Max Weber

max_weber_0Max Weber is best known as one of the leading scholars and founders of modern sociology, but Weber also accomplished much economic work in the style of the "youngest" German Historical School. Max Weber is referred to as the "father of bureaucracy" and often cited, with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, as among the three founding creators of sociology.


Although Weber and Sombart are often lumped together as part of that generation in German economics, no two men could be less alike. The superficial, fanciful and Kaiser-worshipping Sombart was nothing like the thorough, rational and Kaiser-despising Weber. Nonetheless, while Weber was not completely immune from German nationalism, he was just not the military-imperial jingoist Sombart was.  Weber firmly believed that the Herrenvolk should circumscribe their ambitions.


That personal attitude was reflected in his most famous economic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). In it, Weber argued that the presumed anti-capitalist Puritanical rhetoric of eschewing earthly acquisitiveness was actually an impetus for that very acquisitiveness. The thesis was novel and well-known. Catholicism, Weber argues, was tolerant towards the acquisition of earthly gain and winked at lavish expenditure, an idea engendered by hierarchical structure of the Church (which required struggling and jockeying for "position") as well as its own tradition of lavish expenditure (the church) and its oft-used earthly powers of forgiveness for sin. This might make one conclude that the Catholic ethic was more predisposed towards capitalism than the Protestant (as others, before and since, have argued). 


But no, replied Weber. It is true that the Protestant doctrines asked men to accept a humbler station and concentrate on mundane tasks and duties and, without a hierarchical church structure, there was no example of upward-mobility, acquisitiveness and expenditure. Yet it was precisely this that engendered the "work-and-save" ethic that gave rise to capitalism. Dedication to and pride in one's work, Weber claimed, is inevitably a highly productive attitude. The Calvinist ethic of "godliness" through the humble dedication to one's beruf (calling/duty/task), meant economic productivity was consequently higher in Protestant communities. In contrast, the upward-mobility that was possible in hierarchical Catholic society meant that a lot of people found themselves in jobs which they saw only as way-stations to higher and better positions – thereby dedicating only a minimal or nominal attention to the given task as finding it either beneath their dignity or certainly not worth resigning to as their end in life. Consequently, Weber concluded, Catholic communities tended to be less productive.


The higher productivity of Protestant communities was coupled with higher thriftiness. The sinfulness of expenditure and lavish display of earthly goods was a notable Protestant principle. So too was it Catholic, but the Catholic Church had been more prepared to forgive these (and other) sins. The Protestant church had no such power and thus the inducement to the faithful to stay modest in consumption was high. Yet the higher productivity of the Protestant essentially meant that they earned more than the Catholic, and yet because they saved more, they essentially accumulated; the Catholic was less productive but spent more.


Thus, Weber concluded, the idea of "capitalist accumulation" was born directly out of the Protestant ethic – not because the Protestant churches and doctrines condoned acquisitiveness as such (quite the contrary), but rather quite inadvertently through its claim to productive dedication to beruf and thriftiness in consumption. The subsequent ethical "legitimization" of capitalist acquisitiveness in later society under the rubric of "greed is good" was simply a distorted statement of what was already a fact. In no sense, claimed Weber, is the capitalist ethic of "greed" the creator of "capitalist society" (however much it might later be a propagator), but, rather, quite the opposite.


Weber's 1905 thesis (echoed independently by R.H. Tawney) was naturally quickly disputed and has since been more or less discredited as a "complete" theory of the rise of the capitalism.  Whatever the case, it certainly engendered much debate. 


Weber's other main contributions to economics (as well as to social sciences in general) was his work on methodology. There are two aspects to this: his theory of Verstehen, or "Interpretative" Sociology and his theory of Positivism.


His Verstehen doctrine is as well-known as it is controversial and debated. His main thesis is that social, economic and historical research can never be fully inductive or descriptive as one must/should/does always approach it with a conceptual apparatus. This apparatus Weber identified as the "Ideal Type". The idea was essentially this: to try to understand a particular economic or social phenomena, one must "interpret" the actions of its participants and not only describe them. But interpretation poses us a problem for we cannot know it other than by trying to classify behavior as belonging to some prior "Ideal Type". Weber gave us four categories of "Ideal Types" of behavior: zweckrational (rational means to rational ends), wertrational (rational means to irrational ends), affektual (guided by emotion) and traditional (guided by custom or habit).


Weber admitted employing "Ideal Types" was an abstraction but claimed it was nonetheless essential if one were to understand any particular social phenomena for, unlike physical phenomena, it involved human behavior which must be understood/interpreted by ideal types. Economists prick up your ears – for here is the methodological justification for the assumption of "rational economic man"!


Weber's work on positivism or rather his controversial belief in "value-free" social science, is also still debated. While his arguments in this respect were not novel, they did signal a complete and forceful break with Schmoller and the "Young" Historical School.


Weber's other contributions to economics were several: these include a (seriously researched) economic history of Roman agrarian society (his 1891 habilitiation), his work on the dual roles of idealism and materialism in the history of capitalism in his Economy and Society (1914), present Weber on his anti-Marxian run. Finally, his thoroughly researched General Economic History (1923) is perhaps the Historical School at its empirical best.


Max Weber's position as an economist has been debated, and indeed, it is generally accepted now that it is in sociology that his impact was greatest. However, he comes at the end of the German Historical School where no such distinctions really existed and thus must be seen as an "economist" in that light.


Major Works of Max Weber

– Roman Agrarian History, 1891.

– "Roscher and Knies and the Logical Problem of Historical Economics", 1903-5, Schmoller's Jahrbuch.

– "The Objectivity of the Sociological and Social-Political Knowledge", 1904.

– The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905.

– Economy and Society, 1914.

– "Politics as a Vocation", 1918.

– General Economic History, 1923.

– The Methodology of the Social Sciences, 1949.


Biography of Max Weber

Weber was born in Erfurt in Thuringia, Germany, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber Sr., a prominent liberal politician and civil servant, and Helene Fallenstein, a moderate Calvinist. Weber Sr.'s engagement with public life immersed the family home in politics, as his salon received many prominent scholars and public figures.


The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Max's 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled "About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the emperor and the pope" and "About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations". At the age of fourteen, he wrote letters studded with references to Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Livy, and he had an extended knowledge of Goethe, Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer before he began university studies. It seemed clear that Weber would pursue advanced studies in the social sciences.


In 1882 Weber enrolled in the University of Heidelberg as a law student. Weber joined his father's duelling fraternity, and chose as his major study Weber Sr.'s field of law. Along with his law coursework, young Weber attended lectures in economics and studied medieval history and theology. Intermittently, he served with the German army in Strasbourg.


In the autumn of 1884, Weber returned to his parents' home to study at the University of Berlin. For the next eight years of his life, interrupted only by a term at the University of Goettingen and short periods of further military training, Weber stayed at his parents' house; first as a student, later as a junior barrister, and finally as a Dozent at the University of Berlin. In 1886 Weber passed the examination for "Referendar", comparable to the bar association examination in the British and American legal systems. Throughout the late 1880s, Weber continued his study of history. He earned his law doctorate in 1889 by writing a doctoral dissertation on legal history entitled The History of Medieval Business Organisations. Two years later, Weber completed his Habilitationsschrift, The Roman Agrarian History and its Significance for Public and Private Law. Having thus become a "Privatdozent", Weber was now qualified to hold a German professorship.


In the years between the completion of his dissertation and habilitation, Weber took an interest in contemporary social policy. In 1888 he joined the "Verein für Socialpolitik", the new professional association of German economists affiliated with the historical school, who saw the role of economics primarily as the solving of the wide-ranging social problems of the age, and who pioneered large-scale statistical studies of economic problems. He also involved himself in politics, joining the left leaning Evangelical Social Congress. In 1890 the "Verein" established a research program to examine "the Polish question" or Ostflucht, meaning the influx of foreign farm workers into eastern Germany as local labourers migrated to Germany's rapidly industrialising cities. Weber was put in charge of the study, and wrote a large part of its results. The final report was widely acclaimed as an excellent piece of empirical research, and cemented Weber's reputation as an expert in agrarian economics.


In 1893 he married his distant cousin Marianne Schnitger, later a feminist and author in her own right, who was instrumental in collecting and publishing Weber's journal articles as books after his death. The couple moved to Freiburg in 1894, where Weber was appointed professor of economics at Freiburg University, before accepting the same position at the University of Heidelberg in 1896. Next year, Max Weber Sr. died, two months after a severe quarrel with his son that was never resolved. After this, Weber became increasingly prone to nervousness and insomnia, making it difficult for him to fulfill his duties as a professor. His condition forced him to reduce his teaching, and leave his last course in the fall of 1899 unfinished. After spending months in a sanatorium during the summer and fall of 1900, Weber and his wife traveled to Italy at the end of the year, and did not return to Heidelberg until April 1902.


After Weber's immense productivity in the early 1890s, he did not publish a single paper between early 1898 and late 1902, finally resigning his professorship in fall 1903. Freed from those obligations, in that year he accepted a position as associate editor of the Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare next to his colleagues Edgar Jaff and Werner Sombart. In 1904, Weber began to publish some of his most seminal papers in this journal, notably his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It became his most famous work, and laid the foundations for his later research on the impact of cultures and religions on the development of economic systems. This essay was the only one of his works that was published as a book during his lifetime. Also that year, he visited United States and participated in the Congress of Arts and Sciences held in connection with the World's Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition) at St. Louis. Despite his successes, Weber felt that he was unable to resume regular teaching at that time, and continued on as a private scholar, helped by an inheritance in 1907. In 1912, Weber tried to organise a left-wing political party to combine social-democrats and liberals. This attempt was unsuccessful, presumably because many liberals feared social-democratic revolutionary ideals at the time.


During the First World War, Weber served for a time as director of the army hospitals in Heidelberg. In 1915 and 1916 he sat on commissions that tried to retain German supremacy in Belgium and Poland after the war. Weber's views on war, as well as on expansion of the German empire, changed throughout the war. He became a member of the worker and soldier council of Heidelberg in 1918. In the same year, Weber became a consultant to the German Armistice Commission at the Treaty of Versailles and to the commission charged with drafting the Weimar Constitution. He argued in favour of inserting Article 48 into the Weimar Constitution. This article was later used by Adolf Hitler to institute rule by decree, thereby allowing his government to suppress opposition and obtain dictatorial powers. Weber's contributions to German politics remain a controversial subject to this day.


Weber resumed teaching during this time, first at the University of Vienna, then in 1919 at the University of Munich. In Munich, he headed the first German university institute of sociology, but ultimately never held a personal sociology appointment. Weber left politics due to right-wing agitation in 1919 and 1920. Many colleagues and students in Munich argued against him for his speeches and left-wing attitude during the German Revolution of 1918 and 1919, with some right-wing students holding protests in front of his home. Max Weber died of pneumonia in Munich on June 14, 1920.


Achievements of Max Weber

Along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, Weber is regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology, although in his times he was viewed primarily as a historian and an economist. Whereas Durkheim, following Comte, worked in the positivist tradition, Weber created and worked like Werner Sombart, his friend and then the most famous representative of German sociology in the antipositivist, hermeneutic, tradition. Those works started the antipositivistic revolution in social sciences, which stressed the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences, especially due to human social actions (which Weber differentiated into traditional, affectional, value-rational and instrumental). Weber's early work was related to industrial sociology, but he is most famous for his later work on the sociology of religion and sociology of government.


Max Weber began his studies of rationalisation in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he shows how the aims of certain ascetic Protestant denominations, particularly Calvinism, shifted towards the rational means of economic gain as a way of expressing that they had been blessed. The rational roots of this doctrine, he argued, soon grew incompatible with and larger than the religious, and so the latter were eventually discarded. Weber continues his investigation into this matter in later works, notably in his studies on bureaucracy and on the classifications of authority. In these works he alludes to an inevitable move towards rationalization.


It should be noted that many of his works famous today were collected, revised, and published posthumously. Significant interpretations of Weber's writings were produced by such sociological luminaries as Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills.


Sociology of Religion

Weber's work on the sociology of religion started with the essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and continued with the analysis of The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Ancient Judaism. His work on other religions was interrupted by his sudden death in 1920, which prevented him from following Ancient Judaism with studies of Psalms, Book of Jacob, Talmudic Jewry, early Christianity and Islam. His three main themes were the effect of religious ideas on economic activities, the relation between social stratification and religious ideas, and the distinguishable characteristics of Western civilization.


His goal was to find reasons for the different development paths of the cultures of the Occident and the Orient, although without judging or valuing them, like some of contemporary thinkers who followed the social Darwinist paradigm; Weber wanted primarily to explain the distinctive elements of the Western civilization. In the analysis of his findings, Weber maintained that Calvinist (and more widely, Protestant) religious ideas had had a major impact on the social innovation and development of the economic system of Europe and the United States, but noted that they were not the only factors in this development. Other notable factors mentioned by Weber included the rationalism of scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration, and economic enterprise. In the end, the study of the sociology of religion, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the freedom from magic, that "disenchantment of the world" that he regarded as an important distinguishing aspect of Western culture.


Sociology of Politics and Government

In the sociology of politics and government, one of Weber's most significant contribution is his Politics as a Vocation essay. Therein, Weber unveils the definition of the state that has become so pivotal to Western social thought: that the state is that entity which possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, which it may nonetheless elect to delegate as it sees fit. In this essay, Weber wrote that politics is to be understood as any activity in which the state might engage itself in order to influence the relative distribution of force. Politics thus comes to be understood as deriving from power. A politician must not be a man of the "true Christian ethic", understood by Weber as being the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, that is to say, the injunction to turn the other cheek. An adherent of such an ethic ought rather to be understood to be a saint, for it is only saints, according to Weber, that can appropriately follow it. The political realm is no realm for saints. A politician ought to marry the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility, and must possess both a passion for his avocation and the capacity to distance himself from the subject of his exertions (the governed).


Weber distinguished three pure types of political leadership, domination and authority: charismatic domination (familial and religious), traditional domination (patriarchs, patrimonalism, feudalism), and legal domination (modern law and state, bureaucracy). In his view, every historical relation between rulers and ruled contained such elements and they can be analysed on the basis of this tripartite distinction. He also notes that the instability of charismatic authority inevitably forces it to "routinize" into a more structured form of authority. Likewise he notes that in a pure type of traditional rule, sufficient resistance to a master can lead to a "traditional revolution". Thus he alludes to an inevitable move towards a rational-legal structure of authority, utilising a bureaucratic structure. Thus this theory can be sometimes viewed as part of the social evolutionism theory. This ties to his broader concept of rationalisation by suggesting the inevitability of a move in this direction.


Weber is also well-known for his critical study of the bureaucratisation of society, the rational ways in which formal social organizations apply the ideal type characteristics of a bureaucracy. It was Weber who began the studies of bureaucracy and whose works led to the popularization of this term. Many aspects of modern public administration go back to him, and a classic, hierarchically organised civil service of the Continental type is called "Weberian civil service", although this is only one ideal type of public administration and government described in his magnum opus Economy and Society (1922), and one that he did not particularly like himself he only thought it particularly efficient and successful. In this work, Weber outlines a description, which has become famous, of rationalization (of which bureaucratization is a part) as a shift from a value-oriented organisation and action (traditional authority and charismatic authority) to a goal-oriented organization and action (legal-rational authority). The result, according to Weber, is a "polar night of icy darkness", in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in an "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control. Weber's bureaucracy studies also led him to his analysis correct, as it would turn out, after Stalin's takeover that socialism in Russia would lead to over-bureaucratization rather than to the "withering away of the state" (as Karl Marx had predicted would happen in communist society).



While Max Weber is best known and recognised today as one of the leading scholars and founders of modern sociology, he also accomplished much in other fields, notably economics, although this is largely forgotten today among orthodox economists, who pay very little attention to his works. The view that Weber is at all influential to modern economists comes largely from non-economists and economic critics with sociology backgrounds. During his life distinctions between the social sciences were less clear than they are now, and Weber considered himself a historian and an economist first, sociologist distant second.


From the point of view of the economists, he is a representative of the "Youngest" German historical school of economics. His most valued contributions to the field of economics is his famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This is a seminal essay on the differences between religions and the relative wealth of their followers. Weber's work is parallel to Sombart's treatise of the same phenomenon, which however located the rise of Capitalism in Judaism. Weber's other main contribution to economics (as well as to social sciences in general) is his work on methodology: his theories of "Verstehen" (known as understanding or Interpretative Sociology) and of antipositivism (known as humanistic sociology).


The doctrine of Interpretative Sociology is one of the main sociological paradigms, with many supporters as well as critics. This thesis states that social, economic and historical research can never be fully inductive or descriptive as one must always approach it with a conceptual apparatus, which Weber termed "Ideal Type". The idea can be summarised as follows: an ideal type is formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. Weber's Ideal Type became one of the most important concepts in social sciences, and led to the creation of such concepts as Ferdinand Tönnies' "Normal Type".


Weber conceded that employing "Ideal Types" was an abstraction but claimed that it was nonetheless essential if one were to understand any particular social phenomena because, unlike physical phenomena, they involve human behaviour which must be interpreted by ideal types. This, together with his antipositivistic argumentation can be viewed as the methodological justification for the assumption of the "rational economic man" (homo economicus).


Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with Social class, Social status and party (or politicals) as conceptually distinct elements.


– Social class is based on economically determined relationship to the market (owner, renter, employee etc.).
– Status is based on non-economical qualities like honour, prestige and religion.
– Party refers to affiliations in the political domain.


All three dimensions have consequences for what Weber called "life chances".


Weber's other contributions to economics were several: these include a (seriously researched) economic history of Roman agrarian society, his work on the dual roles of idealism and materialism in the history of capitalism in his Economy and Society (1914) which present Weber's criticisms (or according to some, revisions) of some aspects of Marxism. Finally, his thoroughly researched General Economic History (1923) can be considered the Historical School at its empirical best.


Influence From and on the Austrian Schoo

During his own lifetime, Weber was critical of the neoclassical economic approaches of authors such as Carl Menger and Friedrich von Weiser, whose formal approach was quite different from his own historical sociology. The work of these authors eventually led to the creation of the Austrian School of Economics. This includes followers of Friedrich von Hayek and, more recently, authors Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. In their pro-globalization book Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, they attack Weber for claiming that only Protestantism could lead to a work ethic, pointing to the "Tiger Economies" of Southeastern Asia. (Likewise, Weber's blending of economics with Calvinism has been satirized by such works as "America's Keenest City" by Mongo.)


However, in these debates, it is easy to overlook that the methods advocated by these later generations of the Austrian School are heavily indebted to the work of Weber. His "action sociology", as they called it, was a frequent topic in the "Mises Circle", an influential group headed by Ludwig von Mises, a key figure in the Austrian School. Among the attendees was a student of Mises, the philosopher of sociology Alfred Schutz, who sought to clarify Weber's interpretive approach in terms of the analytic phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Hence, although Schutz's work, especially The Phenomenology of the Social World (1932), is in effect a profound critique of Weber's method, it is nevertheless an attempt to further it. Hayek also frequently attended these discussions, and the subjective method advanced in his The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason (1952) reflects these influences. Ludwig Lachmann, a later member of the Austrian School, made explicit the Austrian School's indebtedness to the Weberian method.


Interestingly, given their methodological and sociological differences, Weber and Mises were not only acquainted, they shared an admiration for each others work. Mises considered Weber a "great genius" and his death a blow to Germany. Likewise, Weber comments that Mises Theory of Money and Credit is the monetary theory most acceptable to him. Weber accepted Ludwig von Mises's criticism of socialist economic planning and added his own argument. He believed that under socialism workers would still work in a hierarchy, but that now the hierarchy would be fused with government. Instead of dictatorship of the worker, he foresaw dictatorship of the official.


Historical Critiques About Max Weber

The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism did not begin with the Industrial Revolution but in 14th century Italy. In Milan, Venice, and Florence the small City-state governments lead to the development of the earliest forms of capitalism. In the 16th century Antwerp was a commercial center of Europe. It was also noted that the predominantly Calvinist country of Scotland did not enjoy the same economic growth as Holland, England, and New England. In addition, it has been pointed out that Holland, which was heavily Calvinist, industrialized much later in the 19th century than predominantly Catholic Belgium, which was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution on the European mainland.


Emil Kauder expanded Schumpeter's argument by arguing the hypothesis that Calvinism hurt the development of capitalism by leading to the development of the labor theory of value. Kauder writes "Any social philosopher or economist exposed to Calvinism will be tempted to give labor an exalted position in his social or economic treatise, and no better way of extolling labor can be found than by combining work with value theory, traditionally the very basis of an economic system." In contrast, Catholic areas that were influenced by the late scholastics were more likely to adhere to the subjective theory of value.