One of the "founding fathers" of sociology. His work contrasts
w. Durkheim's, in that he says sociology should focus on action insofar
as it is oriented toward others. Unlike Marx, he felt that religious,
political etc. ideas may influence economics, broadening the materialist
position of Marx.
Life and times:
(see book for details)
MW sought to bridge a divide in german social science between 'natural' and 'historical' views of social life. He felt it possible to identify abstract regularities beyond the specifics of a given case, even if you don't get natural laws, but also felt that you had to develop an interpretive understanding of social action.
Two themes come through all of his work:
Basic Sociological Terms
This piece is the start of Economy and Society, and is an attempt to lay out the basic tools of sociology.
1. The definition of Sociology and of Social Action
"Sociology is a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action Dan thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences." Action is relates to how an actor attaches 'subjective meaning' to his behavior (be it covert or overt) and it is 'social' to the extent that its subjective meaning takes account of the behavior of others.
A. Methodological Foundations
1. MeaningB. Social Action.
(a) the actual existing meaning of a particular actor or the average meaning given to a group of actors or (b) the theoretically conceived pure type of subjective meaning attributed to the actor/group. (p.178)
2. Distinguishing meaningful action from simple reaction is difficult, and purely historical / traditional actions are often both active and reactive.
3. All interpretation of meaning strives for clarity and verifiable accuracy. The basis for certainty can be due to (a) rational means [logic, math] or (b) emotional / emphatic or artistic. Action is rationally evident when we can place the action-elements in the intended context unambiguously. Empathic understanding is obtained when one can grasp the emotional context.
For methodological reasons, it is preferable to treat all all irrational action as deviation from an ideal-typical rational course of action. This makes it possible to analyze how differences from rationality affect the outcome.
"The construction of a purely rational course of action in such cases serves the sociologist as a type (ideal type) which has the merit of clear understandability and lack of ambiguity." (p.179)
Weber is careful to point out that this rationality is a method and should not be the substance of sociology. The question of rationality in social life is an empirical one.
4. The only way to make sense of things sociologically is to understand their meaning for the actors involved.
5. Understanding can be of two types (a) Direct observational (i.e. of sentences, facial expressions, and so forth) or (b) explanatory understanding. HEre we understand the motive which guides action we observe. THis consists of placing an act in a meaningful and inclusive context.
"Thus for a science which is concerned with the subjective meaning of action, explanation requires a grasp of the complex of meaning in which an actual course of understandable action thus interpreted belongs." (180)
6. Understanding involves the interpretive grasp of meaning in one of the following contexts:
While ideal types may seem plausible, in al cases comparison w. the actual course of events is is indispensable. (though this is only possible in rare cases. Everywhere else we need to approximate as best we can. Often we have only the 'imaginary experiment' of thinking away particular elements of a chain of motivation and thereby arriving at a causal judgment.
- historical - the intended meaning for concrete action
- mass phenomena - the average intended meaning
- ideal types - appropriate to scientific understanding.
7. Motive: a complex of subjective meanings which seems to the actor or to an observer to account for the conduct in question.
A given account of a motive is causally adequate insofar as, given established generalizations from experience, there is a probability that it will always occur in the same way. Statistical uniformity's are adequate generalizations only insofar as they they manifest understandable subjective meaning. These are what interest sociologists.
8. Other things are important, but only as stimuli, conditions, etc.
9. Action ... exists only as the behavior of one or more individual human beings. Thinking on lower levels (cells, bio-chemical reactions, etc.) are interesting, but do not lead to subjective understandings. For other purposes it may be useful to treat states and other collectivity's as actors, such as in law. "But for the subjective interpretation of action in sociological work these collectivities must be treated as soley the resultants and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons..."
The subjective interpretation of action has at least 3 relations to these other aggregates:
10. Sociological "laws" - or generalizations from typical probabilities observed, "are both understandable and definite in the highest degree insofar as the typically observed point of action can be understood in terms of the purely rational pursuit of an end." It is when the means to such actions are clearly determined by the context, that it becomes clear that purely psychological approaches fail.
- Often needed to obtain an intelligible terminology (such as using 'state')
- These collectivities have a meaning in the minds of individual persons, ... , and actors in part orient their action to them and can thus have causal influence.
- As in the "organic school" (i.e. durkheim). He is cautious about using this "functional analogy". He says,
"First this functional frame of reference is convenient for purposes of practical illustration and for provisional orientation " but they should not be refined. Second, "in certain circumstances this is the only available way of determining just what processes of social action it is important to understand in order to explain a given situation.... but this is only the beginning of sociological analysis as here understood." (p.182) This is a valuable and necessary first step, but only a first step.
11. Sociology differs from history in that we seek generalizable uniformities and processes -- type concepts, which are different from the exact data proposed in a particular case by historians. We offer greater precision in concepts as a trade for precision in empirical cases, which makes it possible for us to move from context to context. "In all cases, ..., sociological analysis both abstracts from reality and at the same time helps us to understand it, in that it shows with what degree of approximation a concrete historical phenomena can be subsumed under one or more of these concepts." (p.184)
Not as well, that while we seek a subjective understanding, actors may not be aware of these motivations themselves. They often act out of 'habit'.
1. Social action is oriented toward others. These can be past, present, or future, known or unknown.
2. Not every kind of action is social action. Overt action is non-social if it is oriented solely to the behavior of inanimate objects. I.e. religious activity is not social if is simply for individual contemplation or prayer.
3. Not all contact is social (like a collision of two cyclists) if it is merely a natural accident. But the discussion that follows would be.
4. Social action is not identical to similar actions across many people or every action influenced by other people. I.e. putting up umbrellas is not social action. Neither is simple imitation of others, if it is entirely reactive. In all these cases, the borderline is quite indefinite.
2. Types of social action.
There are 4 orientations of social action:
1. Strictly traditional behavior is often NOT social, but a matter of purely automatic reaction
2. Purely affectual behavior also stands on the borderline of what can be "meaningfully" oriented - such as emotional reactions
3. Value-rationality differs from affectual in its conscious formulation of the ultimate values guiding the action. These are people acting on their convictions, regardless of the outcome.
4. Action s instrumentally rational when the end, means and secondary results are all rationally taken into consideration and weighed.
5. It would be very unusual to find any type of social action that was solely one of these ways, nor is this thought to be an exhaustive list.
Class, Status, Party
The Types of Legitimate Domination
The Basis of Legitimacy
Domination = the probability that certain specific commands will be obeyed by a given group of persons. ... every genuine form of implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience.
Purely material interests and calculations of advantages as the basis of solidarity ... result .. in a fairly unstable situation. Normally there is an additional element, the belief in legitimacy.
There are 3 main types of legitimacy, based on:
Legal authority rests on the following inter-dependent ideas:
Authority is traditional if legitimacy is claimed for it and believed in by virtue of the sanctity of age-old rules and powers. This type of authority is more personal than that of the bureaucratic type. THe person exercising authority is a personal master, and people are his subjects. Obedience is owed not to the office, but to the person. Commands are legitimized by (a) traditions that determine the content of the command or (b) partly in terms of the master's discretion in that sphere that tradition leaves open to him.
"The exercise of power is oriented toward the consideraton of how far maser and staff can go in view of the subjects' traditional compliance without arousing their resistance."
Note that in a traditional authority system, there are a number of features (see p.219) of a bureaucratic system that are missing.
Charisma = a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. (traditionally this rests on magic - i.e. prophets, etc.)
1. It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma (see Hannah Arendt, On Power here). The authority rests on the idea that people have a duty to recognize the 'proof' of the authority (such as a miricle)
2. If proof and success elude the leader for long ... it is likely that his authority will disappear.
3. An organized group subject to charismatic authority ... is based on an emotional form of communal relationship. Members of the staff are chosen in terms of the charismatic qualities of the groups members (i.e. the prophet has decipels, the warlord bodygaurds, etc.) There is no career
4. Pure charisma is specifically foreign to economic considerations: when it appears, it is like a calling; a spiritual duty. In the pure type, it disdains economic considerations. "What is despised, so long as the genuinely charismatic type is adhere to, is traditional or rational everyday economizing, the attainment of a regular income by continuous economic activity devoted to this end."
5. In traditionalist periods, charisma is the great revolutionary force.
The routinization of charisma
In its pure form, charisma cannot really last very long. It's not set up to deal w. everyday concerns.
"If this is not to remain a purely transitory phenomenon, but to take
on the character of a permanent relationship, ..., it is necessary for
the character of charismatic authority to become radically changed." It
must become traditionalized or rationalized.
This is done for two main reasons (a) the ideal / material interests of the followers in the continual reactiviation of the community, (b) the still stronger ideal and material interests of the administrative staff (and they have an interest in making sure their position is secured). These issues become particularly clear when the problem of succession arises.
In the long run, the followers must find a way to make a living at their
calling. For charisma to be transformed into an everyday phenomena,
the anti-economic character must be altered. It must be adapted to some
form of fiscal organization. This involves a transformation / distinction
between administrative members (i.e. clergy) and non-members (laity).
This often forms a bureaucratic organization.
This is one of MW's most cited works, and is the foundation of much of organizational theory. Both in terms of extensions and reactions. The point is to identify the key character of bureaucracy, which is arguably the most sucessful organizational form and the height of applying rationality to the organization of social activity. Why is bureaucracy so successful?
Characteristics of Modern bureaucracy
Here MW points out the defining characteristics of modern bureaucratic systems:
II. The social position of the official
The Leveling of Social Differences
bureaucratic organization has only succeeded in certain circumstances:
A. Administrative democratization
It has usually only come w. the leveling of certain social differences, and inevitably accompanies mass democracy.
"This results from its characteristic principle: the abstract regulatory of the exercise of authority, which is a result of the demand for 'equality before the law' in the personal and functional sense -- hence, of the horror of 'privilege,' and the principled rejection of doing business 'from case to case'" (p.229). [note that this is not cheap]HEre MW also points out an interesting point: local governments tended to be plutocratic - while mass democracy has leveled the playing field.
B. Mass parties and the bureaucratic consequences of democratization
He points out that political parties have moved from simple power organizations based on a particular person, to bureaucratic structures, with party officials. He also notes the similarities / important features of modern democratic government and bureaucratic office:
a) prevention of the development of a closed status group of officials in favor of universal accessibility
b) minimization of the authority of officialdom in the interest of expanding the sphere of 'public opinion' - hence the desire for short terms of office.
The Objective basis of bureaucratic perpetuity
Once established, bureaucratic structures are the hardest to destroy. Bureaucracy is a power instrument of the highest order, since under otherwise equal conditions rationally organized action is superior to all other types, making those who control bureaucratic organizations quite powerful.
Moreover, people on the inside are similarly powerless to stop the organization:
"In the great majority of cases [the burocrat] is only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march. The official is entrusted w. specialized tasks, and normally the mechanism cannot be put into motion or arrested by him, but only from the very top. The individual bureaucrat is, above all, forge to the common interest of all the functionaries in the perpetuation of the apparatus and the persistence of its rationally organized domination" (p.231)
Note that this holds for private as well as public organization, as modern capitalism depends on this kind of organization, which makes eliminating capitalism "more and more utopian" (p.231)
Thus one only need take over the top of the organization, since it is in everyone's interest to keep it going: "A rationally ordered officialdom continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the territory; he merely needs to change the top officials. It continues to operate because it is to the vital interest of everyone concerned, including above all the enemy." (p.231)