Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Revision Notes)

Weber argued that the values of the protestant religion led to the emergence of Capitalism in Western Europe around the 17th century.

Weber observed that Capitalism first took* off in Holland and England, in the mid 17th century. He asked himself the question: ‘why did Capitalism develop in these two countries first?’

max weber religion.png

Protestant Individualism and the Emergence of Capitalism 

Based on historical observation and analysis, Weber theorized this was because these were the only two countries in which Protestantism was the predominant religion, rather than Catholicism, which was the formal religion of every other European country.

Weber theorized that the different value systems of the two religions had different effects: the values of Protestantism encouraged ways of acting which (unintentionally) resulted in capitalism emerging, over a period of many decades, even centuries.

Protestantism encouraged people to ‘find God for themselves’. Protestantism taught that silent reflection, introspection and prayer were the best ways to find God. This (unintentionally, and over many years) encouraged Protestants to adopt a more ‘individualistic’ attitude to their religion by seeking their own interpretations of Christianity.

In contrast, Catholicism was a religion which encouraged more conservative values and thus was resistant to such changes. The Catholic Church has a top-down structure: from God to the Pope to the Senior Bishops and then down to the people. Ultimate power to interpret Catholic doctrine lies with the Pope and his closest advisers. Practicing Catholics are expected to abide by such interpretations, they are generally not encouraged to interpret religious scripture for themselves. Similarly, part of being a good Catholic means attending mass, which is administered by a member of the Catholic establishment, which reinforces the idea that the church is in control of religious matters, rather than spirituality being a personal matter as is more the case in Protestant traditions.

Part of Weber’s theory of why Capitalism first emerged in Protestant countries was that the more individualistic ethos of Protestantism laid the foundations for a greater sense of individual freedom, and the idea that it was acceptable to challenge ‘top down’ interpretations of Christian doctrine, as laid down by the clergy. Societies which have more individual freedom are more open to social changes.

Calvinist Asceticism and the Development of Capitalism

Weber argued that a particular denomination of Protestantism known as Calvinism played a key role in ushering in the social change of Capitalism.

Calvinism preached the doctrine of predestination: God had basically already decided who was going to heaven (‘the saved) before they were born. Similarly, he had also already decided who the damned were – whether or not you were going to hell had already been decided before your birth.

This fatalistic situation raised the question of how you would know who was saved and who was damned. Fortunately, Calvinism also taught that there was a way of figuring this out: there were indicators which could tell you who was more likely to be saved, and who was more likely to be damned.

Simply put, the harder you worked, and the less time you spent idling and/ or engaged in unproductive, frivolous activities, then the more likely it was that you were one of those pre-chosen for a life in heaven. This is because, according to Calvinist doctrine, God valued hard-work and a ‘pure-life’ non-materialistic life.

According to Weber this led to a situation in which Calvinist communities encouraged work for the glory of God, and discouraged laziness and frivolity. Needless to say there was quite a motivation to stick to these ethical codes, given that hell was the punishment if you didn’t.

Over the decades, this ‘work-ethic’ encouraged individuals and whole communities to set up businesses, and re-invest any money they earned to grow these businesses (because it was a sin to spend the money you’d made on enjoying yourself), which laid the foundations for modern capitalism.

Weber argued that over the following centuries, the norm of working hard and investing in your business became entrenched in European societies, but the old religious ideas withered away. Nonetheless, if we take the longer term view, it was still the Protestant work ethic which was (unintentionally) responsible for the emergence of Capitalism

Evaluations 

On the plus side, Weber’s theory of social change recognizes that we need to take account of individual motivations for action in order to understand massive social structural changes

On the negative side, critics have pointed out that the emergence of Capitalism doesn’t actually correlated that well with Protestantism: there are plenty of historical examples of Capitalist systems having emerged in non-Protestant countries – such as Italian Mercantilism a couple of centuries early.

Find out More

This post is a very brief summary of Max Weber’s theory of religion and social change. For a much more detailed account, including more specific historical details of Calvinism, please see this post (forthcoming!) 

 

*Weber recongized that features of the Capitalist system were present in other parts of Europe previous to the 17th century, but Holland and England were the first societies to really adopt capitalist values at the level of society as a whole, rather than it just existing in relatively isolated pockets.

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Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’ – A Summary of the Preface

It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorcising the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the individual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuous invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a psychological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierarchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most vicious when they are biographical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrases Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrative that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitute society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first. 

The strengths and limitations of covert participant observation

Covert participant observation or ethnography is where the researcher does not reveal that he is actually a researcher.

There are different degrees to which ethnographic research may be covert – fully covert research is where every member of the group being studied believes the researcher to be ‘one of them’ and no one has any idea that the researcher is actually a researcher conducting research.

However, many ‘covert’ studies are actually only partially covert – in some studies researchers may reveal themselves to some participants but not others: Ditton (1977) had to this during her research on ‘fiddling’ in a bakery – she kept making frequent visits to the toilet in order to get off the bakery-line and take field notes about recent, interesting conversations. Some participants became concerned about her and so she had to ‘out’ herself to those people (but not others) so as to maintain her position there.

Some good examples of covert participation include:

  • Lloyd’s (2012) research while employed in a call centre in Middlesborough
  • Pearson’s (2009) research study on football hooligans
  • Matley’s (2006) research on a sex fantasy phone line
  • The BBC (2003) documentary ‘The Secret Policeman’ – investigating police racism. This is journalistic rather than sociological, but just so interesting.
  • Macintyre’s (1999) BBC documentary on football hooligans – again,  journalistic rather than sociological, but it does tie in nicely with Pearson’s research.
  • Patrick’s (1973) study on a violent Glasgow gang
  • Humphries (the one and only): Tea Room Trade.

Advantages of covert participant observation

  • Gaining access, especially to closed groups, is much easier because the researcher does not have to seek permission.
  • Reactivity is not a problem – if respondents are not aware research is taking place, they are less likely to act differently.

Disadvantages of covert participant observation

  • The problem of taking field notes – it is almost impossible to take notes as you go when in a covert role. In his study of football hooligans, Pearson had to take notes as soon after the matches as possible, but admits that much information was probably forgotten.
  • You can’t use other methods – if you’re in a covert role, you have to act as the natives do without raising suspicion, and you can hardly whip our your social survey or start doing probing-interviews, because that’s not normal. (unless you’re researching social researchers who spend their lives researching each other).
  • Stress – the covert researcher is under constant pressure due to having to ‘maintain a front’ (frontstage, if you like) and on top of this has to then record data back-stage – it’s like working two jobs. Add to this the worry of having your cover blown, and the fact that if this happens, the entire project may be down the drain, and that’s a lot of stress.
  • Ethical problems – Covert research does not allow for the participants to give informed consent, because it involves deception. There is also the issue of privacy being violated, and the fact that some researchers may have to engage in criminal acts in order to not blow their cover, as in the case of Pearson’s research with football hooligans.

Related Posts:

Participant Observation in Social Research

Sources:

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods)

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – Strengths and Limitations

Milgram’s obedience experiment is one of the most useful examples to illustrate the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments in psychology/ sociology, as well as revealing the punishingly depressing findings that people are remarkably passive in the face of authority…

This post outlines details of the original experiment and two recent, televised repeats by the BBC (2008) and for Darren Brown’s ‘The Heist’ (2014).

The Original Obedience Experiment (1963)

Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.

The video below is quite long, but you can selectively watch it to get an idea of the procedure (which is outlined below)

Procedure

Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning” (re: ethics: deception). Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.

At the beginning of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, who was actually an associate of the experimenter (Milgram). They drew straws to determine their roles – learner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor.

Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used – one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.

A diagram illustrating the Milgram Experiment

The “learner” was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the “teacher” tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock the experimenter was to give a series of orders / prods to ensure they continued. There were 4 prods and if one was not obeyed then the experimenter read out the next prod, and so on.

  • Prod 1: please continue.
  • Prod 2: the experiment requires you to continue.
  • Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • Prod 4: you have no other choice but to continue.
A respondent administering a shock for a wrong answer

Results

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried out 18 variations of his study. All he did was alter the situation (IV) to see how this affected obedience (DV).

Conclusion

Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.

People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and / or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school and workplace.

Despite the many ethical pitfalls of this experiment, some participants still believed the benefits outweighed the costs – below is the view of one participant…“While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…”

More recent video repeats of the Milgram experiment:

The BBC did a documentary in 2008 in which 12 people were subjected to what seems to be the same experiment, and a similar results found. Vimeo link here.

‘Sorry, that’s the wrong answer, 450 volts’ (giggle)

Darren Brown also did a more recent re-run of the Milgram obedience experiment in order to test people’s responses to authority as part of his 2014 programme ‘The Heist’ – interestingly in this, one participant says they can’t carry on because they’ve heard of the experiment (even though they seem to have started it), while another who hadn’t heard of it comments that they needed more buttons on the shock machine.

Strengths and Limitations of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment

The above experiment illustrates many of the advantages and disadvantages of using laboratory experiments in psychology and sociology.

Some of the obvious advantages include the fact that it’s got excellent reliability, given the similar results gained on the two repeats, and it’s still a useful tool for waking us up to just how quiescent to authority many of us are, challenging theories such as the flight from deference.

It also illustrates many of the limitations of experiments – it is still extremely artificial, not true to real life because authority manifests itself in vastly different ways (as teachers, police and so on, not scientists), and the Hawthorne Effect is very nicely illustrate in the Darren Browne clip above (seriously has not EVERYONE heard of the Milgram experiment by now?!, or is that just my middle class cultural bias?), and then of course, there’s the ethics – Darren Browne actually comments that it took one of the respondents too long to recover from the experiment, so he doesn’t select her for the next stage of ‘The Heist’.

One of the original respondents showing signs of distress

References

Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority, which cites Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram�s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.