Chapter 4 of the Appelrouth and Edles text delves into the classical theories of German sociologist, Max Weber. Weber’s works have always resonated with me, however, my main gripe with Weber is that it is evidenced that he was vaguely racist. Regardless in mentioning this, I want to point out as it is the case with many other classical theorists, that most major figures from the 1950s back to Moses would have been considered a terrible, backwards person by today’s moral standards. If we do not choose to examine and review these people in historical contexts, we aren’t doing anyone a favor. Weber, like many others, was a product of his time and his work is still highly influential. I bring this up, because I feel it is important to recognize before evaluating his work. It is additionally (perhaps) worth mentioning that Weber specifically in his personal life, was actually very pro-women (his wife Marianne was a feminist activist as well as a published sociologist in her own right). He highly respected her work, and helped her develop her own academic career. The academic environment at the time was not at all conducive to women, and “feminism” wasn’t even a word that existed yet. Thus, in some ways, Weber could conversely be characterized as being more progressive in some regards.
Perhaps my favorite part of Weber is exploring his views on religion. Marx, who was discussed in the previous post, is widely recognized for his quote “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. He was known for his descriptions of class struggles and upheaval as the driving force behind social change. As aforementioned through his quote, he viewed religion as a drug, providing an illusory contentment to the people too destitute to afford opium (as the bourgeoisie could). Weber, in his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, popularized the Secularization Thesis. This thesis generally explains how society is becoming increasingly secular with the advent of scientific discovery.
Further, and perhaps most importantly, Weber suggested that the Protestant work ethic feeds into capitalism. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism refutes Marx’s argument about the origins of capitalism. Weber argues that Protestantism’s focus on working hard and spending profits productively (so that you know you’re destined for heaven) was required as an irrational basis for capitalist accumulation. So, he argues for the cultural, specifically religious, origins of capitalist economics. Conversely, Marx argues that the process of enclosure in Europe in which the nobility threw peasants off the land created a large potential labor force. This labor force undermined the monopoly on specific trades reserved by guilds and proto-capitalists, who had relied on home handicraft to make goods for them to re-sell, were able to bring laborers together into factories in order to rationalize the production process. Thus, Marx presents a political-economic explanation for the rise of capitalism. Despite disagreeing with Marx about the origins of capitalism, in The Distribution of Power Within the Political Community: Class Status, Party, Weber agrees with Marx that capitalist economics is a site of inequality based on the ownership of the means of production, but he rejects communism and includes status and party as two cultural forms of power.
Weber feared that our future would be even more bureaucratized, an iron cage that limits individual human potential rather than a technological utopia that sets us free. This “iron cage” is the dominance of capitalism and impersonal, bureaucratic forms of organization was a connective force that determined the life-chances of the individual. Weber additionally outlines three types of legitimate domination/ a threefold classification of authority: (1) Traditional, (2) Legal-Rational, and (3) Charismatic. Weber would describe power as the ability of an individual to carry out their will, regardless of resistance. Power involves choice (agency), or intent. Authority is when power becomes legitimized. Traditional types of authority includes power legitimated by custom, such as a king. Legal-Rational is power legitimated by explicit rules and rational procedures, like a president. Loyalty is not to the person, but to the status they occupy and the role they play. Charismatic is power legitimated by the extraordinary qualities of a leader. They have the ability to change the nature of the social structure. Some examples of a charismatic power figure would be: Muhammad the prophet, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Jesus, and Adolf Hitler. Franklin D. Roosevelt could be considered all three of the types (Traditional, Rational, and Charismatic).
One of Weber’s more under-emphasized concepts that I was always attracted to was his idea of “verstehen”, which refers the “interpretive understanding” of the world. Through this concept, Weber suggested that the realities of the world differ from person to person. Weber sought to understand “the subjective dimension of social life, seeking to understand the states of mind or motivations that guide individuals’ behavior” (Appelrouth & Edles, 2012).
Modern Application of Theory
I think we see current evidence of Weber’s idea of a “calling”. Weber, of course, had a lot to say about the idea that religious folks have a calling (think Mormon missionaries) and seek to do “God’s work” here on earth, while some (he called them “mystical”), are purely interested in a spiritual connection with God (think Monks). As aforementioned, Weber used “ideal types”. In essence, an ideal type is a hypothetical model used for purposes of argument. A Mormon missionary who devotes his entire life to spreading the good word in Africa would be an ideal type, though all Mormons certainly aren’t like that.
I find it easiest to critique Weber by coming in from a Marxist perspective that sees his work as trying to explain a social and economic phenomenon through religion and culture, contradicting the idea that the structure of society formed through class struggle and that economic relations shape the state more than the other way around. They are essentially opposite theories, with Marx claiming that economy shapes the politics, and Weber saying the religious and cultural background shape the economy and the politics. Essentially, I think he is confused about the nature of his Protestant work ethic. He thinks the transition to Protestantism underlies the transition to capitalism, but I think he has it backwards.
Possible Research Questions
- What forms of legitimate power/authority have been the most successful for a state, in terms of economic growth?
- How has bureaucracy grown in importance since Weber’s theoretical work?
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2012. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.