Max Weber: Religious Ideals & the Capitalist Society Research Paper Starter

Max Weber: Religious Ideals & the Capitalist Society

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Max Weber was a twentieth-century sociologist whose doctrines on capitalism and religion significantly contrasted with the established socialist ideals set forth by his predecessor, Karl Marx. To communicate his theories, Weber created the concept of an ideal type, or the reduction of generalized traits that large groups of people possess into a sole representation. Weber favored entities that were rational in nature: rational music, rational personality traits, rational timeframes (e.g., the Industrial Revolution), and rational governing principles served as the foundation within each of his models. One of Weber's most significant contributions was captured in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which focused on the belief that the integration of hard work and an abstemious frame of mind were indicators of a favorable, predestined outlook. Hence, the "Puritan work ethic," which initially served to infuse Calvinists with the belief that they were headed for eternal salvation, was coupled to a modern capitalist framework.

Keywords Asceticism; Bureaucracy; Calvinism; Capitalism; Charismatic Domination; Ideal Type; Patrimonialism; Predestination; Rationalization

Max Weber: Religious Ideals


Max Weber was a German sociologist who generated thought-provoking analyses on politics, religion, and economics (Andreski, 1983; Bendix, 1960; Collins, 1986; Holton & Turner, 1989; Miller, 1963; Mitzman, 1969; Poggi, 1983; Swedberg, 1998; Turner, 2000). Weber wrote extensively on world religions and touched upon the fiscal elements that shaped their existence, including those in the East such as Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism (Bennion, 1992; Matin-Asgari, 2004; Zagoria, 1997), which he generally regarded as mystical and lacking in fundamental rationality. Conversely, in Western teachings, Weber valued the determination and diligence in Judaism (Fishman & Goldschmidt, 1990; Sacks, 1999), although he ruthlessly labeled the Jews as "pariah people" and thus only capable of achieving "pariah capitalism" (Barbalet, 2005; Derks, 1999; Momigliano, 1980). The emphasis of this article, however, surrounds the merger between capitalism and religion that was conveyed through The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a thesis written in 1905 for which Weber received both reverence and denigration (Kaelber, 2002; Molnar, 1997; Stark, 1966; Whimster, 2007). This piece of work was written at the outset of what was considered to be Weber's "dark years," a six-year time span during which he sank into the depths of depression following the death of his father, and through which he was academically and professionally immobile.

The Ideal Type

Weber coined the phrase ideal type to refer to mutual traits surrounding actions, groups of people, or a social phenomenon (Bruun, 2001; Weinert, 1996; Zouboulakis, 2001). Regarding religion, the ideal type would apply to the prototypical Jew, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim within each faith. The ideal type is not representative of any actual person from each respective religion, per se, but symbolizes the generalized essence that people collectively possess by narrowing down essential traits into a singular composite figure. Counterintuitive to its namesake, an ideal type does not signify a supreme, upright, and honorable archetype; ideal types also exist to represent roles that are scandalous in nature, as demonstrated by ideal types that correspond with the thief, the prostitute, and the drug addict. Nevertheless, the ideal type is rational, in that it harnesses a person's fundamental group attributes into a linear framework, which can help dictate behavioral norms across various situations. The ideal type provides a paradigm for people to structure behavior with lucid precision, because in actuality, life is muddled and unsystematic, and the ideal type functions as a semblance of consistency that enables people to navigate through a sea of disorganization. Weber illustrates the importance of upholding an ideal type:

To understand how a war is conducted, it is necessary to imagine an ideal commander-in-chief for each side-even though not explicitly or in detailed form. Each of these commanders must know the total fighting resources of each side and all the possibilities arising there-from of attaining the concretely unambiguous goal, namely, the destruction of the enemy's military power. On the basis of this knowledge, they must act entirely without error and in a logically "perfect" way. For only then can the consequences of the fact that the real commanders neither had the knowledge nor were they free from error, and that they were not purely rational thinking machines, be unambiguously established (as cited in Sadri, 1992, p. 6).


Of tremendous importance is Weber's notion of rationalization (Oakes, 2003; Cockerham, Abel & Luschen, 1993; Wallace, 1990; Wilson, 2002), a concept that he consistently wove into his theories, which, depending on contextual forces surrounding the reference, may bear a slightly different meaning. For example, he specifies artistic components that differentiate "rational" vs. "irrational" music (Feher, 1987), in addition to endorsing rationality as a dominant and indispensable cornerstone within society. Features defining that which is rational include consistency; action-oriented behavior; predictable, systematic, and directional outcomes; the exertion of willpower; and the exclusion of magical or superstitious ideologies (Angus, 1983). Weber felt that as each of the world religions adopted more rational characteristics, they inherently became more distinct from each other, since the process of rationalization entails the refinement of systematic rules and regulations that constitute group identity, and which erect distinguishing mechanisms that are discordant from counter religions. Thus, intrareligious rationality equates with interreligious conflict. Additionally, Weber surmised that the tenets of rational religion also conflict with other established groups, such as the "family" group. This is evidenced, in part, by provisional stipulations among reputable religious roles (e.g., monks & priests) that are expected to bypass sexual and procreative desires in order to channel their energies into religious conviction.


During the time frame in which Weber proposed many of his theories, all of Europe was undergoing tremendous economic transition, which served as a platform for him to compare different societal underpinnings. In particular, he determined that traditional societies (Inglehart & Baker, 2000) were those that were drawn to sentimental and romanticized notions of established, time-honored routines, which tended to be habitual norms passed continually throughout the generations. Weber favored the lifestyle and progressive nature of rational cultures, which utilized innovative technological advancements, logic, and intellectually sound standards of modality. The process of transitioning from a traditional society to that which is rational includes a period of disenchantment (MacKinnon, 2001; Schroeder, 1995), from which one distances oneself from sentimentality and familiar patterns.

The Industrial Revolution

Additionally, the rise of the Industrial Revolution (Knox & Schacht, 2008; Mastel, 2008) was another societal trend that Weber cited as a rational period in time, and the innovative norms that emerged during the Industrial Revolution ameliorated the incorporation of rationality into his theoretical models. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families thrived based on the abundance of agricultural products from the farm. The pre-industrial era consisted of a collectivist society, in that individual ambitions and desires were deemed secondary to family demands, and enmeshed personal and professional family investments were expressed through the long hours of labor extended toward the farms on which they resided. In this period, the continuation of the family rested on an ability for equitable collaboration toward mutual farm-related commodities.

Industrialization, which began in the late eighteenth century and accelerated throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, relied on the advent of technological, factory-oriented machinery, brought about the eventual arrival of mechanized transportation, and introduced mandatory regulations that required children to receive education outside of the home. These innovations commanded that parents separate from each other throughout the workday in order to engage in individual work responsibilities, with offsite supervisory standards serving to regulate behavior (e.g., job duties, hours of operation), while the children studied a formalized curriculum at neighborhood schoolhouses. Weber viewed such a societal shift as rational and as a contribution to capitalistic ideals.


Weber published extensively on the concept of power and elaborated on three categorical forces that defined the utilization of leadership:

• Legal domination,

• Traditional domination, and

• Charismatic domination (Pfaff, 2002; Poggi, 1988; Steffek, 2003; Thomas, 1984).

According to Weber, legal domination was the most favorable means of upholding rational thinking, which is a condition that allows for the development of bureaucratic designs. A bureaucracy (Gale & Hummel, 2003; Kalberg, 1993) is the organizational hierarchy that sanctions productive output, which can be easily witnessed in large-scale procedural structures such as governmental or militaristic institutions. Weber emphasized how power differentials naturally constitute bureaucracies in terms of the "enforcer" and his or her corresponding "subordinates," although the latter adheres to the provisional standards and administration of the organization, as opposed to the actual person in charge. The bureaucrat, or authority figure, is a person who has achieved such a position through the refinement of educational and professional application. Once he or she secures this position of power, he or she is able to reside there indefinitely and receive resultant benefits such as a stable, continuous salary.

In contrast, Weber illustrates the nature of traditional domination as an irrational system that can be demonstrated in part through a subcategory termed patrimonialism (Eisenberg, 1998; Stone, 1995), which is the loyalty that subjects extend toward an authoritative ruling power. In such circumstances, subordinates respond to the dictatorship of the person as opposed to the generalized set of rules set forth by an organization. As such, the patrimonial leader is the primary source of both power and economic funding, which enables the perpetuation of such an organization. In many societies, such as caste cultures, patrimonialism is a birthright, not a role that can be strived for or achieved by the lay public.

The third type of power, charismatic domination is expressed in families and/or organized religion, and leadership results from the dynamic and captivating traits that the leader possesses; therefore power, to some extent is something that can be earned. Also, over time, subordinates of charismatic domination rise from their inferior status, because the process of routine contributes toward equalizing the hierarchy.


The Protestant Ethic

Weber found that there were communal behavioral patterns among geographical regions that embraced different religious beliefs. In particular, Weber reasoned that areas that accepted Catholicism as the predominant religion consisted of affiliates who were educationally and professionally complacent since the Catholic religion professed that spiritual enlightenment was internal and could not be obtained through worldly, material gain. Such observations inspired Weber to write one of his most prolific and controversial documents, titled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930), in which he intertwined two of his passions, economics and religion, into a consolidated theory. Weber reflected on the rational advancements that corresponded with the Calvinists, or Puritan denominational sect of Protestant Christianity, and speculated on the diligent work ethic and monetary strides that paralleled this religious faction.


One of the hallmarks of Calvinism was the notion of predestination (Sass, 1991; Spencer, 1982), or the belief that a person's fate has been scripted before birth, which included his or her earthbound deeds as well as eventual placement in the afterlife. According to this premise, a person's conduct held no bearing on his or her elect (i.e., saved) or damned status. Proponents of this ideology felt that it was unnerving to anticipate an unknown, and possibly torturous, destination point and determined that the primary indicator specifying where the soul...

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