Sociology 250

October 9, 2002

Theories of complexity and form

Adams and Sydie introduce the German sociologists – Max and Marrianne Weber, and Georg Simmel – at the beginning of section IV (pp. 167-8). The theories of Durkheim and Marx are largely structural, in that they are primarily concerned with the structures of society, how these emerge and develop, and how they change. For Durkheim, these were the division of labour, systems of law, and forms of social solidarity. For Marx, these were production and labour processes, markets and the economy, and social classes and class struggle. While Durkheim and Marx each recognized the individual, worker, or owner, they focussed their analysis on the structural features of society as a whole and how the social relationships that emerged from these created order, disorder, conflict, struggle, change, and development. Compared to some writers, the theories of Durkheim and Marx provide a relatively clear cut and straighforward explanation of social relationships and social change.

While the Webers and Simmel also wrote about structural issues, they added some different element to sociological analysis. They focussed on the social actor, his or her uniqueness as an individual, and interaction among social actors at the individual and small group level. They developed an approach that attempted to understand and interpret social actions of the individual actor, an approach that Max Weber argued is possible because sociologists are human beings, with a capability of developing a sympathy with, or understanding of, other individuals. In summary, they argued "that sociology must never lose sight of human agency" (Adams and Sydie, p. 168). See quotes 1 and 2 on social action.

Another aspect of how these German sociologists approached the study of the social world was to recognize the complexity of human social relationships and human society. Unlike Marx, who focussed on the economic factor of ownership or non-ownership of the means of production, or Durkheim’s focus on division of labour and solidarity, Max Weber considered status, religion, ideas, organizational structures, as well as class, to be important factors that are involved in social relationships. For Weber, each of these had a separate and independent effect. This approach makes it more difficult to draw broad generalizations about society and change, but may be more useful in understanding specific aspects of society.

The third major difference from Durkheim and Marx is methodology. Durkheim’s positivist and evolutionary approach and Marx’s historical materialism were modelled at least partly on the natural sciences, and especially physics. They develop social laws and structures that can be compared with natural laws and structures. For these German sociologists, uniqueness of the individual, interpretation of his or her understanding of the meaning of social action, and consideration of relationships between individuals is key to understanding society. Adams and Sydie note that "social data require interpreation within their social context" in this approach. While sociologists may tackle topics that interest them or in which they are involved, the sociologist must also be careful to conduct an objective analysis, one that does not involve the sociologists own values.

Along with these differences, there were many similarities between the approaches of Marx and Durkheim and these German sociologists – the importance of historical developments, the economy, work and its organization, and the structures that emerge from these.

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. 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. 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 Marianne Schnitger (1870-1954) in 1893. 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 1954. 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, the Webers 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.



Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge, 2001

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

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


Last edited October 14, 2002

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