Max Weber Essay - Critical Essays

Weber, Max


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.

Principal Works

Entwicklung des Solidarhaftprinzips und des Sondervermögens der offenen Handelsgesellschaft aus den Haushalts und Gewerbegemeinschaften in den italienischen Städte (sociology) 1889

Zur Geschichte der handelsgesellschaften im mittelalter: Nach südeuropäischen Quellen (sociology) 1889

Die römische agrargeschichte in ihrer bedeutung far das staats und privatrecht [The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations] (sociology) 1891

Die Verhältnisse der Landarbeiter im ostelbischen Deutschland (sociology) 1892

Die Börse (sociology) 1894

Der Nationalstaat und die Volkswirtschaftspolitik (sociology) 1895

Die "Objektivität" sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis (sociology) 1904

Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism] 1904-05

Parlament und Regierung im neugeordneten Deutchs-land: Zur politischen Kritik des Beamtentums und Parteiwesens (sociology) 1918

Wissenschaft als Beruf [Science as a Vocation] (lecture) 1918

Politik als Beruf [Politics as a Vocation] (lecture) 1919

Das antike Judentum [Ancient Judaism] (sociology) 1920-21

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (sociology) 1920-21

Hinduismus und Buddhismus [The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism] (sociology) 1920-21

Konfuzianismus und Taoismus [The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism] (sociology) 1920-21

Gesammelte politische Schriften (sociology) 1921

Die rationalen und soziologischen Grundlagen der Musik [The Rational and Social Foundations of Music] (sociology) 1921

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (sociology) 1922

Religionssoziologie [The Sociology of Religion] (sociology) 1922

Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie [Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology] (sociology) 1922; revised edition, 1956

Wirtschaftsgeschichte: Abriss der universalen Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte [General Economic History] (economics) 1923

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte (sociology) 1924

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik (sociology) 1924

Jugendbriefe (letters) 1936

Essays in Sociology (sociology) 1946

Schriften zur theoretischen Soziologe, zur Soziologie der Politik und Verfassung (sociology) 1947

Aus den Schriften zur Religionssoziologie: Auswahl (sociology) 1948

The Methodology of the Social Science (sociology) 1949

Soziologie, weltsgeschichtlich Analysen, Politik (sociology) 1955

Staatssoziologie (sociology) 1956

The City (sociology) 1958

Rechtssoziologie (sociology) 1960

Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building: Selected Papers (sociology) 1968

The Interpretation of Social Reality (sociology) 1970

Max Weber on Universities: The Power of the State and the Dignity of the Academic Calling in Imperial Germany (sociology) 1973

Roscher and Knies: The Logical Problems of Historical Economies (sociology) 1975

Critique of Stammler (sociology) 1977

Weber: Selections in Translation (sociology) 1978

Max Weber on Capitalism, Bureaucracy, and Religion: A Selection of Texts (sociology) 1983


Peter M. Blau (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Critical Remarks on Weber's Theory of Authority," in The American Political Science Review, Vol. LVII, No. 2, June, 1963, pp. 305-16.

[Originally delivered as a lecture at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in 1962, the following essay examines the role of authority and bureaucracy in Weber's sociology.]

Max Weber has often been criticized for advocating a wertfrei, ethically neutral approach in the social sciences and for thereby denying to man, in the words of Leo Strauss, "any science, empirical or rational, any knowledge, scientific or philosophic, of the true value system." On the other hand, Carl Friedrich points out...

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Hans H. Gerth (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Max Weber's Political Morality," in Max Weber's Political Sociology: A Pessimistic Vision of a Rationalized World, edited by Ronald M. Glassman and Vatro Murvar, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 29-38.

[Originally presented as a lecture at Hokkaido University in Japan in 1964, the following essay discusses Weber's thoughts on the major political movements of the twentieth century, most notably fascism and totalitarianism.]

Since World War II, Max Weber has become as influential and controversial as Karl Marx was before the conversion of the latter's thought into dogma by one-party socialist states. Karl Jaspers, the psychiatrist and existentialist philosopher, saw...

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Guenther Roth (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Political Critiques," in Scholarship and Partisanship: Essays on Max Weber, by Reinhard Bendix and Guenther Roth, University of California Press, 1970, pp. 55-69.

[Originally delivered as a lecture at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1964, the following essay articulates major objections to Weber's socio-political views, concluding that Weber sought to reconcile through his work the tension between opposing theoretical stances.]

Max Weber has been a major target for a series of critiques aimed at political sociology in general, if not at most of social science. These critiques either use a sociological approach for political purposes or...

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Reinhard Bendix (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Sociology and the Distrust of Reason," in Scholarship and Partisanship: Essays on Max Weber, by Reinhard Bendix and Guenther Roth, University of California Press, 1970, pp. 84-105.

[The following essay, originally read as the Presidential Address to the 65th Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association in 1970, examines Weber's essay "Science as a Vocation" and the late-twentieth century disillusionment with science.]

Historical Perspectives and Sociological Inquiry as the theme of an American sociological convention would have been incongruous twenty years ago. It is not so today. We meet amidst upheaval directly affecting the academic...

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Carl Mayer (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Max Weber's Interpretation of Karl Marx," in Social Research, Vol. 42, No. 4, 1973, pp. 701-19.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a lecture at the University of Constance in 1973, Mayer contends that Marx's theories only became an important element of Weber's work after his illness from 1899 to 1902.]

More than thirty years ago, Albert Salomon published an essay in which he asserted not merely that Max Weber's work could be understood only if seen against the background of Karl Marx but also that Weber's work itself was the product of an intense, life-long preoccupation with Marx. This assertion is not literally correct. In the first...

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Dirk Käsler (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Methodological Writings," in Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work, translated by Philippa Hurd, Polity Press, 1979, pp. 174-96.

[Originally published in German in 1979, the following essay examines the three main tenets supporting Weber's methodology.]

[If] we speak of Weber's methodology today, we mean for the most part those methodological observations which originally appeared separately in periodicals and which were published posthumously in 1922 by Marianne Weber under the title Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Collected Essays on Scientific Methodology). We must realize that these collected texts consisted of casual projects...

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John Owen King III (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "American Apocalypse: Max Weber," in The Iron Melancholy: Structures of Spiritual Conversion in America from the Puritan Conscience to Victorian Neurosis, Wesleyan University Press, 1983, pp. 289-322.

[In the following essay, King discusses Weber's struggle with the alienation and moral stringency of Puritanism as evidenced in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.]

If my own activity does not belong to me, if it is an alien compulsive activity, to whom does it belong? To a being other than myself. Who is this being? The gods?

[Karl Marx, from the "economic-philosophic manuscripts" of 1844, in the...

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Anthony T. Kronman (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Modernity," in Max Weber, Stanford University Press, 1983, pp. 166-88.

[In the following essay, Kronman explains Weber's reaction to and interpretation of the trends in modern social life.]

Beneath its richly detailed surface, Weber's Rechtssoziologie exhibits a surprising consistency and unity of purpose. Throughout, Weber is concerned with a single subject—the development of the institutions and forms of thought most characteristic of the modern legal order. 'Our interest', he remarks, 'is centred upon the ways and consequences of the "rationalization" of the law, that is, the development of those juristic qualities which are characteristic...

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Vatro Murvar (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Max Weber Today: An Introduction to a Living Legacy," in Max Weber Today: An Introduction to a Living Legacy: Selected Bibliography, Max Weber Colloquia and Sumposia, 1983, pp. 1-30.

[In the following essay, Murvar discusses major issues in the critical literature on Weber's writings.]

Max Weber (1864-1920) is generally recognized as one of the major figures in sociological, political and economic theory. Comparisons of his intellectual and scientific legacy with the thought of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Tocqueville, Keyes and other have been commonplace. Moreover, the extraordinary impact of Weber's interdisciplinary, historical-comparative, however...

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Rogers Brubaker (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Weber's Moral Vision," in The Limits of Rationality: An Essay on the Social and Moral Thought of Max Weber, George Allen & Unwin, 1984, pp. 91-112.

[In the following essay, Brubaker examines the underlying philosophy of ethics in Weber's works.]

Weber presents himself as an empirical scientist, not as a moral philosopher. It is true that he has no moral philosophy in the traditional sense. He elaborates no rules of individual conduct, harbors no vision of an ideal society. And the standard terms of moral argument—good, right, ought, should—are conspicuously absent from his vocabulary. Yet the whole of his scientific work is informed by a fundamentally...

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Dennis Wrong (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Marx, Weber, and Contemporary Sociology," in Max Weber's Political Sociology: A Pessimistic Vision of a Rationalized World, edited by Ronald M. Glassman and Vatro Murvar, Greenwood Press, 1984, pp. 69-81.

[In the following essay, Wrong explains the influence of Marxist theory on Weber's thought.]

The failure of our multiple particular researches conducted with increasingly precise and complex methods to cumulate into a coherent overall vision of the world largely accounts for the immense flowering of interest in recent years in the so-called classical sociologists. This new interest has been especially pronounced in the cases of Marx and Weber, both of...

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Hans-Ulrich Derlien (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Beaurocracy in Art and Analysis: Kafka and Weber," in Journal of the Kafka Sociely of America, Nos. 1-2, 1991, pp. 4-16.

[In the following essay, Derlien examines the Weberian influence in the works of Franz Kafka.]

Sociology of literature is based upon the assumption that literary fiction, through the personal concern of the artist, reflects societal conditions. Yet, surprisingly little sociological work has been undertaken to analyze the reflection in literature of bureaucracy as a social phenomenon—at least in the German speaking countries. Elsewhere the administrative novel as a special genre has been extensively discussed (Egger 1959; Kroll 1965; Savage...

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Bryan S. Turner (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Logic and Fate in Weber's Sociology," in For Weber: Essays on the Sociology of Fate, second edition, SAGE Publications, 1996, pp. 3-28.

[In the following essay, Turner discusses Weber as a neo-Kantian thinker, and contrasts his sociological ideas with those of Karl Marx.]

With the development of various radical movements in the social sciences in the 1960s and 1970s, Marxists became increasingly insistent on demonstrating the presence of a sharp dividing line between conventional sociology and Marx's theory of society. In mounting a critique of the claims of sociology to a scientific status, Marxists have frequently selected Max Weber's sociology as the...

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Further Reading


Weber, Marianne. Max Weber: A Biography, translated and edited by Harry Zohn. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975, 719 p.

Annotated English-language edition of Weber's life, written by his widow.


Kivisto, Peter and William H. Swatos, Jr. Max Weber: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, 267 p.

Groups Weber's works by subject matter and notes works in English translation. Includes several introductory biographical and historical essays.

Murvar, Vatro. Max Weber Today—An Introduction to a Living Legacy: Selected Bibliography. Brookfield,...

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