MAX WEBER (1864-1920)

Weber: click to continue with textSometimes referred to as the bourgeois Marx, as he often reassessed and developed the ideas of Marx, but he also had a far more rounded view of sociology, leading it towards many branches - conflict and interpretive. Whereas Marx and Durkheim saw society as an object in itself, Weber moved towards action in the social situation. Society is not structure, an existing thing, but interrelated actions. Weber was interested in behaviour and motivation, the subjective (individual perception) as well as the objective (systematic causality).

He accepted that class starts with the relationship to means of production, but class stratification needs more than this - being a more complex analysis of property (ownership of wealth), market situation and then status and power.

There are differences between types of capitalist and also between the skill levels of labour (skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled). Class therefore manifests itself in the actual market situation.

Status is where there is a social estimation of honour (Weber, 1924) which may or may not be linked to property and market situation. Status relates to developing visible lifestyles, and the likely exclusion of certain pre-defined social groups that may not join. These are the "monopolisation of ideal or material goods or opportunities" (Weber, 1924). This might be education, and selection through attending the right school and university.

Weber is looking at meanings in a social context (rather than just psychology), where situations are interpreted and meanings shared. Being focussed on the matter of action in the social situation, Weber distinguished four types

It is this attention to detail and variety, and interpretation, that means Weber stands as a principal source of interpretive sociology - trying to understand the meaning of a social action from the viewpoint of social actors and therefore its cause. He called it Verstehen, which due to an inability to translate its nuance has come to be the technical term for this form of understanding - placing oneself in the other's place to see the operative social force that determined action. Action and Verstehen are used by Weber to suggest why people accept authority.

Perception and action and this more developed view of status and authority is consistent with having authoirity rather than class as the key to social change. Authority changing is a key to understanding social change and goes in stages:

  1. Charismatic authority
  2. traditional authority
  3. bureacratic authority

Charismatic authority is an emotional response to the qualities of an individual (either diabolic or holy, political or religious - whatever). Such is routinized by the first followers, parties etc. that emerge with the follower or just after his death.

Then they evolve into elaborate traditional systems where authority is give to a detailed supernatural tradition. An example is the divine right of kings, priestcraft and so on. This is still centred in the person, for example in the laying on of hands.

Finally in modernity the emphasis is not on the person but the office, the legal rational authority of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is not a pejorative term for an administrative system, but a common form of centralised organisation. Note that others have gone on to suggest other forms of decentralised authority.

The important point here is that Weber is a pessimist. Bureacracy is rational and legal, but centralised and ultimately oppressive. It is disenchanted of the human flavour of charisma and tradition.

Authority interacted with culture and again remains linked with action and perception. The relationship between culture and social structure is explained by particular reference to religion. He was particularly interested in types of salvation within and between religions and how they appealed to and were used by particular social status groups.

Whilst the content of religion was obviously derived from the religion, its wider effects and development varied among social classes. He looked at various Eastern religions but a good example of perception, action and a complex view of class and status was shown in Western Protestantism.

Weber illustrated how a populist perception of Calvinism was a meaningful influence in the thrift of early generations of industrialists in expanding a particular kind of early capitalism motivated by a need to practical receive signs of their pre-ordained salvation through moral worth and acquired wealth.

British history suggests that the political exclusion and low social status of non-conformity, which just happened to be Calvinist, forced this social group into business which was used as a route towards economic power, higher status and agitation until political inclusion in 1832

Weber's work on rationality and religion leads directly to secularisation theory - that is the loss of religion as a rationality in social functions.

The three types of bureaucracy are ideal types, or listing devices for analytical purposes. The ideal type lists essential characteristics for understanding phenomena of social action and institutions. They can be set up as contrasts. An example is Church and sect, which Weber worked on about the same time as Ernst Troeltsch (although both were 50 years after the same contrast was made by James Martineau in 1859). The ideal type is derived from actual social institutions but as they are lists of essentials they then take on an analytical function can be used further afield.

Weber, M. (1924), 'Class, Status and Party', in Gerth, H., Mills, C. W. (1948), Essays from Max Weber, Routledge and Kegan Paul

Weber, M (1952), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Allen & Unwin

Weber, M (1947), The Theory of Social and Economic Organisations, Free Press