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Max Weber (1864-1920)

Key concepts sociology, rationalization, charisma, the ideal type Major work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism  

Max Weber is an important figure for those who seek to understand society, not just because he is, alongside Marx, Durkheim, Comte and so on, what might be called one of the founding fathers of sociology, but because his variant of it was one that emphasised social action and understood the integral place conflict had within contemporary society. Weber sees sociology as about understanding the meaning of social action, and its cause and effects. But this does not mean its role is to prescribe what people in society should do, rather describe what they can do and highlight the possible consequences of their action.

Weber wants a science of society but faced in his time with the grand claims of Marxism, he seeks to limit the claims of social science to explain the social totality and also question the perspective that the sociological observer can occupy a position outside of the society of which he is part. This, in contradistinction to Marxism is so conspicuous at times in his writings, that the attempt to question its truth claims might be seen as an underlying purpose to Weber's contribution. Certainly there is nothing about the various institutional positions that he occupied to suggest that he was interested in anything other than reinforcing the existing framework of social relations as they stood.

Ideal types

Weber's theory of ideal types is once such attempt to do social science without recourse to the notion that somehow concrete reality can be grasped in its totality. The ideal type is a comparative tool, no such entities exist in reality, but real entities can be compared to this type in order to find what is distinctive about them. This is a method of abstraction, but one again markedly different from the Marxian type of determinate abstraction where the mental constructs bear a closer relation to abstractions such as general equivalance or abstract labour that are seen to exist and operate within reality.

"An ideal type is a conceptual construct which is neither historical reality nor even the true reality... It is a purely ideal limiting concept with which reality is compared... (p. 93)

Laws and individuals

Another counterposition to Marxism would be the claim that we cannot get to objectivity by identifying laws. Weber seeks knowledge of historical phenomena, that is their individual (Eigenart) significance. The more general and embracing a law, the less useful it is to explain individual actions or events. In fact: "Even with the widest imaginable knowledge of "laws", we are helpless in the face of the question: how is the causal explanation of an individual fact possible..." (p. 78) Weber is ambivalent on this point how, laws do have a role in historical analysis but they are the means rather than the ends of investigation. (p. 79)


Once we jettison laws in this way, it is of course evident that claims to represent the total situation become nonsensical, without dialectical laws of determinate elements of a whole we would be left with a long list of empirical facts and the map is not the territory: "An exhaustive causal investigation of any concrete phenomena in its full reality is not only practically impossible -- it is simply nonsense." (p. 78)0

Presuppositions and values

Another challenge to what might be taken to be an objective scientific view is found in Weber's idea that values inform every scientific approach. For Weber science without 'presuppositions' is impossible and were we to try to abandon them we would create a 'chaos of existential judgements'. Social cience is about subjectivity rather than objectivity. For Weber, in a swipe at positivism (which may very well be in his eyes identical with Marxism), only for the natural sciences do laws have universal validity. "In the cultural sciences, the knowledge of the universal or general is never valuable in itself." (p. 80) Furthermore, "All knowledge of cultural reality, as may be seen, is always knowledge from particular points of view." (p. 81)

Science and validity

Weber tries to recuperate something of what he has purged from science by claiming that what is subjective is not that which is valid for some persons over others. The choice of objects for investigation will be determined by the age and by values. The methods employed however bind the researcher to the prevailing norms of thought: "For scientific truth is precisely what is valid for all those who seek the truth."


Objectivity of Social Science and Social Policy (pdf)
Politics as vocation

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism