that were significant for people’s action on a daily basis and for historical events and developments. Weber does not mean that ideal types are good or bad, or better than other concepts or types, and he did not attach positive or negative value judgments to them. Rather, they are a methodological device that typify the important and significant forms of thought and action – they "are abstractions that emphasize the core or central elements of the phenomenon" and they offer "guidance for the construction of hypotheses" (Adams and Sydie, p. 176).

Other writers might have termed these concepts or abstractions, and methodologically, Weber’s ideal types are methodologically similar to the concepts of Marx (e.g. value, exploitation, labour power) or Durkheim (eg. division of labour, organic solidarity, repressive law). That is, each writer developed a theoretical approach that used certain concepts or ideal types useful in constructing and explaining the theoretical approach.

Adams and Sydie note that Weber developed a model of an ideal-type bureaucracy "as a rational form of administration that performs with maximum efficiency" (Adams and Sydie, p. 176). While most bureaucracies do not work exactly like Weber described, some of the essential characteristics of a ideal type bureaucracy are described on p. 185 of Adams and Sydie.

A good example of a bureaucracy is a university, where most of these characteristics exist. Of course, in the social world, no bureaucracy conforms exactly to the ideal type, and there is often favouritism, bending of rules, or incompetence. But many organizations have a large number of characteristics consistent with the ideal type. Further, the ideal type constitutes a model and the way that any actual bureaucracy operates can be compared to the ideal type. Often the complaints of individuals in bureaucratic organizations relate to ways in which some part of the ideal type is not met. For example, rules may not be clear or incumbents of a particular office may misuse their position.

While bureaucracies may seem to limit freedom, and provide structures of domination, they are also necessary to carry out the administration of modern, complex society. If these bureaucratic forms did not exist, society would be worse off, in that actions would be carried out in an inefficient and wasteful manner.

At the same time, Weber notes that bureaucracies do tend to have great power. Their rational and efficient methods of administration, and their legitimate forms of authority do act to eliminate human freedom. Like Marx's alienation surplus value, Weber views bureaucracy as alienating (although he does not use this term) in that it is a set of structures which dominate people.

Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy has made it seem as if bureaucracies are inherently limiting to human freedom. While Weber praises bureaucracies for their efficiency and predictability, he feared that people would become too controlled by them. Weber does not appear to focus on the forces of freedom and equality that can come from bureaucracy. Standardized rules make it less possible for personal favours to be provided and for arbitrary directive to be given. Members of an organization may generally benefit from bureaucratic rules and regulations, and these make it possible for hiring and promotion to occur on the basis of merit. Rewards can be given for performance, rather than through favouritism and arbitrariness. Before condemning bureaucracies in their

totality, the overall effect of these organizations should be considered in their totality.

3. Sympathetic understanding or verstehen (references from Adams and Sydie, p. 175)

Weber considered his sociological approach to be objective and one aspect of this was that it was "an empirical science of concrete reality" using historical and contemporary data to study the social world. Another aspect of this was the method of "understanding" or "empathetic understanding" that made it possible for the sociologist to understand and explain social action, social relationships, cultural significance and historical causes of events, and connections among events. For Weber, this was possible because sociologists are also human beings and humans have a "reflexive nature."

Weber said this approach was verstehen or a sympathetic understanding, whereby a sociologist can reflect on the meaning an actor attaches to his or her actions. In doing so, the sociologist takes on the role or view of others, not to say it is right or wrong or justify it, but to understand it. This involves looking at the actor’s motives, attempting to discern what these are, that is, how the individual perceives objects and others, considers these, and acts in response. In addition, this approach is sympathetic, not necessarily agreeing with the actions, but putting oneself in the place of others. Use of these methods allows description and analysis of social interaction, developing explanations for social events.

One example of this is Weber’s analysis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. There Weber attempts to describe and understand early Calvinists, their feelings about salvation, their loneliness, and their intense efforts to demonstrate salvation through worldly activities in a calling. The connection between this ethic that came from Protestantism and the emergence of capitalism might have been missed if the approach of sympathetic understanding had not been used. Another example might be a Weberian explanation of the limited extent of class struggle by workers. Marxists sometimes argue that workers do not band together and engage in struggle against capital because of a limited class consciousness, or false consciousness, that is, workers do no see or understand their class position. A Weberian might argue that this is not the issue, rather workers may see opportunities and advantages to not engaging in class struggle and might have better ways to pursue their own interests. That is, the Weberian would attempt to place himself or herself in the position of the worker, to understand things as the worker does, and contemplate possible courses of action that would be advantageous.

Such an approach does not rely just on statistical or other empirical data, but uses this creatively to consider how social actors perceive their situation. As shown in quote 1 of the handout, Weber argues that this is the essence of a sociological approach, that is "sociology .. is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences." (Weber, p. 4).

4. Social action (Adams and Sydie, pp. 176-7)

The major approaches to sociology that emerged out of the Enlightenment, and continuing through the early twentieth century tend to be structural in nature, emphasizing the influence of society and its structures on the position, activities, and actions of individuals and groups. Sometimes these approaches ignore the individual entirely, and discuss only the structures that develop in society, and the relationship among these. Marxian analysis is largely macrosociological and structural, and emphasizes social class, means and modes of production, division of labour, class conflict, and crises. Similarly, Durkheim dealt with societal level structures or concepts such as status groups, the division of labour, social facts, norms, and social solidarity. This macrosociological structural analysis helps explain what takes place in society, what happens to people in any society, and how change occurs. At the same time, such analysis can ignore actual people and the different ways of social interaction in which they engage.

Large parts of Weber’s writings concern structures (capitalism, authority, religion, history) and many of the concepts he develops (rationalization, bureaucracy, domination) deal with structural aspects of society as a whole. At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of the individual, his or her actions, and the social interaction among individuals and groups.

In terms of social action, Weber argues that the task of the sociologist is "to understand the actions of individual members therein" (Hadden, p. 133). This has two aspects to it. First, as people encounter others, their actions will be oriented to others. For the individual, there must be some reason for the action he or she takes, and Weber attempts to understand the meaning associated with each social action. Second, when sociologists refer to social structures, these are features of society that result from the actions of individuals in the society. Social action over time and space is not random or completely unique in each interaction between individuals. Rather, such interaction tends to have certain patterns or regularities associated with it, so that meaningful action among different individuals is associated with expected responses from others. These patterns are meaningful actions of individuals, but they may ultimately solidify into customs, laws, institutions, or structures.

Each social action has meaning associated with it, in the sense that the individual does not act as an automaton or robot, or from instinct, stimulae, or conditioned reflex. Rather, a large part of what individuals do is to examine the situation they encounter, contemplate how to approach the situation, consider the possible action of others, and select a course of action that may meet the ends or purposes of the individual in the situation. This may not always be a consciously worked out process, but for Weber the task of the sociologist is to attempt to understand the motivating factors, see how people interpret the relationship, and how they attribute meaning to the situation.

a. Three Aspects of Social Action

Cohen (pp. 113-115) notes that there are three aspects to Weber’s approach to social action contained in Chapter I of Economy and Society. These are as follows.

i. Subjective Meaning. Weber notes how the sociologist must consider the meaning an individual attaches to an action. Only when the individual’s behaviour is oriented toward some end and prompted by consideration of the actions of others is it social. From quote 2, Weber states:

We shall speak of "action" insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behavior – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence. Action is "social" insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course. (Weber, p. 4).

All aspects of the social world must be considered from the actor’s point of view. Inanimate objects, birth and death, and the environment may be considered constants and nothing more than elements of a material world, but for Weber these are interpreted differently at various times and places. For Weber, a sociologist must conceive them "with reference to how actors understand their practical application or symbolic significance" (Cohen, p. 113). Similarly, the actor orients actions toward a wide range of other people, some very familiar, but others that the individual might not know, or others that are groups or collectivities. In all cases, social action is not just conditioned reflex or automatic behaviour based on instinct or tradition for the social actor, rather it is meaningful and considered.

ii. Social Relationship. A second aspect is that social action makes little sense unless the nature of social relationships is considered. In quote 3, Weber notes:

The term "social relationship" will be used to denote the behavior of a plurality of actors insofar as, in its meaningful content, the action of each takes account of that of the others and is oriented in these terms. The social relationship thus consists entirely and exclusively in the existence of a probability that there will be a meaningful course of social action – irrespective, for the time being, of the basis of this probability. (Weber, pp. 26-27).

Here the action is meaningful from the viewpoint of the individual, but also takes account of the actions of others. While different actors may not interpret the action in the same manner, at least there is some interpretation on each side. The result could be disagreement or agreement, depending on the mutual interpretations. Examples of social relationships are relationships between friends or within the family.

iii. Stable Content. The third part of social action is that social relationships are ordinarily stable. If each social action met completely unexpected results, maintenance of social relationships over any period of time would be difficult. Some social relationships are very short term, but others have considerable permanence. In quote 4, Weber notes:

In the latter case there is a probability of the repeated recurrence of the behavior which corresponds to its subjective meaning and hence is expected. … The meaningful content which remains relatively constant in a social relationship is capable of formulation in terms of maxims which the parties concerned expect to be adhered to by their partners on the average and approximately. The more rational in relation to values or to given ends the action is, the more likely this is to be the case. (Weber, p. 28).

That is, social action considers the response of others, and others generally respond in the general way that is expected. So long as actions and responses fall into these expected and usual patterns, this makes it possible for ordinary social relationships to continue. Further, these continued patterns make it possible for larger scale institutions to develop. If the expectations continue sufficiently long, these expectations become maxims, or what sociologists have termed norms and rules. These could also be patterns such as religious commandments, bureaucratic codes, or norms of profitability in a corporation (Cohen, p. 115). An example of the stable content of social relationships is the family as an institution. Each member of the family engages in social actions and social relationships. Patterns for these relationships develop, so that they become expected in the social relationships. The totality of these social relationships, as they continue among family members on a daily and regular basis, becomes regularized so that family becomes a social institution.

While Weber did not complete the description of society on this basis, in Economy and Society he attempted to show how the organizations and institutions of society could be explained by the actions of individuals.

b. Ideal Types of Social Action

Weber notes that social action can be oriented in various ways at different times and places. The various forms of social action each have meaning for individuals but constitute conceptually distinct types of social action with different consequences for the individual and society. Adams and Sydie (p. 177) note four types of social action identified by Weber (Weber, pp. 24-25). These are ideal types in that Weber focusses on the unique features of each form of social action, abstracting the essential aspects of action that typify each ideal type. No specific action in the social world is likely to be entirely of one ideal type, but combines features of one of the four ideal types.

i. Instrumentally Rational or Purposive-Rational. purposive-rational action is "the selection of the most effective means for the achievement of an immediately practical goal or end" (Hadden, p. 135). Economic activity such as working at a job or purchasing a consumer good is an example of this type of social action. In the latter case, an individual has various alternative commodities that can be purchased, and the individual considers how to choose among these to achieve maximum satisfaction. Weber argues that this form of action has become more common in western society – with the development of rationalization, it is more likely that social action will involved purposive action to achieve some specific end, such as obtaining an income or increasing personal satisfaction.

ii. Value-Rational. These are actions where "the action is an end in itself rather than a means" (Adams and Sydie, p. 177). In this case, the actor is rational in the sense of using effective means to achieve a given end, but the end is one that the individual has a commitment to. While this could be any type of end, Weber considers this to be "determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success" (Weber, pp. 24-5). Examples could include actions such as prayer for a religious or spiritual person or charity work for someone who wishes to help their fellow humanity.

iii. Emotional or Affectual. This is a form of social action which is "determined by the actor’s specific affects and feeling states" (Weber, p. 25). It combines ends and means and can be impulsive and emotional. While some emotional behaviour is not considered social in that it is entirely impulsive, Weber considers this social action in that the behaviour does have meaning, but the most effective method of achieving the end may not be carefully considered. Social action of this type is not ordinarily considered to be rational in any normal sense of the term. Examples include relations of affection between partners and social relationships within families.

iv. Traditional or Habitual is "determined by ingrained habituation" (Weber, p. 25).

In this case, custom, tradition, or habit is the source of social action. Again, some forms of this type of behaviour would not necessarily be considered social, but to the extent that these customs and traditions are meaningful, Weber considers these social. This form of action is important for Weber in that this can become the basis for authority and legitimacy. To the extent that people feel a duty to abide by customs or traditions, social order is created and maintained, and this acquires a legitimacy in the minds of those who accept the traditions.

5. Implications and Conclusions

Weber’s aim was to systematically examine meaning associated with individual behaviour. By identifying several ideal types, Weber thought it possible for sociology to understand social action in the contemporary world and in historical situations.

Weber’s discussion of social action was primarily aimed at understanding individual action. While groups are mentioned, this was not Weber’s primary focus. Rather, he considered the action of collectivities to be an amalgam of individual actions, developing into particular patterns that constitute the institutions, organizations, structures, and norms of society.

In his discussion of social action, Weber makes little mention of conflict. There may not always be common understandings in social relationships, and this may create difficulties for those in the relationship. But unlike Marx, Weber does not consider conflict and contradiction to be the essential aspects of social relationships in modern society. At the same time, Weber does not gloss over disagreements and misunderstandings, and considers power to be an important feature of his analysis.

Another feature of Weber’s analysis is to note how the actions of individuals must be analyzed to determine their consequences, since there may be unintended consequences to individual or group social action, or of the combined effects of each of these actions. Outcomes of social actions cannot be predicted from the meanings of that action for individuals. For Weber, attempting to understand individual and group action and some of their results is necessary to provide an explanation of how society works and how social change takes place.


Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Toushand Oaks, California, Pine Forge Press, 2001.

Cohen, Ira J., "Theories of Action and Praxis" in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Oxford, Blackwell, 1996, pp. 111-142.

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

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, fifth edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

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

Last edited October 19, 2002

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