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.
For the purposes of A level Sociology we can reduce Weber’s extensive contribution to Sociology to three things:
Max Weber: Three Key Points
- 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).
This final point can be illustrated by a quote from one of his most important works ‘Economy and Society’, first published in the 1920s, in which 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.’
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
In 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.
- Traditional Social Action: actions controlled by traditions, “the way it has always been done”
- Affective Social Action: actions determined by one’s specific affections and emotional state, you do not think about the consequences
- Value Rational Social Action: actions that are determined by a conscious belief in the inherent value of a type of behavior (ex: religion)
- 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 recognized that we need to understand individual meanings to understand how societies change (unlike Marxism)
- Positive – The idea that individual motives can lead to huge structural level changes such as the emergence of Capitalism is especially interesting!
- Negative – Still too much focus on society shaping the individual – symbolic interactionism argues that individuals have more freedom to shape their identities.
- Negative – there might well be more types of motivation than just four types
- Negative – his theory of the emergence of capitalism has been criticized as there is evidence of some forms of capitalism existing BEFORE Protestantism.
Max Weber’s Action Theory is a key social theory usually studies as part of the theory and methods topic for second year sociology.
For an overview of Action theories more generally, including interactionism and labelling theory please see this post which summarises social action theories.
Max Weber’s work is also the basis of the ‘Interpretivism’ part of Positivism versus Interpretivism.
- Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives
- Max Weber: Economy and Society.