School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Max Weber -
The Function Of Ideas

 


The Person The Years of Mastery 
Introduction An Exemplary Moralist
The Early Academic Career  
   
The Work  
Introduction The Function of Ideas
Natural Science, Social Science, and Value Relevance Class, Status and Power
The Ideal Type Bureaucracy
Causality and Probability Rationalization and Disenchantment
Types of Authority  

Weber's concern with the meaning actors impute to relationships did not limit him to the study of types of social action. Rather, he used the typology of forms of social action to understand the drift of historical change. It will be remembered that the problems posed by modern civilization were foremost in his mind, and in this connections he conceived the shift from traditional to rational action as crucial. He showed that rational action within a system of rational-legal authority is at the heart of the modern rationalized economy, that is, of the capitalist system. Only within the framework of a rationalized economy can active individuals weigh utility and costs in a rational manner. Weber maintained that the rationalization of economic action can only be realized when traditional notions about just prices or just wages are discarded and a positive ethical sanction is provided for acquisitive activities aimed at maximizing the self-interests of the actor. Such ethical sanction, Weber argued, was provided by the Protestant Ethic, which broke the hold of traditionalism in the realm of economic behavior even while it fostered a spirit of rigorous self-discipline, encouraging men to apply themselves rationally and methodically to the specific tasks they were "called" to perform within the occupational world.

Weber's emphasis on the influence of religious ideas in the emergence of modern capitalism forced him into a running dialogue with the ghost of Karl Marx. He was most respectful of Marx's contributions, yet believed, in tune with his own methodology, that Marx had unduly emphasized one particular causal chain, the one leading from the economic infrastructure to the cultural superstructure. Weber argued that Marx had presented an overly simplified scheme that could not adequately take into account the tangled web of causative influences linking the economy and the social structure to cultural products and human action. Weber refused to see in ideas simple reflections of material interests. He contended instead that developments in the intellectual, psychic, scientific, political, and religious spheres have relative autonomy even though they all mutually influence one another. There is no preestablished harmony between the content of an idea and the material interests of those who become its champion, but an "elective affinity" may arise between the two. Weber's examples are many. In the seventeenth century, such an elective affinity developed between the ideas of the Calvinist divines and the concerns of certain bourgeois or petty-bourgeois strata, whether in England, Scotland or the Lowlands. Confucian ethics did not "express the needs" of the Chinese literati, but these men became the main carriers of Confucian ideas in so far as these were congenial to their life-styles. Or again: landowning warrior classes have an aversion to any form of emotional religiosity and to religions preaching salvation; instead, they are drawn to religious systems in which the gods are conceived as powerful, passionate beings who clash among themselves and are subject to cajolery through sacrifice or to coercion through magical manipulation. Peasants are attracted to nature worship while urban bourgeois strata incline toward Christian piety.

Fascinated as he was by the dynamics of social change, Weber endeavored to create a more flexible interpretative system than Marx had provided. He attempted to show that the relations between systems of ideas and social structures were multiform and varied and that causal connections went in both directions, rather than from infrastructure to superstructure alone. Weber's modification and refinement of the Marxian scheme is likewise evident in his theory of stratification.

From Coser, 1977:227-228.

  

Websites On Weber Work By Weber
Max Weber Class Notes (External Link) Bureaucracy
  Fundamental Concepts in Sociology (External Link)
  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
   



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010