Critique of Weber (1846-1920)

Weber's methodological individualism focusses on purposeful action. He recognises non-rational actions which can be traditional or emotive, but his main focus is purposeful action towards a goal. Instrumental action is towards a recognisable objective. There is also value-rational action, which follows on from a belief or inner purpose. The sociology comes in the fact that this is collectively meaningful, and has collective insitutional outcome, but it is an analysis at first of individualist subjectivity.
The problem is that such value-rational actions overlap with traditional and emotive non-rational actions, and it is unclear when one becomes the other.
It is important that the idea of doing reasoning and cause are separated. Many such actions have meaningful reason, which is different from cause as such in a mechanistic sense. Nevertheless the two run together: reason is a qualititative addition to cause. Reason is deeper, inner, more a process, more socially reflective, and is that something extra the historian looks for when trying to find that deeper basis for something taking place. It brings to mind the historian's tactic of empathy: getting into the mind of an actor on the world stage.
However, the grasping of this reason and rationality becomes even harder, especially contrasted with emotive action, when Weber argues for the large probability that people are only half conscious of their motivations, and that much is impulsive (see Noble, 2000, 121).
Then of course he tells all this in the context of ideal types, which are themselves extractions out of reality for analytical or comparative purposes. They are indeed idealist, pictures, possibilities if a tendency is the case.
Perhaps Weber is realistic, but the whole area of rational action is quite muddy, and the rational reason seems to be impervious to clarity in, say, a research situation. But then perhaps this is how it is, more realistic than clean theoretical constructs which become shot with holes under examination. Yet this very restraint in the method Weber was sometimes likely to forget.
An area where rationality was applied was the bureacracy. This is how Weber understood capitalism, as a victory of rationality in organisation. It is called rational-legal authority. It also connects intended social action (with a subjective basis) with an objective situation (domination). The bureaucratic form is the modern method of domination. Because there is nothing more efficient than the rational, the pyramidal bureaucracy sweeps the world. This is not cultureless, incidentally, as the bureaucracy does give rise to status (different from class) where there is respect, deference, and prestige linked to holders of office in a hierarchy. But because the bureaucracy issues orders, and everyone below takes orders, Weber becomes the pessimist par excellence for the future of technologically advanced society. There is no way out. Each operative has his or her place. And unlike with earlier traditional and charismatic authority patterns, there is no sense of enchantment. There is, therefore, a form of alienation.
This view does separate the ideal of being human with the ideal of rational efficiency. It is a variation on the younger Marx's ideal human lost to the production process selling his labour. It is almost (though not literally) Weber's ideal human is alienated in the office whilst Marx's ideal human alienated in the factory (though bureaucracy includes factories too - all kinds of economic enterprise).
Traditional authority is not irrational but not rational in the Weberian sense as it is not goal directed, and charimsatic authority can be goal directed but irrational (highly selective anyway, and short-lived unless routinised and becoming a tradition). The bureaucracy with its rational-legal authority is both goal directed and rational, and potentially excludes no one with the ability to gain expertise. Because it is meritocratic, it appeals, but then becomes not just dominant but dominating and therefore repressive. It is monumental, beyond human scale, and without choice. Everyone is a cog in the big wheel.
The problem with the analysis is simply that humans are not so rational, nor are they forced to become most rational. Markets as choice mechanisms never actually favour the most rational, largely because we do not know what it is when we see it. Is it, for a good, the lowest price or the highest quality? Is it what gives prestige value, which is also full of subjective meaning? What, for example, is rationally the best way to organise work? Is it to break down every task in a Taylor-Fordist way into long lines of repetitive ite sized chunks, which indeed can demotivate, or build groups of workers together able to vary tasks and discuss strategies and so improve motivation and productivity? When there is expertise required, who really takes the decisions - the managers at the top or the experts on the job both in negotiation? Then a firm makes choices between different markets available and short term and long term goals, and there are perfectly rational balancing acts to be made between consumers, suppliers and the workforce, and between the short and the long term.
Of course an economist might be hired to juggle all kinds of indifference curves of preferences, set against cost curves, but this is a theoretical world and not the real one. In any case, preference is subjective action, and these indifference curves stand outside the rationality of the method - they are a shifting given.
The problem is that Weber was carried away by his own ideal type. It was like the economist carried away by the model. Having worked out the meritocratic rules of office and hierarchy, he just applied this as an absolute everywhere. The ideal type was just that, one extraction. It was not historically realistic, and did not examine rationality far enough. So whilst there are institutions and jobs pretty much like Weber described, firms and individuals do have choices even on a rational basis. It is possible to improve the bread through having circuses.
Yet otherwise Weber was quite modest, and was prepared to encounter varied cultures and historical changes. He is appealing for this (unlike Durkheim's generalities, for example), and was confident enough to speak of the subjective processes of reasoning and impulses.
Weber's work is all about rationality, and this he applies to transition: social change from the standpoint of the late nineteenth century and the turn to the twentieth century. Rationality, he thinks, is what makes capitalism different.
He is interested in transition to rationality (as well as religions in cultures in some detail). This is the whole basis of The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1958). However, here he does hedge his bets. Some quotations of Weber are useful.
The following study may thus perhaps in a modest way form a contribution to the manner in which ideas become effective forces in history... For we are merely attempting to clarify the part which religious forces have played in forming the developing web of our specifically worldly modern culture, in the complex interaction of inumerable historical factors. We are thus enquiring only to what extent several characteristic features of this culture can be imputed to the influence of the Reformation.
On the other hand, however, we have no intention whatever of maintaining such a foolish and doctrinaire thesis as that the spirit off capitalism (in the provisional sense of the term explained above) could only have arisen as a result of certain effects of the Reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation. In itself the fact that certain forms of capitalistic organisation are known to be considerably older than the Reformation is a sufficient refutation to that claim. On the contrary, we only wish to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative and quantitiative expansion of that spirit over the world.
(Weber, 1958, 90, quoted in Nisbet, 1970, 258, with his italics removed).
He isn't sure and it may be, so he analyses what the possibility is... The analysis is an example, because the later Calvinism/ Puritanism (Nisbet, 1970, 260) is but one area of analysing the influence of religious motivation. There are other rationalisms worthy of study, Weber believed, which he did not consider in any detail (Nisbet, 1970, 261).
Weber has his argument around the correlation between the Puritan ethic of thrift and work through wishing to know if he was saved, and the capitalist spirit of saving, accumulation and investment in the future. It is anti-consumption, really.
The English case is an interesting point, but a little different. This is where the inhabiters of old dissent, especially Puritan Presbyterians, were mercantilists, and found themselves excluded from the political establishment after finding themselves well and truly in it during the Cromwell years as rather hated, bigoted authoritarians. This group was even persecuted until tolerance was granted from 1689, but inclusion was not granted. Then when liberal ideology and manufacturing really were significant, the new inhabitants of the Presbyterian church shells, the Unitarians, also find themselves outside the political establishement. The same was true of Quakers, who also had mercantilist connections and moved to capitalism. Then as capitalists these old dissenters agitated for political reform, and a liberty that not only included themselves, but generously others, but did so to undermine the inherited regime of the inheriting landed. The really successful Unitarians did, incidentally, buy their way into the upper class, and often converted to the Church of England once success was achieved.
In this case, however, we see that Puritan religion, beyond the discipline of one State and one Church, is part of the identity of political exclusion, and the chapels became one of the means of institutions agitating for political inclusion. Chapels were moral, contained people of good standing, and chapels run by the well to do but excluded agitated for reform via the need for their religious toleration. In this case the ethics of the religion and their input directly into the capitalist enterprises is secondary to the predicament of exclusion and the identity between the economically successful and yet politically unsucccessful. It is said that the Unitarians and Quakers ran more ethically based businesses, but the argument presented (eg at Styal, Manchester) is often one of business sense and better productivity, and there is a difference between the liberal enterprisers and the socialist kind (Robert Owen) which seems to go further for its own sake, the factory being in the nineteenth century a place of personal and social improvement as well as a happy prodctive workforce, whereas the liberal plant was being better served by a healthier and religiously disciplined workforce.
So in this case I suggest there is a less strong relationship between the religious ethic itself and capitalist spirit; that rather it was an ethic and spirit of self-improvement and modernisation of politics to accompany the modernisation of economics. There was still a Puritan core here, or later a Unitarian one, because belief meant that the easiest political option just to conform to the Church of England was not easily possible religiously. It was a commitment to stay with non-conformism because Puritanism and unitarianism did exist in the Church of England, as indeed other kinds of compromised positions were put into the Church of England.
There was however an ethos of capitalism in the liberal ideology that informed the liberal non-conformists, so even those who could change to the Church of England stayed with the Unitarians for a time.
This is, then, a Weberian type argument - reference to the historical situation and asking how much and in what sense is a hypothesis the case. Even more problematic is how much one then alters an ideal type. The ideal type is not historical but ideal, yet to some extent it must be an extract out of society, to produce a pure case of a tendency by which the reality can be assessed.
Ceertainly, though, this type of ideal-historical approach is the antedote to materialist Marxism or over collectivised Durkheimianism, neither of which were sensitive enough (or even bothered enough) with historical detail. And yet Noble says of Weber:
Yet there is a danger looming here, as with rational-legal authority in bureaucracy, and with Weber's version of the Protestant Ethic, leading Noble to state that:
It is perhaps unfortunate, given the persuasive power of the Weber thesis, that it has turned out to be wrong in almost every respect. (Noble, 2000, 129).
This is because again Weber did want to apply his idealised claims, and his historical detail was inadequate or overfocussed. Weber was supporting his idealised method, and in a sense that was against not with history.
In terms of his analysis there are errors in theology (Mckinnon, 1988, quoted in Noble, 129) and history (Macfarlane, 1978, 1987, quoted in Noble, 130) (as indicated above, in England individualism goes back deep into mercantilist times) and Elton (1963, quoted in Noble, 130) sees no correlation between Protestantism and capitalism.
My analysis above of England is, I believe, right, but of course it made into an ideal type cannot be an explanation for capitalism, for the simple reason that the surplusses from agriculture and slavery were far more important in supplying a developing financial system, as were technological gains initiated first from military requirements (eg the correlation between the cannonball fitting in a cannon and the piston fitting in a tube for water and steam pumps in both factory and train) and technology applied to production. Perhaps another ideal type is coming along!
The historical survey I gave is also inadequate because most industrialists will have been Church of England! Nevertheless the history of the Puritans and religious liberals is one of exclusion and agitation, and using their economic base as a change of situation for inclusion. It is a factor in the detail of how eighteenth century life became nineteenth century, and in the growth of local and national government, but it is just an important detail about changing the nature of the establishment.
So ideal types, correlations of some explanatory overview, are not historical overviews, but actually details in complexity, which Weber did realise but then would fail to realise.
Noble says that Weber is like an explorer who does not leave the best map (130) but the importance is in the method. The importance, it seems to me, is the breadth of the approach with yet a conceptual basis in mind, which is the ideal type, and the modesty of any claims. In my Ph.D I used a variety of research techniques to come up with new typologies to replace church, denomination, sect, which were obviously related to the real world in the churches, ministers and sources studied, but in the end the typologies were extractions useful to test among other churches and institutions.
History is always more complicated, Weber as the most subtle sociologist saw that sociology is problematic.

Adrian Worsfold

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