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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Max Weber, one of the three main "fathers of sociology," contributed to our understanding of the sociological perspective, to the nature of social change, and to social inequality.

Max Weber (1864-1920) helped us to understand the nature of society.

He disagreed with the approach of Marx, but in different ways than Durkheim did.

Rather than deny the importance of material factors, as with Marx, and rather than deny the notion of social facts external to individuals, as with Durkheim, he added that we should look at ideas, especially the meanings we put onto things, and the role of changes of ideas that contribute to society and to social changes.

In his interest in the meanings people put to things, Weber used the German word, "verstehen," to discuss our deeper understanding of those meanings.

Since culture is based on symbols, and symbols must have meanings in order to be symbols, then our understanding of them is an essential element of understanding society.

In English, in sociology, today we continue to use his word, "verstehen," to analyse this important element of culture and society.

To oppose the approach of Marx in the understanding of the industrial revolution, Weber suggested that first came a radical change of ideas.

This was manifested in the Protestant Reformation, and the preaching of protestant leaders, especially John Calvin, in opposition to the prevailing thoughts and practices of the Catholic church at the time.

Among the various values advocated by the protestants, were ideas of self sufficiency, frugality and independent relations with God instead of through a priest.

Frugality was an essential attitude needed to encourage saving and investment, an important element of capitalism and the industrial revolution.

They said, furthermore, that they did not need a large, corrupt and decadent organisation to tell them how to think, and that independence of thinking contributed to people starting their own businesses, and contributing to the growth of the capital owning class.

The Protestant Reformation, according to Weber, was the main cause of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism, a very different approach from that of Marx.

A third contribution of Weber was about the social nature of inequality.

Marx had emphasised relations to production.

Without denying the importance of wealth, Weber added prestige, the value judgements people make about each other, and which contribute to their social class.

Again, Weber’s main concern was with ideas.

Karl Marx saw class as related to the means of production. He saw a shift from a feudal society based on agriculture, where the land owning class was differentiated from the peasant class, through the industrial revolution, which saw the capital owning class, factory owners, differentiated from the factory workers, paid labour.

Other persons, such as scribes, information dealers, intelligencia and civil servants, did not contribute to production in the economy, were therefore useless (non productive), and did not constitute classes.

Max Weber, writing a half century later, in contrast, saw class based upon three factors, power, wealth and prestige.

In today's sociology, we tend to see the same three factors, although Marxist sociologists still emphasise the relations to the means of production, including now the production of ideas and information.

Weber saw society as having several layers, not only two, and that factors other than the material were important.

Between the three of them, Marx, Durkheim and Weber, we now see social inequality as having three major elements, wealth, power and prestige.

Labour conflicts now tend to be between workers and the managers, the latter being paid to take the side of owners, who are now mainly the holders of stocks and bonds.

Weber’s writings contributed to the Symbolic Interactionist Perspective, one of the three classical perspectives in Sociology.

As with the other two classical perspectives, Weber did not coin the term, nor did he found or describe the perspective per se; Blumer did.

He contributed much to our thinking, and those who went on to develop the symbolic interactionist perspective –– Blumer, Mead, Thomas, Park –– drew deeply from Weber’s writings.

Weber also contributed to the sociological observation and analysis of organisations.

Among his many works, he studied the nature of bureaucracies to investigate the reasons why they held so much power.

He looked at how bureaucracies grew and become stronger along with the industrial revolution.

He identified five elements of bureaucracies which gave them strength. hierarchy of authority; division of labour; written rules; written communications; and impersonality.

Two of these are problematical if we ask can they be used to strengthen communities.

A "hierarchy of authority," especially if it is rigid, harsh and dictatorial, and "impersonality," especially if it alienates community members, are both elements which reduce the gemeinschaft of a community, thus reducing the essential characteristic of that community.

Weber wrote in response to Marx, with the intention of contradicting or reducing the materialist approach.

He saw that the major change was the rise of Protestantism, with values and beliefs which contributed to the industrial revolution.

He argued that the new values of Protestantism, frugality, independent thinking and self reliance, were values and attitudes necessary to the creation and growth of capitalist thinking and for actions necessary for the industrial revolution.

From our vantage point a century later, we can see that these different approaches were not necessarily mutually exclusive, but could be complementary explanations.

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