Max Weber Research Paper

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Max Weber helped establish sociology as a social scientific discipline at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (1920) he analyzed modern bureaucracies, the structure of stratification, origins of the city in the West, types of political domination, the genesis of modern legal systems, the importance of religion for social life, and other topics. Perhaps no sociologist, before or since, has displayed his intellectual range and sophistication.

Early Years

Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfurt, Germany. A gifted child, Weber became politically astute at a young age. His father, a lawyer and politician, entertained prominent people in his salon and the young Weber participated in their discussions.

Weber’s parents were mismatched. His father, a hedonist who enjoyed bourgeois living, ruled the household absolutely. His mother, while loving and affectionate, adhered to strict Calvinist standards of hard work, ascetic behavior, and personal morality. Weber’s wife, Marianne, later reported that he believed he needed to choose between his parents. This dilemma became a source of emotional agony throughout his life. Indeed, his sociological writings may constitute an attempt at working through this inner conflict.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Weber became a successful lawyer and college professor. He had political aspirations. According to Marianne, a distant cousin whom he married in 1893, Weber lived an ascetic life, strictly regulated by the clock. On completing each task he immediately took on a new one. He was chronically overworked, which may have contributed to his eventual collapse.

In 1897 his mother planned a visit with Max and Marianne that his father opposed. Father and son clashed and parted without reconciliation. Shortly thereafter, the old man died. Within weeks, Weber suffered a complete nervous breakdown. At that time, before psychotherapy, the only treatment for such ailments was rest. Weber resigned his teaching position and remained incapacitated for five years. In 1903 Max and Marianne toured America, witnessing its vitality. The trip seemed to rekindle his ability to work.

Major Contributions

In 1904 Weber posed a simple question: “In what sense are there ‘objectively valid truths’ in those disciplines concerned with social and cultural phenomena?” ([1904] 1949, p. 51). His subsequent writings provide an answer to this query.

Weber’s first goal was to show that objective social scientific research is possible, a controversial position at that time and one that remains divisive. He insisted that sociologists should not infuse research with their personal values, economic interests, or political agendas. As he put it, research should be value free, as unbiased and objective as possible.

This goal carries an important implication: Sociology should not be a politically committed discipline. Rather, Weber distinguished between “what ought to be,” the sphere of values, and “what is,” the sphere of science. Science, Weber said, cannot tell people either how to live or what public policies to adopt. Objective social scientific knowledge can, however, provide them with information necessary to make such decisions ([1904] 1949, p. 54).

In order to achieve this goal, Weber argued that sociologists should apply a “rational method” to their work; that is, they should use clear concepts and systematic observations and then make logical inferences ([1920] 1946a, p. 143; [1904] 1949, p. 105). But this task is difficult. After all, researchers participate in social life, which means they often approach topics with preconceived opinions. Moreover, any specific study only provides a partial picture, which can simply taking sides. The solution to these difficulties is for scholars to critically evaluate and replicate research. Although this practice is imperfect (since human beings are imperfect), it leads to a self-correcting process that produces research findings that are as objective as possible. Given accurate information, Weber argued, sociologists can sometimes suggest strategies for achieving policy goals and possible consequences. At that point, values intrude, since the problem becomes what is to be done. Weber addressed this issue in his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” where he described politics as a process by which competing interest groups seek to affect public policies and the state as monopolizing the use of force in implementing them. The political problem of evaluating and applying scientific findings to practical matters is perennial in modern societies.

Another implication of Weber’s argument for value-free sociology is that the new discipline reflected an ongoing historical process that he called rationalization, in which social life becomes methodically organized based on the use of reason and observation. Weber saw that this process permeates every sphere of modern life: education, work, law, economy, and family. The sciences, of course, including sociology, are the archetypal methodical disciplines. They provide new ways of understanding and controlling our environment, natural and social, opening up dizzying new possibilities. Industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and scientific advance are linked historically, leading to improved lives for most people. For example, they have straight teeth, better diets, and—the ultimate gift—longer lives. All reflect the process of rationalization. In modern societies, then, people look for explanations based on reliable knowledge. They seek solutions to problems rather than accepting fate. This orientation becomes generalized to every sphere: Anyone who uses modern technology learns to approach problems methodically, rather than by relying on magical thinking. But the impact can be disquieting, even frightening, because choices sometimes must be made between competing moral imperatives.

Weber, like many others, feared the impact of rationalization on social life. Knowledge based on reason and observation destroyed magical explanations that had provided meaning for people throughout history. In his essay “Science as a Vocation,” he mused about the “disenchantment of the world” that characterizes modern societies ([1920] 1946a, p. 139). This evocative phrase suggests that humans have passed from an enchanted world of mystery and spirituality into one that is colder, more heartless, perhaps bereft of moral guidance. In a rationalized world, Weber lamented, there are no longer simple answers to the fundamental questions of human existence.

Weber’s second goal was to understand the origin of modern societies. He confronted this issue in his most important book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904—1905), and subsequent studies in the sociology of religion. They constitute an exercise in historical hypothesis testing in which Weber constructed a logical experiment using ideal types as conceptual tools.

Ideal types are concepts that identify the essential characteristics of a social phenomenon in the purest form possible. As he put it, they are designed “to be perfect on logical grounds,” which has the “merit of clear understandability and lack of ambiguity” ([1920] 1968, p. 6). Empirical observations, of course, will deviate from the ideal (or pure form). By providing a common point of comparison, however, ideal types set up a logical experiment. They function like a control group in an experiment, and observed variations reflect the impact of causal forces (a stimulus in an experiment) that can be discovered.

In The Protestant Ethic and other studies, Weber explained why capitalism arose in Western Europe and helped to usher in modern life by using ideal types to systematically compare Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with China and India. What distinguished Europe, he found, was not the level of technology, a free labor force, or other factors. Rather, the West became unique due to the rise of the culture (or spirit) of capitalism as an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Ethic opens with a then-common finding: “Wherever capitalism … has had a free hand” a relationship existed between Protestantism and economic success ([1904-1905] 1958a, p. 25). Why might this be so?

Weber began his answer by describing the “spirit of capitalism” as it existed in the eighteenth century: (1) work is an end in itself; (2) economic success reflects personal virtue; (3) a methodically organized life is inherently proper; and (4) immediate pleasure should be postponed in favor of future satisfaction. Although expressed as ideal types, these cultural values could be observed in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and others at that time, and can be observed today as well. Weber argued that such values became historically significant as religious asceticism (self-denial) emerged from the monastery and convent into everyday life. The modern world is rationalized (in Weber’s sense) to the degree that ordinary people organize their lives in light of values like these.

Such values originated in the peculiar beliefs of the protesting faith groups. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber examined Puritanism as the ideal type. Puritan life was dominated by unusual ethical norms, which could be observed in pastoral directives: people should work hard, take a methodical approach to everyday life, and use their possessions for purposes that enhance the glory of God. The believers’ underlying motive was purely religious: to ensure they were among the elect going to heaven. The unintended impact, however, was that many of those adhering to such norms became successful, even rich. Moreover, because these religious principles displayed what he called an “elective affinity” with other historical changes occurring at about the same time—the rise of science, democracy, and industrialization—they spread and became secular values. Together, Weber argued, these interrelated changes produced modern rationalized capitalist societies, with their improved lives and potential for disenchantment.

Weber’s third goal was to develop a set of concepts that would be useful for describing and understanding modern societies. This conceptual map comprises the opening sections of Economy and Society.

The “types of social action” illustrate both his theoretical intent and his interpretation of the modern world. According to Weber, people’s actions can be classified in four ways. Instrumentally-rational action occurs when means and ends relate to each other based on knowledge. The model for instrumentally-rational action is scientific knowledge. Because it is based on reason and observation, science avoids self-deception and thus becomes effective in solving problems. Value-rational action is based on values. It always involves demands that people believe compel them to act. Parents educating children; soldiers obeying orders; citizens supporting or opposing abortion; all behave rationally in being faithful to their values. As the examples imply, value-rational action constitutes an end in itself, not a reflection of economic interest. Traditional action is “determined by ingrained habituation” ([1920] 1968, p. 25). In contexts where people are subject to fate, they regulate behavior by custom, often religiously sanctified. Affectual action is determined by emotions, and it occurs in all times and places. The parent slapping a child and the basketball player punching an opponent are examples.

Weber argued that traditional action occurs typically in preindustrial societies, where choices are limited (because knowledge is limited) and people have little control over their lives or environment. In such situations, the family usually constitutes both a productive and a consumptive unit, which means that people make economic, legal, and most other decisions in the light of tradition. Tradition (or custom) nearly always precludes the logical evaluation of means and ends based on reason and observation.

Understanding modern societies, Weber said, requires the distinction between instrumentally-rational and value-rational action, although they are interrelated in practice. The pervasiveness of instrumentally-rational action reflects the process of rationalization. People use values, however, to channel behavior. For example, they emphasize increasing knowledge, individual autonomy, protecting life, and equal opportunity, among other fundamental moral guides. In such contexts, bureaucracies become the means of administration. Their common objective is to create and enforce rules efficiently, fairly, flexibly, and competently in order for government to operate in the public interest or companies to produce goods and services. In their pure (or ideal type) form, bureaucracies constitute a model of instrumentally-rational action. Ideally, administrators obtain positions based on qualifications, personal and official affairs are kept separate, decision-rules are based on reason and knowledge, and rules are applied uniformly.

In the real world, of course, human beings comprise bureaucracies, which means they do not meet these standards perfectly. For example, corruption occurs and rules are not always applied uniformly—who one knows often makes a difference. Moreover, bureaucratic procedures (following the rules) sometimes become more important than the goals they are designed to achieve—an irrational result. The ideal type, however, provides a point of comparison, a way of evaluating people’s performance in bureaucratic organizations.

Still, Weber was pessimistic about the future. The ability to obtain “objectively valid truths” about both natural and social phenomena has radically increased human understanding and improved people’s lives. But it also stripped the supernatural of its ability to explain the meaning of life. At the same time, Weber showed in The Protestant Ethic that while the religious roots of the spirit of capitalism have died out, Puritanism bequeathed to modern people “an amazingly good, we may even say a pharisaically good, conscience in the acquisition of money” ([1904-1905] 1958a, p. 176). The Puritan, he wrote, wanted to work hard for the glory of God; we are forced to do so. But for what reason? In a disenchanted world, this question becomes hard to answer. In this context, Weber feared, the culture of capitalism, combined with capitalist social, economic, and political institutions, would place people in a bureaucratic “iron cage” from which there might be no escape and for which there is no longer a religious justification. This possibility led to Weber’s last, sad lament: “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (p. 183).


The problem of objectivity remains one of the most vexing in sociology. On the one hand, some reject the goal, arguing that sociology must be politically engaged. Among the classical theorists, both Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim embraced this position, although in quite different ways. Many early American sociologists also held this view and some continue to do so in the twenty-first century. The idea is that an activist discipline can be a force for good, liberating people from oppression. On the other hand, the logic of Weber’s argument suggests that a discipline committed to political change would produce unreliable knowledge and, hence, become politically irrelevant. Many, perhaps most, sociologists agree that the goal of objectivity should animate the discipline, even though its achievement can be difficult.

The “Protestant Ethic” thesis became controversial immediately and remains so today. A typical criticism is that capitalism has existed in some form throughout history. This is correct, but not Weber’s point. He distinguished between the traditional enterprises of a few “adventurer capitalists,” who sought windfall profit sufficient to last a lifetime, and a modern rationalized capitalist economy, which is based on the mass production of consumer goods in an environment where everyone strives to make money as an ethical duty. A more accurate criticism is that Weber missed the existence of functional equivalents to the protestant ethic in other parts of the world, such as China and Japan. This assessment provides a simple example of how the social sciences can be self-correcting. The Protestant Ethic also became important because its logic suggested some of the limitations of Marx’s analysis. Marx argued that political and economic interests guide action. Weber agreed but added that ideas and values function like railroad switchmen: They determine the tracks along which interests push action. For example, people sometimes vote against their economic interests because of their values. In fact, in today’s rationalized world, people lead methodical lives and use reason buttressed by knowledge to achieve their values.

Weber and Marx constitute opposing poles among the classical sociologists. Both were structuralists, emphasizing the importance of understanding the context in which people make decisions. But while Marx posited the existence of historical laws of development in which feudalism led inevitably to capitalism and the latter to communism, Weber replied that history has no direction.

Rather, as it occurs, history is messy and disorderly. Observers see patterns only in retrospect. Capitalism, he pointed out, arose in the West based on a series of unpredictable historical accidents, such as the Protestant Reformation. Both stressed the importance of human decision making, but again in different ways. Marx argued that inequality would increase to unsustainable levels in capitalist societies. In this context, he claimed, alienated people who did not own the means of production would rebel and usher in a new, communal society. Marx was wrong. Writing a half-century later, Weber saw that capitalism combined with industrialization to produce a middle class. He worried instead about the possibility of reason run amok: In a “disenchanted” world, “rationalized” bureaucracies would oppress people, creating conformists without a sense of ethical responsibility.

Although Weber may have been too pessimistic, the historical process of rationalization creates huge dilemmas that are not easily resolved. It is secularizing, thus frustrating a deeply felt human need for what Weber called “theodicies,” ways of understanding and coping with suffering and evil. It is individuating, which leads to a paradox: People come to value both individual autonomy and communal bonds. And it is liberating, as so many areas previously determined by fate become opportunities for choice—by individuals, the state, or both. For example, one of the benefits of modernity is the gift of long life and an increasing ability to control the circumstances of death. In this context, what ethical criteria should individuals use in making end of life decisions? As interest groups offer their competing solutions, how should policy makers evaluate the political, economic, and ethical considerations surrounding this dilemma? The simple answer provided by tradition—thou shall not kill—becomes difficult to maintain when individuals’ right to life must be balanced against their freedom and autonomy. Moral imperatives collide. Weber saw this essential feature of modern capitalist societies perhaps more clearly than any other classical sociologist.

Toward the end of his life, Weber seemed to find release from his psychic wounds.

Marianne reported that his ability to work became steadier and sleep more regular. He began teaching for the first time in more than twenty years, giving two of his most famous lectures: “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation.” He also reworked his explanation of the origins of capitalism and began composing the conceptual map that frames the substantive portions of Economy and Society. During the summer of 1920 Max Weber developed pneumonia. He died on June 14; he was only fifty-six years old.


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