Max Weber Introduction - Essay


Max Weber 1864-1920

German sociologist, economist, and political theorist.

Regarded as one of the founders of modern sociological thought, Weber has had an immense impact on social science in the twentieth century, especially in the United States, and was one of the first to construct a systematic, methodological approach to the study of human behavior in society. Basing his conclusions on the comparative study of nearly all the major world cultures, Weber analyzed the economic, political, intellectual, histori cal, and religious factors that contribute to modem social realities. Among his major contributions to the field of sociology are his assessments of modern bureaucracy, his study of the nature of charismatic leadership throughout world history, his models of rational and non-rational social behavior based upon his theory of "ideal types," and his examination of the circumstances that made the growth of western capitalism possible. As part of the latter, Weber's Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904-05, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) has had a profound effect on the study of the ethical and religious dimensions of economic issues. Weber's other significant achievements include the elevation of comparative and empirical research in sociology and the related integration of wertfreiheit, or value-neutrality, as the ideal for field. Weber's work in the realms of economics and political science is likewise highly valued, especially as it indicates his role in German political life during the early years of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Weber was born in Erfaut, Germany, on April 21, 1864. His father was a prosperous lawyer involved in German political circles and his mother was a religious woman who nonetheless emphasized the importance of secular education. Weber received classical instruction in his youth and later attended the University of Heidelberg to study law, history, and economics. He left the university briefly in 1883 to serve in the German army, but returned to his studies the following year, first at the University of Berlin and later at Göttingen. Passing the bar in 1886, Weber practiced law for a time, and in 1889 completed his doctoral thesis on the rise of medieval trading companies. A second dissertation, an agrarian history of the ancient world, appeared in 1891 and earned Weber the widespread admiration of his colleagues. The following year he undertook a renowned study of the economic conditions common among peasants in Prussia. He married Marianne Schnitger, his distant cousin, and later his biographer, in 1893. Weber accepted a professorship in economics at Freiburg University in 1894 and later a position as economics chair at the University of Heidelberg. Incapacitated in 1897 after his father's death, Weber suffered from an extreme depression and nervous illness for several years, though he had largely recovered by 1902. The next period of his life saw an increased literary production including his editorship and frequent contributions to the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (Archive for Social Science and Social Policy). For the next fifteen years Weber devoted himself to the research and composition of his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie, 1922 (known in English as Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology), which included his studies of the great eastern religions and cultures. He returned to a professorship at the University of Munich in 1918 while writing Economy and Society, a massive work that was left incomplete due to his death from pneumonia on June 14, 1920.

Major Works

Taken as a whole, Weber's works on sociology and economics detail a nearly systematic development, encompassing the great cultures and religions in world history. His early works, though narrower in scope, adumbrate many of the themes that occupied his greatest writings, Economy and Society and the Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (1920-21). Die römische agrargeschicte in ihrer bedeutung für das staats und privatrecht (1891, The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations) illustrates Weber's approach to structural and comparative history as a means of uncovering the facts relating to modern sociology. In his well-known The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber argues that the Protestant Reformation was an important step in the increasing rationalization of western civilization and demonstrates the connection between the values of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in Europe. The work also inspired Weber to study the sources of capitalism and the reasons why similar systems had failed to develop in eastern cultures. For his Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, Weber studied the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and ancient Judaism, evaluating the relation of each to the development of rationalization in the modem era. In addition, Weber assessed the characteristics of modern bureaucracy by evaluating conditions found in China, India, and Imperial Rome. His masterwork, Economy and Society, contains a system of extraordinary depth and breadth, combining historical and comparative sociological research and analysis. Weber elucidates his concept of the "ideal type," a construct used for evaluating individuals and societies across huge spans of time, and explains his methodology predicated on the ideal of value-neutrality. As for his economic writings, a series of lectures entitled Wirtschaftsgeschicte: Abriss der univer-salen Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschicte (1923) reflect his systematic, empirical, and comparative approach to the subject.

Critical Reception

Weber's worldwide influence on the field of sociology is perhaps second only to that of Karl Marx, and may be even more pervasive in the Unites States. Likewise, those who have criticized the specifics of his theories almost never fail to acknowledge his seminal contributions to social science. His importance is also borne out by the growing number of English translations of his works. Also, the controversies that Weber's conclusions have sparked continue among sociologists just as the methods of study and analysis that he devised endure.