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Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

Max Weber (1864-1920) was one of the founding fathers of Sociology. Weber saw both structural and action approaches as necessary to developing a full understanding of society and social change. In one of his most important works ‘Economy and Society’, first published in the 1920s, he said ‘Sociology is a science concerning itself with interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences.’

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Max Weber – NOT a happy bunny

 

For the purposes of A level Sociology we can reduce Weber’s extensive contribution to Sociology to three things – firstly he argued that ‘Verstehen’ or empathatic understanding is crucial to understanding human action and social change, a point which he emphasised in his classic study ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’; secondly, he believed we could make generalisations about the basic types of motivation for human action (there are four basic types) and thirdly, he still argued that structure shaped human action, because certain societies or groups encourage certain general types of motivation (but within these general types, there is a lot of variation possible).

Social Action and Verstehen

Weber argued that before the cause of an action could be ascertained you had to understand the meaning attached to it by the individual. He distinguished between two types of understanding.

First he referred to Aktuelles Verstehen – or direct observational understanding, where you just observe what people are doing. For example, it is possible to observe what people are doing – for example, you can observe someone chopping wood, or you can even ascertain (with reasonable certainty) someone’s emotional state from their body language or facial expression. However, observational understanding alone is not sufficient to explain social action.

The second type of understanding is Eklarendes Verstehen – or Empathetic Understanding – in which sociologists must try to understand the meaning of an act in terms of the motives that have given rise to it. This type of understanding would require you to find out why someone is chopping wood – Are they doing it because they need the firewood, are they just clearing a forest as part of their job, are they working off anger, just doing it because they enjoy it? To achieve this Weber argued that you had to get into the shoes of people doing the activity.

 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

protestant-ethicIn this famous work, Weber argued that a set of religious ideas were responsible for the emergence of Capitalism in Northern Europe in the 16-17th century. Weber argued that we need to understand these ideas and how they made people think about themselves in order to understand the emergence of Capitalism. (NB The emergence of Capitalism is one the most significant social changes in human history)

The video below, from the School of Life, offers a useful summary of Max Weber’s ideas about the emergence of Capitalism

Weber’s Four Types of Action (and types of society)

Max Weber didn’t just believe that individuals shape society – societies encourage certain types of motive for action – for example, the religion of Calvinism encouraged people to save money, which eventually led to capitalism

Weber believes that there are four ideal types of social actions. Ideal types are used as a tool to look at real cases and compare them to the ideal types to see where they fall. No social action is purely just one of the four types.

  1. Traditional Social Action: actions controlled by traditions, “the way it has always been done”
  2. Affective Social Action: actions determined by one’s specific affections and emotional state, you do not think about the consequences
  3. Value Rational Social Action: actions that are determined by a conscious belief in the inherent value of a type of behavior (ex: religion)
  4. Instrumental-Rational Social Action: actions that are carried out to achieve a certain goal, you do something because it leads to a result

To illustrate these different types of action consider someone “going to school” in terms of these four ideal types: Traditionally, one may attend college because her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles have as well. They wish to continue the family tradition and continue with college as well. When relating to affective, one may go to school just because they enjoy learning. They love going to college whether or not it will make them broke. With value rational, one may attend college because it’s a part of his/her religion that everyone must receive the proper education. Therefore, this person attends college for that reason only. Finally, one may go to college because he/she may want an amazing job in the future and in order to get that job, he/she needs a college degree.

Max Weber was particularly interested in the later of these – he believed that modern societies encouraged ‘Instrumental-Action’ – that is we are encouraged to do things in the most efficient way (e.g. driving to work) rather than thinking about whether driving to work is the right thing to do (which would be value-rational action.

Weber believed that modern societies were obsessed with efficiency – modernizing and getting things done, such that questions of ethics, affection and tradition were brushed to one side – this has the consequence of making people miserable and leading to enormous social problems. Weber was actually very depressed about this and had a mental breakdown towards the end of his life.

Evaluations of Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

  • Positive – He recognised that we need to understand individual meanings to understand how societies change (unlike Marxism)
  • Negative – Still too much focus on society shaping the individual – symbolic interactionism argues that individuals have more freedom to shape their identities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why workers aren’t benefiting from the automation of jobs…

The increasing automation of jobs could (should?) result in us all working less – but instead, most of us seem to working just as longer hours as ever, why is this – a little dose of Marxism actually goes a long way to explaining this…

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The automation of jobs – no longer limited to the manufacturing sector

What’s below is taken from the LSE blog (Jan 2015), written by David Spencer….

Technological progress has advanced continuously over the past century, pushing up productivity. But not all the gains in productivity have fed through to shorter work hours. At least in modern times, these gains have been used to increase the returns of the owners of capital, often at the cost of flatlining pay for workers.

The lack of progress in reducing time spent at work in modern capitalist economies reflects instead the influence of ideology as well as of power….

David Graeber makes the provocative claim that technology has advanced at the same time as what he calls “bullshit” or pointless jobs have multiplied. This is why we have not realised Keynes’ prediction that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks in the 21st century, as a result of technological progress.

Instead, we are living in a society where work gets created that is of no social value. The reason for this, according to Graeber, is the need of the ruling class to keep workers in work. While technology with the potential to reduce work time exists, the political challenge of a working population with time on its hands makes the ruling class unwilling to realise this potential. Working less, while feasible and desirable, is blocked by political factors.

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Neoliberalism in India – The Consequences

neoliberalism IndiaA brief summary of part of Arundhati Roy’s ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ – In which she explores some of the consequences of privatisation (part of neoliberalisation) in India.

‘Trickle down hasn’t worked in India, but gush up certainly has’

The era of the privatisation of everything has made the Indian economy one of the fasted growing in the world and most of this wealth has gushed up to India’s Corporate Elite.

In India today, a nation of 1.2 billion people, one hundred people own assets equivalent to 25% of the GDP, while a 300 million strong middle class live among the ghosts of the 250 00 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves and the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed and live on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.

The most egregious expression of this inequality is Antilla, a building on Altamount Road in Mumbai which belongs to India’s richest man Mukesh Ambanni. It is the most expensive dwelling ever built: it has 27 floors, including 6 for parking, 3 helipads, 600 servants and a 27 story vertical wall of grass. Ambanni is worth $20 billion dollars and his company, Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) has a market capitalisation of $47 billion.

Antilla Mumba

Ambanni’s RIL Corporation is one of a handful which run India, some of the others being Tata and Vedanta, the later of which are truly global in scope – Tata, for example, runs more than one hundred companies in 80 countries.

The consequence of this concentration of wealth, is an increase in corruption, or as Roy puts it – ‘As gush up continues, so more money flows through the institutions of government’. As an example, in 2011, a corrupt minister of communications and information undervalued 2G phone licences by $40 billion dollars, to the benefit of the telecommunications companies which now profit from them, effectively costing Indian taxpayers $40 billion of revenue.

How the Elite in India Benefit from Neoliberal Policies

The way this typically works is that a corrupt government official signs a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU) with a Corporation which privatises a chunk of publicly owned land, giving that corporation the right to use that land to establish a business – this either takes the form of mining the raw materials from under the land, or establishing a range of other projects such as Agribusinesses, Special Economic Zones, Dams, and even Formula One racing circuits.

Taxes are typically kept very low in these deals – often sow low in that local people see little of the financial benefit of the new business.

Chhattisgarh
Chhattisgarh

This is especially true were mining is concerned. In 2005, for example, the state governments of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding with private corporations, turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance – royalties (effectively taxes) ranged from 0.5% to 7%, with the companies allowed to keep up to 99% of the revenue gained from these resources. (Allowing people like Ambanni to build their 27 story houses, rather than the money being used for food for the majority of the Indian population.)

In a third strand of Neoliberal policy, companies are subjected to very little regulation. It seems that they are allowed to develop their projects without protecting the environment or paying any compensation to people who are negatively affected by these projects, as indicated in the case study below:

Tata Steel in Chhattisgarh, North East India

Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU with Tata Steel, a vigilante militia was established (known as the Salwa Judum). Organised by the state government and funded by Tata Steel the Salwa Judum initiated a ground clearance operation to eradicate the local forest peoples so Tata could set up its steel plant.

The Salwa Judum
The Salwa Judum

The Salwa Judum burned, raped and murdered its way through 600 local villages forcing 50 000 people into police camps and displacing a further 350 000. To keep these displaced persons in check, the government then deployed 200 000 paramilitary troops to the region to make sure that it remained a stable climate for investment and economic growth.

An Adivasi (local tribal group) protest
An Adivasi (local tribal group) protest

According to Roy the government has labelled these people ‘Maoist Rebels’, but in reality they are just displaced peoples.

Find out More

Corporate Watch – Stolen for Steel: Tata takes Tribal Land in India

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Eight Reasons Why We Should All be Marxists

The third of three posts on Marxism for A2 Sociological Perspectives – Arguments and evidence for the continued relevance of Marxism 

Contemporary Marxists argues that Marxist analysis is still relevant to an understanding of modern society. A considerable amount of contemporary Marxist thought focuses on how Capitalism has become globalised and emphasises the injustices of the global capitalist system; another strand of contemporary Marxist theory focuses on how the values of capitalism (in the form of ‘neo-liberal hegemony’) have penetrated Western culture to the detriment of us all.

You might like to think about what Marxist concepts are illustrated by these cartoons

  1. Some Sociologists argue that a class based analysis of global society is still relevant.

Leslie Sklaire argues that recent decades have seen the emergence of a ‘Transnational Capitalist Class’. These are the leaders of global corporations, certain politicians and their bureaucrats who control billions of dollars of assets and financial flows. They wield their power through undemocratic international economic institutions such as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund and the G20. These institutions were established after World War Two to help co-ordinate the expanding global economy and facilitate redevelopment after the war. However, many left wing theorists such as Joseph Stiglitz argue that since the 1970s these institutions have forced dozens of developing countries to adopt neo-liberal economic policies. Neo-Liberal policies include such things as privatising public services, cutting taxes and regulating industry less, thus allowing Transnational Corporations to open sweat shops, pollute local areas, and take all the profits away without giving very much back. The basic idea here is that the global economy is run by Corporations and Politicians for the benefit of Corporations and their high powered political supporters (One of whom is ‘Gideon’ Osborn)

  1. There is considerable evidence that exploitation still lies at the heart of the Capitalist system.

Corporations are frequently criticised for exploiting workers and the environment – through sweatshop labour and pollution, where they can get away with it. Some of the most obvious examples include Shell and oil pollution in Nigeria; Coke’s legacy of draining water local water supplies in India to produce Coke, which results in drought in local areas and Apple’s use of sweatshops in China to produce the ipad.

  1. There is some evidence that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.

Marxist Theory is still relevant because…. There is some evidence that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.

I should just point out that the point of this post is to provide soundbites that you can use in an exam (or an arguement with a Tory supporter of the neo-liberal state apparatus) rather than a comprehensive or balanced account of evidence for or against (the variety of) Marxist theory.

Evidence of Elite control over the government

By far the best example of state putting the interests of Capital before the interests of the majority of people is how the government has responded to the present ‘economic crisis’. 

Simply put, the state is making the poor pay for the economic problems caused by the Transnational Capitalist Class. The average guy on the street is getting poorer while the rich are still getting richer! Consider also the recent case of Ireland, where the minimum wage is being cut by one euro, VAT is being increase, and public sector jobs axed, while Corporation Tax remains at an incredibly low 12.5%  

Getting back to the cuts in Britain, this is no surprise if you actually look at the characteristics of those who make up the cabinet and the wider Tory Party; you actually find that many of them are themselves extremely wealthy. The prime minister, deputy prime minister and Chancellor are all millionaires – They are the Transnational Capitalist Class – and they are hardly likely to hurt themselves.

Evidence of Elite control over the Criminal Justice System

Another example of the elite class having control over the superstructure lies in the differential treatment of white collar crime and street crime. Even though White Collar Crime costs more to the economy than street crime, White Collar Criminals are still less likely to get punished. According to Tombs and Whyte, this is partly because the government invests fewer resources into investigating fraud and health and safety crimes (the types of crime Corporations are most likely to be guilty of) than it does into working class street crime.

Evidence of Elite Control over the mainstream Media

Greg Philo argues that it is simply crazy it is that the agenda in the media is about ‘what services should the government cut’ rather than ’should we tax the wealthy or make cuts.[1] Philo points[2] out that there are other solutions to the current economic crisis – there is enough property wealth in the country – we could just take it off them, but the government is making the average man on the street pay instead. In his film, 

Evidence of Elite Control of the Education system

Evidence for elite control of the education system lies in the fact that if you are wealthy, you can buy your children a private education, which gives them a much greater chance of getting into a top university and high getting a highly paid, prestigious job.  The statistics make for extremely uncomfortable reading… Intelligent children from the 20% of richest homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%’.Looked at another way, of 80,000 15-year-olds who’d been on free school meals in 2002, only 45 had made it to Oxbridge- compared to the high-end private Westminster school which averages 82 successful applicants every year.[3]

People from upper middle class, public school backgrounds dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships, most importantly through our attendance at the top universities, we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, shows that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools.’[4]

  1. There is evidence that we are still under ideological control – but we don’t realise it.

Antonio Gramsci, A humanist Marxist writing in the early twentieth century first pointed out that what he called ‘Hegemonic Control’ plays an ever important role in advanced Capitalist societies. Hegemonic control occurs when the intellectual and moral leadership provided by the dominant class provides the fundamental outlook for the whole of society.

Greg Philo points to one very good recent example of this in recent years – the fact that we are so willing to accept cuts to public services when the richest ten percent of the country own so much wealth that if we just took one fifth of their wealth we would clear the national deficit, yet this idea doesn’t not even appear in the media. Agenda Setting has removed it and so we do not even consider it.

  1. Capitalism is kept going by creating ‘false needs’

Successful companies today spend billions on advertising campaigns to convince us that we need the products that they make. Looked at objectively much of what we buy we don’t need, yet the Capitalist class invests billions convincing us to buy things that we do not need.

Worse that ideological control – More generally, numerous Sociologists such as Richard Wilkinson and David Garland point out that the more unequal a country, and the more a country has adopted neo-liberal policies – the higher the prison population. It would appear that the closer a country is to ‘pure capitalism’ the more punitive the elite class is.

  1. Alienation and Commodity Fetishism

We in west have become so obsessed with consumer culture that we end up defining ourselves through the products we consume, and how we ‘pick and mix them’ (this means fashion, holidays, houses, cars, mobile phones). From a Marxist point of view this is incredibly shallow – Marx believed that we are only fully human when we are fully engaged with the political and economic processes of our society. From the Marxist point of view, Capitalism just encourages us to be childlike and define ourselves through our styles and our hobbies and to forget about politics and economics. In the truest sense we are alienated from our productive base while our identities become more and more dependent on material goods.

  1. David Harvey argues that economic crises are inherent to the Capitalist system and that in recent years these crises have become more severe and more frequent.

Harvey argues that any sane person should join an anti-capitalist movement because the root problems of Capitalism are the same as they were in Marx’s day – click here for his analysis of the problems of Modern Capitalism

  1. Capitalist exploitation is so bad in some parts of the world that there is vehement resistance to it – especially in Latin America – President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example, perceives himself as an anti-Capitalist, as do many people of Latin America. The Zapatistas in Mexico is another good example and the World Development Movement also has Marxist undertones.

  • See the first 20 mins or so of John Pilger’s ‘War on Democracy’ to here Hugo Chavez talk in Marxist terms – on stream

  1. Although you don’t see it in the media there are tens of thousands of people who call themselves Communists and who sympathise with Marxism and the wider anti-capitalist movement. Left Wing criticisms and the anti-capitalist movement are still very much alive today.

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Eight Criticisms of Traditional Marxism