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Key Elements Of Webers Idea Of Sociology Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3088 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In my essay I argue that the key element of Weberian sociology is perception of the society as a complex system of individual actions, forming up the certain blocks of social life. Understanding of the attached meaning to these actions makes possible understanding of complex social phenomena, what ends up in the understanding of the whole process of historical development of the Western civilization. From the point of view of Max Weber historical process is understandable and its main tendency of development is constant movement from irrationality to further rationality.

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Understanding the society and its parts was a key element of Weber’s sociology that is why he needed to create an effective reference frame, in order to place different social and historical phenomena in corresponding locations on the big scale of social development of humanity. Max Weber looked at the society as at a very complex system of social interconnections, which are very difficult to be clearly understood. That is why it was very important for him to break down difficult social phenomena to single social actions and their subjective meanings. Development of the theory of Ideal Type gave an opportunity for Weber to categorize social phenomena, what favored to better understanding of social processes.

In my essay I would like to analyze the key elements of Weber’s idea of sociology. I have divided this essay into three parts. Each of the parts analyzes different dimensions of Weber’s key elements of sociology. The first part covers the fundamental for Weber’s social research ideas, such as social action, ideal type, value-freedom conception, the notion of rationality. The second part of the essay is analyzing the most important ideas of Weber on the influence of religion (particularly Protestantism) on the development of the society. The third part of the essay covers the ideas of Weber in the political sphere – legitimating of power, social stratification, phenomenon of bureaucracy.

Part I. General Ideas of Max Weber.

Max Weber perceived the world and society as a very complex and unpredictable system. This extremely broad and difficult system of social interactions could be brought down to single social action of an actor – such social action represented for Weber a basic unit of social life. From the point of view of Weber, the main goal of sociology as a science is understanding of this basic social action, and what is more important – understanding of subjective meaning or intention the actor attaches to his action. The dimension of understanding is crucial in Weber’s sociology – he even calls this science “understandable sociology”. According to Ray (1999) Weber was mentioning that social sciences are very different from natural sciences as the object of social sciences can not be understand from simple observation, because of complex subjective meaning of social actions.

In order to understand complex social structures and the whole picture of society Weber developed an idea of so called Ideal Type – which represented different social units, categories and types of behavior united by common features. These Ideal Types were a certain categorization and generalization of social structures – according to Weber, they did not exist in society in such a clear and pure form, but presence of such an instrument helps to categorize the phenomena of social life.

The next important idea of Weber on sociology is a concept of value-freedom, which practically means that the social scientist should not make any interference into social processes in order to make them change their development. Ray (1999) mentioned that Weber was an advocate of an idea of separation of vocation of scientist and politician – Weber believed that the scientist should conduct his researches being moved away from his partisanship and affiliations. The concept of value-freedom meant warning the actors of the consequences of their actions, but not influencing them to change their behavior – the scientist should observe and study social processes, and his interference into them can harm the interests of the science. It is important to notice that Weber conducted his researches in very difficult for Europe times, and very often he showed his strong political position and sometimes to persuade others in its truthfulness – it is very difficult for any social scientists to be fully away from influencing the other people.

The key tendency of social development in Weber’s sociology is constant development of human society from irrationality to rationality. The whole history for Weber is a process of continuous movement towards rationality, which is showed up in intention attached to basic social action. The human society is very irregular on its way to rationalism – the biggest progress was achieved by the Western civilization, which became a locomotive of rationality spreading in the world. The highest stage of social development for Weber is a shift within the types of rationality – from value-rationality (taking decisions on the basis of established beliefs and values not considering the consequences) to purposive rationality, when a social action is performed by an actor on the basis of his knowledge and with consideration of the consequences of this action. From the point of view of Weber, such an evolution to purposive rationality made possible further development of Western civilization – establishment of well-functioning capitalist system and appearance of modern states and science.

Part II. Religion and Society.

One of the most central questions in the sociology of Weber is the questions of origins of modern Capitalist system and the question of the fate of the West (Ray, 1999). According to Ingram (1987) Weber conducted a deep research to answer the question – why was it Judeo-Christian civilization, that gave birth to modern Capitalism and modern society. He compared different kinds of societies organized around major World religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity) and tried to find the reasons for such successful development of capitalism in the West.

Collins (1986) mentions that Weber could see the elements and features of capitalism and trade in all historical times and all geographical regions, but it was the West in the Middle Ages and after which gave birth to unique system of social and economic relations, unknown and impossible for any other society in the World. Weber’s sociology shows that modern type of Western capitalist society is a unique product of long-term evolution of Western society which could be born only in case of direct match of the long number of indicators and social tendencies. In his researches, Weber tried to name these most important factors that made possible the birth of modern capitalistic society in the West.

The message of Weber’s Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism is often understood in such way, that it Protestantism was the only important element for the establishment of capitalism. Such understanding is far from Weber’s reality, as after Collins (1986) Weber perceived Protestantism as “… only the last intensification of chain of factors leading to capitalism”. In other words, Protestantism is a very crucial factor for the establishment of capitalist system in Europe, but there were a number of other very important historical steps that made capitalism possible.

According to Collins (1986) Weber conducted a deep research on Medieval Europe, and came to conclusion, that there were two major chains of historical conditions that enabled the development of capitalism in Europe – political sphere and social networks. All these spheres were deeply influenced by religion, but were not limited to it. There were a large number of factors not connected with religion that influenced the establishment of capitalistic system – Weber was talking about certain trichotomy of economic, political and cultural factors, influencing the Western society (Collins, 1986).

The role of religion in general and Christianity in particular, from the Weber’s point of view had two dimensions. On the one hand, it is institutional role of organized religions – Collins (1986) mentions that Weber paid big attention to analyzing of the Church as separate and very influential economic and bureaucratic structure, which in the Middle Ages was the only well-organized social organization in Europe. On the other hand, Weber was concentrated on the key ideas and world-view patterns of major World religions, and the interactions between those ideas with the economy.

The most significant thesis of Weber is the statement that the appearance and spreading of Protestant ethics has been one of the most important factors for the establishment of capitalist system in the West.

In general the role of any religion was positive for Weber – as it moved people to rationalism (in this case value-rationalism). For Weber the character of Protestantism is fundamentally different from other religions that kept believers in frames of value-rationalism. Protestantism was the religion that moved people beyond the borders of value-rationalism towards purposive rationalism.

Ingram (1987) says that “the most important normative factor shaping consciousness of the West was Protestant work ethics”. Indeed, Weber studied carefully the messages of Protestant religious doctrine, and he came to the conclusion, that it was this Protestant doctrine that became the final condition for establishment of modern capitalist system.

According to Weber, the Protestant doctrine considered a man as the most important act of creation of God, what made the world to be submitted to mankind. Ray (1999) says that unlike other world religions, that were either escaping from the world or resigned themselves to their fate, Protestant doctrine aimed its followers at the world mastery.

Weber stressed the role of Calvinism, and especially its doctrine of predestination. This doctrine made a significant switch of religious zeal towards secular life. That time the believer could prove himself and other people that he was selected by God to be saved – in order to prove it would be enough for such a believer to achieve professional and financial success in his life. In other words, before Protestantism people were dividing secular and sacred. Ray (1999) formulated this idea in the next way: “…once sacred goals become secular”. Protestants start to treat their professional activities with religious zealotry once their everyday work became a real worshipping of their Creator and an evidence of their predetermined selectiveness to salvation.

Weber also stressed the Protestant conception of calling or vocation – where every believer had his personal assignment in his life, prepared for him by God. It means that for such a believer diligent realization of his everyday work was a religious duty.

Additionally, Protestant religious doctrine included conceptions of asceticism and strict self-discipline of a believer. The combination of all the above mentioned conceptions of behavior gave birth to a new type of human who changed the entire world – ideal capitalist. According to Weber, this ideal capitalist fanatically followed the doctrines of Protestantism, realizing them in his personal and professional life. This person works very hard, achieving high level of mastery in his profession, acquires high social position and what is most important, saves large amount of resources and keeps reinvesting it. Such Protestants were seeking profits, but they did not spend their money, but became investors (Ray, 1999). It was a turning point in the final establishment of capitalist system. Schluchter (1996) says that we can mention Benjamin Franklin as an example of spiritual father of Modern Capitalism, with his message of hard work, saving and reinvesting – these requirements have a religious value for ideal Protestant-Capitalist.

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Part III. Politics and Society.

According to Schluchter (1996), the work “Politics as Vocation” helps to understand the position of Max Weber on major questions of political sphere. For Weber politics is one of the most dynamic parts of social life and political processes is a very important area for social research. Weber lived in a very difficult time for the German state, and the challenges standing before Germany found their reflection in the ideas of Weber.

Collins (1986) mentions that the question of legitimacy played the central role for Max Weber. Weber pointed out three types of legitimacy of power – traditional (based on the faith in legality of the model because it has always existed), rational (conscious subordination to recognized and established laws and regulations) and charismatic (belief in extra-ordinary possibilities of the leader). As the society was constantly going through evolution towards rationality, the political sphere also introducing more and more rationality. By Weber, this evolution of political sphere ended in appearance of rational bureaucracy and new type of state – state where the bureaucrats do not owe the state mechanisms of influence, but are hired by citizens to perform their will. Bureaucracy for Weber is a controversial phenomenon and can be a danger for the development of the state, as bureaucrats do not effectively hold responsibility and monopolize political decisions in the society (Siedman, 1998).

State represents for Weber an institution that has monopolized the legal usage of power. After Weber, responsibility should be the main requirement for a politician – only people with strong vocation to politics should participate in the rule of state. Weberian politician is a person thinking about long-term goals of the society, and strictly following the interests of the state, ignoring sometimes the needs of the citizens, in order to reach larger goals. Schluchter (1996) cites Weber where he says that political communication is always filled with the spirit of war – this citation shows that Weber had very realistic view on political competition.

Ray (1999) touched a question of relationship between charismatic leadership and bureaucracy – two struggling between each other forces. According to Weber during the process of political competition charisma is never stable – when it gets the power and start owe resources – it gradually turns into bureaucracy or patrimonialism (Collins, 1986).

In contrast to Marx, Weber determined multiple axes of social stratification – social class, status, and party affiliation of a person. These three parameters Weber called “social chances” of a person. According to Collins (1986) status of a person was crucial for Weber – it strongly determined the social mobility, market opportunities, and other influential factors. Social class is rather economic membership of a person; status is determined by social prestige and honor, and the party affiliation is an indicator of closeness of a person to the ruling in the country political force.

The views of Weber on political sphere were largely influenced by the history and situation of the German state. Weber was a strong supporter of the idea of strong middle class, and he believed that the future of Germany strongly depends on the situation of middle class (Siedman, 1998). The ideas and views of Weber have been important not only for sociology, but also for political forces in Germany during his life and after death.


The ideas of Max Weber have influenced the sociology in a very strong way. Summing up the key elements of Weber’s idea of sociology, I should mention the following:

1). In Weber’s sociology history and social development have a deep sense, and this sense can be understood. The society is developing in a certain direction overcoming certain stages of its social advance. It is very important to find out the real sense of social development and to keep in mind that all the human history has specific mission and goals in itself.

2). Understanding of social action and social phenomena become the main goal for Weber’s sociology – and such understanding is possible. A sociologist should move himself away for judgments of the social processes, but he should precisely observe and try to understand irrational meanings attached to individual social actions – in order to understand more complex social phenomena.

3). There is a criterion that determines the progress of society on its way of historical and social development – and this criterion after Weber is constant movement towards Rationality. First this movement is represented by the shift from irrationality to rationality, and the second part of this movement – is shift between value-rationality to purposive-rationality. Such a purposive rationality in individual social action would give to a sociologist an opportunity to understand clearly the meaning attached to such social action, as it will not be subjective any more.

4). Ideas influence economy in a very strong way – it is one of the most important key elements of sociology of Weber. After the study of major world religions, he came to the conclusion, that it was the Protestantism, which made possible final establishment of capitalist system in the West. It is religion that shapes the most fundamental world-view of the people, and in different parts of the world ideas, through religions, produced different types of the societies and economic and social relations.

5). By Weber the political sphere and the society represent a very complex and interconnected system, with multiple axes of social stratification and different patterns of power legitimization. Political sphere is a subject of social development and under certain historical conditions (as it happened in the West) it can move towards larger rationality, producing a new type of state and switching to rational type of power legitimization.


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