4.3 Max Weber

Sociological Thinkers: Max Weber - Social action, ideal types, authority, bureaucracy, protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

Table of contents

Social Action

According to Weber, sociology as a science is concerned with interpretive understanding of social action.

An action occurs when the acting individual attaches meaning to his behaviour, be it c/overt. Any action is social if its subjective meaning takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course. No objective meanings exist in the world. Meaning is found only in the consciousness of the individual and action (as a subjectively understandable orientation) exists only as a behaviour of one or more individuals.

Weber was supportive of using the positive science method, but maintained that in the study of society explanations must be causally and meaningfully adequate. Thus, Weber said that while generalisations were possible, they would only be limited generalisations.

Weber then defined the four basic types of social action (ideal type). While doing this he maintained that reality was infinitely complex, but these four are the building blocks of all social action. The types:

  1. Goal-Rational Action. Oriented towards practical goals, means chosen for efficiency.
  2. Value-Rational Action. Goals not rationally chosen, means chosen for efficiency.
  3. Traditional Action. Aim is to maintain continuity with the past.
  4. Affective Action. Sole meaning is to express emotions. A cathartic release.
    Weber said that social action is the subject of sociology. Here social action is seen as socially guided individual initiative. A balanced view.

Theodore Abel later said that social action could be understood as:


Weber’s methodology consisted of 4 elements:

Verstehen (Interpretive understanding)Build an empathetic link with the actor and develop a sequence of motives in order to trace the course and effect of social action. In this way sociological explanation would be causally and meaningfully adequate. With this method Weber provides a solution to the structure vs. agency debate as this method is applicable to both macro and micro studies. There are two steps for application of this method:

  • Direct observational understanding.
  • Sociologist looks at social phenomenon from the outside and attributes natural meanings to what is observed.
  • Understanding motives/assigned meanings.
  • This involves establishing an empathetic link with the actor in order to interpret the meaning and motives that might have driven the actor. Weber said you don't need to be a Caesar to understand Caesar.

Ideal Type

It is a mental construct which is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more PoVs and the synthesis of many diffused, discrete or concrete individual phenomena arranged into a unified analytical construct. Ex. Marx’s class society, Weber’s 4 types of social actions etc.

Causal Pluralism

Weber understood that mono-causal explanations were strictly ideal type in nature, thus inherently incomplete.

Value Neutrality

Weber said that pursuit of sociological knowledge should not be biased by the values of the sociologist. Even though the choice of topic may be value guided but the sociologist must maintain value neutrality towards data and interpretation of the data.Steps for being value neutral:

  • Avoid ideological assumptions if possible, otherwise be value frank.
  • Avoid evaluative judgement on data.
  • Indifference to moral implications of research.
  • Research should not be done to propagate personal values.

In addition, value neutrality refers to the dis-junction between facts and values. Weber says it's impossible to derive moral truths from empirical observations. An empirical science cannot be a moral science. As in, it can never advise anyone what he should do though it may help him to clarify for himself what he can or wants to do.


  • Weber’s application of Verstehen in his study of Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was similar to Durkheim’s social determinism. Anthony Giddens and Kalberg clarified this by saying that Weber wanted to include both macro and micro level studies under this method.
  • Parsons criticised ideal types by saying that while the idea was valid, the implementation was lacking. Parsons said that Weber’s ideal type would cause formation of multiple ideal types of the same object without lending a complete understanding i.e. it would lead to type atomism. Parsons suggested that ideal types must emerge from a single general theory.
  • Many sociologist have commented on the utility of value guided research in gaining new insights. Value neutrality makes the sociologist a mere observer and thus unable to guide the social process in any meaningful way. Ex. Alvin Gouldner and reflexive sociology as moral sociology.

Protestant Ethics & the Spirit of Capitalism

By the late 19th century protestant reformation and capitalism were widely held to be co-related as most Protestants were rich and Catholics poor.

Protestant Ethic: good, hard work and an ascetic life were part of the teachings. Money earned was usually reinvested, favouring early capitalists.Catholic Ethic: charity and rituals formed the dogma, not hard work. They were opposed to earning profits and interest and thus, against early capitalism.

Weber noted:

  • Capital accumulation had taken place in many societies. Babylon, China, and India, all witnessed emergent economic conditions for rise of capitalism.
  • But these countries did not receive the stimulus of protestant reformation and thus capitalism did not develop there.
  • Capitalism developed as protestant ethic legitimised the profit motive. It extolled virtues of hard work seeing it as a service to God and laziness was seen as a sin.

Thus, Weber gained an observational understanding, but had no causal explanation yet i.e. how did a religious belief lead to change in a socioeconomic system. Weber looked into various books on protestant ethics (He considered Ben Franklin to be the ideal protestant-capitalist) and built an ideal type.
Ideal Type of Protestant EthosEvidence of link between protestant ethos and capitalism were found in the teachings of Calvinism, Beatist Church, and Methodist Churches. Weber picked the doctrine of predestination as porposed by John Calvin.

  • Doctrine for Catholics: man born in sin of Adam & Eve. Can gain salvation through prayers of priests.
  • Doctrine for Protestants: Salvation is pre-ordained. Actions on earth cannot change it. Either damned or elected by god.
    Calvin gave the idea that:
  • God is all knowing and omniscient, thus man's salvation/damnation is preordained.
  • Start with assumption of salvation.
  • Look for signs of salvation: positive attitude.
  • God’s decision can’t be changed so treat your life as a god given duty.
  • Purpose: to demonstrate the glory of god in life is to work hard in whatever you do.
  • If you succeed, it is proof of salvation as God would not give success to the damned.

From this Weber ascertained that the above led to a mind-set of hard work, risk friendliness (God’s chosen cannot fail), efficient work, frugal life, disciplined living, and considering idleness a sin. Thus, a new entrepreneurial mind-set is born which is the spirit of capitalism (ideal type of capitalism).
Weber thus connected the ideal types of capitalism and Calvinism. This was one of his macro studies. He tried to generalise the study and to do so he compared various world religions. He classified them as:

Asceticism: man as instrument of God’s will. Discipline directed towards sanctity of religion.Mysticism: man as a vassal of God. Effort is directed to become godlike.

WAE: justifies goals of the world.

WRE: this world is considered an illusion.

Citing causal pluralism, Weber provided further causes of capitalism:

  • Institution of private property.
  • Technological change.
  • Market economy.
  • Wage/contractual labour.
  • Universal legal system.He says that the protestant ethos was only one of the many contributory causes that led to the rise of capitalism.


  • Marx says social change driven by changes in the economic base.
  • Durkheim says change driven by material needs, shift from mechanical to organic solidarity.
  • Werner Sombart: combined Marx and Weber. Ideology and structure both contribute. Ex. the jewish people being socially ostracised tried to gain legitimacy by wealth.
  • Andre Gunder Frank: Capitalist economies acquired wealth at the cost of the colonies. Dependency theory.
  • Weber explained only the supply side of the situation with the hardworking, reinvesting protestants. For growth, demand would have to grow as well. Thus, Weber only explained early capitalism, later capitalism was driven by hedonistic ethos.
  • RH Tony: capitalism first emerged in England where people were not Calvinists but Puritans. Thus, Weber just took an example to connect two ideal types. Supporters of Weber said that this was a narrow interpretation of his work. Protestant ethic as constructed by Weber was only an ideal type.

Authority / Domination

According to Weber, power is a zero sum game.“Power refers to the chance of an individual or a group to realise its will through communal action even in the face of resistance by others.” This is also known as the conflict view of power. It assumes that people in society have opposing goals.

When those on whom power is exercised come to see it as just/right, then power acquires legitimacy. Legitimate power is called authority/domination. When power is seen to be illegitimate then it is known as coercion.

The manner in which legitimacy is acquired determines the type of authority. There are three types according to Weber:Legal-Rational Domination. (based on goal-rational action)

  • Present in modern rational societies where rational actions predominate.
  • In accordance with rational laws. Institutional form of goal rational action.
  • Ideal type: Bureaucracy.

Charismatic Domination. (based on value-rational action)

  • Develops around a leader's charisma. Leader has extraordinary qualities and people feel duty bound to obey.
  • Usually develops in crisis situations. Administrative staff consists of people with shared charisma. Ex Lenin had Stalin and Trotsky. Mao had Zhou Enlai. Gandhi had Nehru and Patel.
  • Charismatic authority plays an important role for dramatic change in society.
  • Charisma operates in the realm of ideals and is by nature an unstable temporary phenomena.
  • If leader succeeds, there arises the need to routinize day to day functioning. Charisma no longer necessary.
  • If leader fails, loss of faith in charisma. Death of a charismatic leader also leads to discontinuity.

Traditional Domination. (based on traditional action)

  • Present in societies where traditional actions predominate.
  • The basis of authority is conformity with traditions. Ex. Khap panchayat


Weber further developed the ideal type of rational-legal authority i.e. the bureaucracy. He listed the features of a bureaucracy as:

  • Work is organised in the form of offices. Thus, work is called official duty.
  • Officials exist in a hierarchy. Information flows up and orders flow down the chain.
  • Orders are legitimate because they are based on an agreed set of abstract rules.
  • Bureaucrats function with formalistic impersonality. (Weber’s value neutrality)
  • Recruitment is on the basis of technical competence and rational rewards are in place.
  • Clear demarcation of personal and professional competencies.
  • Work in a bureaucracy constitutes a full-time career.

Weber pointed out that a bureaucracy in an industrial society is the most efficient way of achieving large scale goals. Efficient because of technical recruitment and rational rules.

Weber also pointed out the following limitations of a bureaucracy:

  • Due to being rule bound the bureaucracy may become insensitive to public needs and thus should be subordinated to an elected political head.
  • Bureaucrats have no initiative for creativity. Always bound by rules. Rules can become ends in themselves rather than means of organising labour.
  • Bureaucrats are status-quoist by design. (Due to following set rules)
  • Bureaucrats trapped in an iron cage, a metaphysical pathos, as they have no personal beliefs and thus, encounter meaninglessness.

Weber said that society was moving from traditional authority to goal rational authority as bureaucracy was the most efficient way to organise work in an industrial society. Weber defined rationality in terms of calculability, methodical behaviour and reflexivity.


  • Jurgen Habermas: a legitimation crisis, an identity crisis that results from loss of confidence in administrative institutions despite the fact that they still retain legal authority to govern. Weber confused legality with legitimacy.
  • Weber claimed that bureaucracy is the most efficient way. Merton said that it is efficient only if routine tasks are performed. Not efficient in case of irregular/emergency situations.
  • Alvin Gouldner: study of gypsum plant, found that formalistic structures did not always increase efficiency. Efficiency can be improved by informal structures too. Three types of bureaucracy:
  • Mock bureaucracy. Imposed from above and both management and workers are ambivalent towards it. Followed loosely at best as it is in the interests of neither the workers nor the management.
  • Representative bureaucracy. Self imposed by agreement between workers and management on fair output and wages. Followed in spirit by both and any deviation is punished by social exclusion due to the basis of this bureaucracy in mutual agreement.
  • Punishment centered bureaucracy. Imposed by management without consultation with the workers. Strict punishments are enforced on flouting of rules. Can be detrimental to work as workers actively look for loopholes in the rules and skirt them.
  • Weber talked about subordination of bureaucracy to political heads, this has not always been successful. Ex. Yes, Minister! a satirical comedy and failure of land reforms in India post-independence.

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