Max Weber

A Guide To The Max Weber’s Major Contributions To Sociology

Max Weber

Karl Emil Maximilian Weber also known as Max Weber (1864-1920):

The German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber is one of the founding fathers of sociology. He is regarded as the proponent of anti-positivism thought and argued that society can be understood by studying social actions through interpretive meaning the actors (individual) attach to their own actions. This thought led to the development of an interactionist perspective in sociology.

He also developed the ‘theory of bureaucracy’ claiming that bureaucracy is the basis for the systematic formation of any organization and is designed to ensure efficiency and economic effectiveness.

His Major Works

  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)
  • The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (1915)

Contributions to Sociology by Max Weber

Max Weber, one of the founding thinkers of sociology, died at the young age of 56. Though his life was short, his influence has been long and thrives even today. The major contributions of Max Weber to sociology are:

Connection between Culture (i.e. Religion) and Economy

In his best-known book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,1905, Weber examined the impact of Protestantism on Western thinking and culture. In this book, Weber tried to understand why some countries were more able than others to build strong, capitalist economies.

He theorized that religion was the key to this issue. He argued that Protestantism i.e. protestant work ethic and belief in living life frugally (saving by not spending much unnecessarily) helped foster the development of the capitalist economic system in the Western world which means that it is the Protestant religious values that boost capitalism. But in Eastern religions, Weber saw barriers to capitalism.

For example, Hinduism stresses attaining higher levels of spirituality by escaping from the trap of the mundane materialistic world. Such a perspective constrains people from making money (or capital accumulation).

Iron cage

What does Max Weber meant by the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy and why it’s still relevant today?

Max Weber’s concept of the ‘iron cage’ is even more relevant today than when he first wrote about it in 1905. Weber explained that as the force of Protestantism decreased in social life over time, the system of capitalism remained, as did the social structure and principles of bureaucracy that had grown along with it. This bureaucratic social structure, and the values, beliefs, and worldviews that supported and sustained it, and the technological and economic relationship that grew out of capitalist production, became the main forces to shaping social life. It was this very phenomenon that Weber called an ‘iron cage’.

Even today the iron cage made up of techno-rational thought, practices, capitalism and economic relationship shows no sign of disintegrating anytime soon. The problems such as climate change are unable to be addressed because of the influence of the iron cage that constrains our thought and behavior i.e. we focus on technology but less on climate because of the result of iron cage made up of techno-rational thought that emphasizes development in technology and capitalism.

E.g. if you are born into a society organized this way, with the division of labor and hierarchical social structure (as in bureaucracy) that comes with it, you can’t escape from it and have to live within this system. Similarly, a person’s life and worldview are shaped by these to such an extent that he/she probably can’t even imagine an alternative or different way of life. So, those born into the cage live in the way it is dictated and consequently reproduce the cage continuously. For this reason, Weber considered the iron cage a massive hindrance to freedom.

Note:

  • An iron cage: is a situation in which an individual is trapped by social institutions
  • Rationalization: a belief that modern society should be built around logic and efficiency rather than tradition.

Theory of Social Action

The social action theory was founded by Max Weber. According to this theory, “an action is social if the acting individual takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course”. Max Weber defined sociology as a ‘science of social action’.

Weber had the idea that society could only be studied by looking at the meaning its members assign to social actions in their interactions within specific socio-historical contexts.

Note: It is Weber’s ‘theory of social action’ that focuses on the subjective meaning that human actors attach to their actions which gave rise to the inter-actionist perspective (i.e. interactionism) in sociology.

Types of Authority by Max Weber

Max Weber identifies three types of authority as follows:

  • Charismatic
  • Traditional
  • Legal-rational

First, charismatic authority points to an individual who holds certain traits that make a leader remarkable. This type of leader is not only competent but actually holds the superior power of charisma to rally various and conflict-prone people behind him. His power comes from the massive trust and nearly unbreakable faith people put in him. E.g. Hitler in Germany, Mahatma Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King Jr. in the USA, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, etc.

Second, traditional authority is the one where the traditional rights of a powerful and dominant individual or group are accepted by subordinate individuals. A leader is someone who depends on long-established customs, traditions, or order. E.g. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, for instance, occupies a position that she inherited based on the traditional rules of succession for the monarchy.

Third, legal-rational authority is grounded in clearly defined laws. The obedience of people is not based on the capacity of any leader but on the legitimacy and competence that procedures and laws bestow upon persons in authority. Contemporary (modern) society depends on this type of rationalization and there is the power of bureaucracy over the individuals that address the problems and concerns of everyone to maintain order and systematization.

Class, Status and Power

The theory of stratification (also known as ‘Weber’s theory of social class), popularly known as ‘Weberian stratification’ was developed by German sociologist Max Weber. According to him, people in society are stratified into social classes based on these three dimensions as follows:

  • Class (economy)
  • Status (social)
  • Party (political)

A person’s power can be shown in the social order through their status, in the economic order through their class, and the political order through their party.

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