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Describe Weber's theory of social change.

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Max Weber's theory of social change describes the social influences and institutions that led to the rise of capitalism. He examines the effects religion and leadership had on establishing a hard-work ethic and rational perspective within the economy.

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Max Weber’s theory of social change is an examination of capitalism as an economic system and the Protestant work ethic that fuels it.

Weber emphasizes the degree to which the social institution of religion creates capital change. In his study, he looks at Calvinism specifically. He argues that Calvinism and the rise of capitalism are causally linked. Calvinism, according to Weber, gives rise to a culture in which practitioners engage in the regular pursuit of profit for its own sake rather than for the forces of production and consumption. In other words, Calvinists worked hard because they believed that hard work pleased God. Religion alone, though, was not enough to spark social change in Weber’s schema.

The type of social structures which are powerful enough to create significant change in society require a cultural climate amenable to change. This involves political and social forces that go well beyond the scope of religious dogma. In this way, religion itself is both shaped by and shapes economic and political institutionsand their values. Furthermore, Weber identifies charismatic leadership as a precursor to social change. People and society, Weber argues, tend toward the rational, but they need persuasive leaders to articulate and guide their rationalism. Combined, these factors mechanize broad social and structural changes like capitalism.

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In explaining capitalism, which is one of humanity’s significant social changes, Weber suggested that certain social structures led to the change. He pointed at religion and suggested that certain religions played an important role in the advent of capitalism. For instance, Weber suggested that capitalism developed from aspects of Calvinism that encouraged people to have savings or be successful. Additionally, the religious teachings suggested that those with successful businesses were the ‘chosen’ because God would not help the 'damned' succeed. The concept established the quest for economic gains to affirm an individual’s position.

He also added that social change is as a result of four specific actions that people take. He categorized the four actions as:

  • Traditional
  • Affective
  • Value
  • Instrumental

Under the traditional social action, Weber suggested that individual social action may be instigated by traditional beliefs and customs. The individual basing their decision on tradition would perform an action because it is expected by his culture.

Under the affective social action, Weber suggested that social change would occur because a group of people engages in a particular action as driven by their emotions. They may engage in the action because they like it.

On value-rational action, Weber suggested that social change may be driven by people engaging in actions that they deem right or wrong. Religion may dictate certain actions, forcing the individual to comply because they believe the action to be the right thing to do.

Under the instrumental rational action, Weber suggests that social change may be driven by people engaging in actions that they deem beneficial to them. Thus, they participate in these actions with a goal in mind and because the action would lead to an expected result.

However, Weber was critical of impersonal rational thinking that only emphasized on efficiency and made no consideration on whether the action was the right thing to do. Thus, issues of ethics and traditions were pushed out of focus, leading to a variety of social ills.

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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. 


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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.

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