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Max Weber
Sociological Theory

Chapter 4 Chapter Summary


Max Weber's Methodology

Max Weber (1864-1920) argued against abstract theory, and he favored an approach to sociological inquiry that generated its theory from rich, systematic, empirical, historical research. This approach required, first of all, an examination of the relationships between, and the respective roles of, history and sociology in inquiry. Weber argued that sociology was to develop concepts for the analysis of concrete phenomena, which would allow sociologists to then make generalizations about historical phenomena. History, on the other hand, would use a lexicon of sociological concepts in order to perform causal analysis of particular historical events, structures, and processes. In scholarly practice, according to Weber, sociology and history are interdependent.

Weber contended that understanding, or verstehen, was the proper way of studying social phenomena. Derived from the interpretive practice known as hermeneutics, the method of verstehen strives to understand the meanings that human beings attribute to their experiences, interactions, and actions. Weber construed verstehen as a methodical, systematic, and rigorous form of inquiry that could be employed in both macro- and micro-sociological analysis.

Weber's formulation of causality stresses the great variety of factors that may precipitate the emergence of complex phenomena such as modern capitalism. Moreover, Weber argued that social scientists, unlike natural scientists, must take into account the meanings that actors attribute to their interactions when considering causality. Weber, furthermore, sought a middle ground between nomothetic (general laws) and idiographic (idiosyncratic actions and events) views in his notion of a probabilistic adequate causality.

Weber's greatest contribution to the conceptual arsenal of sociology is known as the ideal type. The ideal type is basically a theoretical model constructed by means of a detailed empirical study of a phenomenon. An ideal type is an intellectual construct that a sociologist may use to study historical realities by means of their similarities to, and divergences from, the model. Note that ideal types are not utopias or images of what the world ought to look like.

Weber urged sociologists to reflect on the role of values in both research and the classroom. When teaching, he argued, sociologists ought to teach students the facts, rather than indoctrinating them to a particular political or personal point of view. Weber did argue, however, that the values of one's society often help to decide what a scholar will study. He contended that, while values play this very important role in the research process, they must be kept out of the collection and interpretation of data.

Max Weber's Substantive Sociology

Max Weber's sociology is fundamentally a science that employs both interpretive understanding and causal explanations of social action and interaction. His typology of the four types of social action is central to comprehending his sociology. According to Weber, social action may be classified as means-ends rational action, value-rational action, affectual action, or traditional action. Any student of Weber must keep in mind that these are ideal types.

Weber developed a multidimensional theory of stratification that incorporated class, status, and party. Class is determined by one's economic or market situation (i.e., life chances), and it is not a community but rather a possible basis for communal action. Status is a matter of honor, prestige, and one's style of life. Parties, according to Weber, are organized structures that exist for the purposes of gaining domination in some sphere of social life. Class, status, and party may be related in many ways in a given empirical case, which provides the sociologist with a very sophisticated set of conceptual tools for the analysis of stratification and power.

Weber also made a profound contribution to the study of obedience with his ideal types of legitimate domination or authority. Rational-legal authority rests on rules and law. Traditional authority rests on belief in established practices and traditions - i.e., authority is legitimate because it is exercised the way it has always been exercised. Charismatic authority rests on belief in the extraordinary powers or qualities of a leader. All of these forms of authority must take into account the point of view of those obeying commands. Moreover, each form of authority is associated with a variety of structural forms of organization and administration. Legal authority, for example, is often associated with bureaucracy, while traditional authority is associated with gerontocracy, patriarchalism, patrimonialism, and feudalism. Charismatic authority may be associated with a charismatic form of organization. The dilemma of charismatic authority, however, consists of the difficulty of maintaining charisma when the charismatic leader dies. In other words, charismatic organizations tend to routinize charisma, which invariably gives rise to either traditional or rational-legal authority.

Weber also argued that rationalization is a long-term historical process that has transformed the modern world. His typology of forms of rationality is central to this argument. He argued that there are four types of rationality: practical, theoretical, formal, and substantive. He was most concerned with processes of formal and substantive rationalization, especially as propelled by capitalism and bureaucracy. Weber argued that rationalization has occurred in many spheres, including the economy, law, religion, politics, the city, and art.

Weber's arguments regarding rationalization are exemplified in his studies of religion and capitalism. These sophisticated and voluminous studies inquire into the ways in which religious ideas, the spirit of capitalism, and capitalism as an economic system, are interrelated. In short, according to Weber, Calvinism as a rational, methodical system of religious beliefs and practices was an important factor in the emergence of modern capitalism in the Western world. The economic ethics of other religions, such as Hinduism and Confucianism, inhibited the emergence of modern capitalism in India and China. Once modern capitalism emerged in the Western world, however, it spread the effects of rationalization worldwide.

While Weber's work has had a profound impact on sociology - as well as other disciplines - it is not without its critics. Some critics question the consistency and applicability of Weber's method of verstehen. Others are puzzled by Weber's methodological individualism as it is applied to macro-sociology. Some critics have rebuked Weber for failing to offer any alternatives to rationalization, capitalism, and bureaucracy. Finally, many critics decry Weber's unflagging pessimism about the future of rationalization and bureaucracy.