Max Weber, one of sociology’s seminal figures, drew from great thinkers of the past, the histories of civilizations, jurisprudence, the arts, psychology and philosophy. Out of this cloth, he fashioned a radically new set of guiding principles, a new view of the world, an explanatory model of human progression and civilization based on rationalism and a unique view of causality. Phin Upham discusses some of his great works.
Max Weber’s theories do more than simply present a new model with great explanatory power; rather, their contribution can be seen as deeper. His methodology of investigation place a new importance on ideas, the individual, and context. Whether a tension exists between his “historical” and his implicit view of increasing “rationalism” is an interesting question. Second, his focus on the structural interrelation between classes (i.e. his special conception of classes), people, and cultures is particularly fruitful. Modern thinkers, from modern thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama in “The End of History” to the sociologist George Simmel, to name but two, have continued to draw heavily on Weber to in order to understand the modern world and the modern condition. Indeed, Weber’s own extensive knowledge of past history and past societies played a crucial role in his work. He would be pleased to know, then, that his own writing has become a slab upon which future thinkers will tread for many years. In his vein, Weber’s sociology has become of the most useful and prescient explanatory paradigm of the modern world – indeed we do live in a world of bureaucracies, which do enjoy almost all of the advantages over other forms of social ordering Weber mentions, such as expertise and technology.
Weber’s does more than simply describe the world, in Economy and Society (E&S), and often in his other works, he parses it into its logical constituents. Most famously, he differentiates between the three forms of legitimate domination Rational (legal) grounds, Traditional grounds, and Charismatic grounds. He continues this subtle differentiation by constructing “ideal types” which at first glance seem disturbingly similar to questionable Platonic forms at first glance but turn out to be very different. While ideal forms are the true underlying nature of things in the world (and ideas), Weberian Ideal Forms can be better thought of as small logical units which will (usually) be the building blocks of any larger unit. The logic here is not transcendental, but rather thoroughly pragmatic. There is a logical structure to certain aspects of human organization and ideas. Structure, for example, implies hierarchy, or at least there is good reason to believe that without Herculean manipulation certain relationships will hold. Weber’s delineation of the three types of grounds for domination serves as superlative examples of this method. When discussing the pure type of Legal Authority, for example, he begins by describing the necessary and insufficient basis upon which Legal Authority rests. Point 4, for example, asserts that a person who obeys authority of the type constitutes a “member” and follows it as an abstract rule in association with an organization. Weber goes on to construct 8 categories of legal Authority and then 9 criteria how officials within an organization function.
Later he describes Status Groups and Classes, which he defines very differently than his predecessors do. This difference is illuminating to Weber’s basic methodology. While the previous champion (though not by any means the originator) of classes was Karl Marx who thought of classes primarily as a struggle between those who owned the mean of production and those who did not. Weber, characteristically, differentiated between those who lent capital and those who borrowed capital, as well as between buyers and sellers (Collins 86). Furthermore, Weber’s model was one which paid more attention to the structure of society and subsequent divergent interests of each group than Marx. In both Marx and Weber, conflict, specifically conflicting group and individual interests play a large role. An underlying assumption to this is that everyone who is structurally similar to each other has the same basic goals and desires such that their interests, in general, align. So, for Weber, structure was an important determinant (or at least factor) of attitude/behavior.
I have never fully teased out to my satisfaction Weber’s broader attitudes toward history and the dialectic. As a building block, he clearly knows a tremendous amount about history, not only in his own culture but also in other cultures from Asia to Africa to Early European to Greek and Roman history. It is from is insights into what was going on at these points and what sorts of situations have occurred at various times, cultures, and places that he draws much of his speculation about Ideal types and many of his differentiations. So he neatly translated the empirical to the theoretical and then maps the theoretical back onto the world. But what is attitude about the progression of history?
On one hand he seems too committed to the idiosyncrasies of Ideas (which he takes as much more central than Marx does) to be a determinist – after all, he would claim that the protestant ethic of America would not have existed without a specific event in history (persecution of protestants) which overlapped with a historical oddity (a new “uninhabited” continent) which in turn coincided with the particularities of Protestant thought (a sort of odd form of predestination and its subsequent misunderstandings and consequences). But given this, how does he simultaneously affirm in his conclusion that ‘Bureaucracy has a ‘rational’ character [which has generated results] … as had the advance of rationalism in general. The march of bureaucracy accordingly destroyed structures of domination which were not rational in this sense of the term” (E&S). His intensions in conducting this study were, after all, to explain how the modern world got to where it is, i.e. how modern institutions became what they are.
Geertz’s Peddlers and Princes and Dore’s British Factories-Japanese Factories both illustrate, though this is only one of their central points, that at least somewhat different systems (given different structural conditions) are possible. It does not tax the imagination to imagine even more radical differences in order – or does it? On one level Weber accepts that the specific way domination and bureaucracy is structured is relative, but on another he asserts a general march of rationality… how can we synthesis these two levels? One way is to use the Marxist trick used to synthesize the difference between class interests and the interests of the individuals in each class. Collins points out that Marx might also agree that though individuals in any class might not be aware of their class’s interest, the class as a whole would inevitably be for their won best interest. How this works, exactly, is a mystery but it is not all that different from Adam Smith’s assertion that the invisible hand will institute a sort of law-of-one price under the right conditions to a market regardless of the beliefs, opinions, or wishes of any buyer or seller.
It seems Weber believed that the specific manifestation of the march of rationality might be different and the specific ideal types (building blocks) might be different, but just as nature often forms the same patterns in its snowflakes, and animals with different genetic make-ups converge to one niche-function; i.e. society has a pressure, a tendency, toward rationalization. And though it may have slipped and warbled at times, this pressure would slowly but surely lead to a bureaucracy and an ordered society based on the principles of hierarchy, legitimacy, etc. Simmel, who seems to be a Sociologist of an inferior methodological caliber than Weber took this point to its extreme by taking Weber’s structural claims to the atomic level and analyzing the intrinsic and extrinsic nature of dyads, triads, and groups – relationships that were necessarily derived the structure.
Randall Collins, Four Sociological Traditions, Chapter 1: The Conflict Tradition. Make sure you understand the pages on Marx so as to better assess Weber.
Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press,  1978): Types of legitimate domination (pp.212-254); Status groups and classes (pp. 302-307); Class, status, and party (pp. 926-940); Bureaucracy (pp.956-1005).
Randall Collins, “The Weberian Causal Chain” (one-page figure), in Mark Granovetter and Richard Swedberg, eds.,The Sociology of Economic Life (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992), p. 92.
Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950), pp. 87-104, 118-169.
Mauro F. Guillén, The Comparative Approach to Economic Sociology, Chapter 2.
Phin Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.