Describe Weber's theory of social change.

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lizedwards's profile pic

lizedwards | College Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Social change is any wide alteration or shift in an existing social structure. Weber proposed that social change happens as a result of both ripe climate and charismatic leadership. Weber was very interested in the relationship between religion and social change. He did not think religion could be solely responsible for social change; he believed that religion created a prime environment for social change, but a charismatic leader had to be present to spearhead that change. 

Central to Weber's social philosophy is the concept of rationalization. Rationalization is broadly described as a movement away from emotion-based motivations toward reason-based motivations. Weber believed that the social shift toward rationalism was inevitable. This general momentum toward rationality contributes to creating a cultural climate that is ripe for change, so long as that change is in the direction toward social agreements that are based in reason.

Weber's conception of social status is also central to his idea of how social change can be effected. Weber conceptualized social structure in a theory known as Three-Component Stratification. According to the Weberian triumvirate system, there are three forms of social currency that interplay to determine a person's status within a community: wealth, prestige, and power. The extent to which a person possesses and exercises these dimensions of power determines their social status. A charismatic leader, for example, may exercise their prestige and power to motivate communities and effect widespread social change. Any social change, according to Weber, would be a result of individuals exercising their social status in any of those three dimensions. 


pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For Weber, social change was not simply something that came about because of class conflict.  His theory of social change is meant as a challenge to this sort of Marxian analysis.  Instead, Weber argued that social change could come about in two main ways.

First, it could come about purposefully.  This would happen when people's understanding of the world changed and they then tried to change society to match.  An example of this would be Weber's idea that the Protestant Reformation helped lead to the creation of true capitalism.

Second, it could come about accidentally.  Here, Weber was saying that things such as wars could have major impacts on society even though the people fighting the war had no intention of causing such change to occur.