conceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action.
In his analytical focus on individual human actors he differed from
many of his predecessors whose sociology was conceived in social-structural
terms. Spencer concentrated on the evolution of the body social
as analogous to an organism. Durkheim's central concern was with
institutional arrangements that maintain the cohesion of social
structures. Marx's vision of society was informed by his preoccupation
with the conflicts between social classes within changing social
structures and productive relations. In contrast, Weber's primary
focus was on the subjective meanings that human actors attach to
their actions in their mutual orientations within specific social-historical
contexts. Behavior devoid of such meaning, Weber argued, falls outside
the purview of sociology.
major types of social action are distinguished in Weber's sociology.
Men may engage in purposeful or goal-oriented rational action (zweckrational);
their rational action may be value-oriented (wertrational); they
may acto from emotional or affective motivations; or, finally, they
may engage in traditional action. Purposeful rationality, in which
both goal and means are rationally chosen, is exemplified by the
engineer who builds a bridge by the most efficient technique of
relating means to ends. Value-oriented rationality is characterized
by striving for a substantive goal, which in itself may not be ration--say,
the attainment of salvation--but which is nonetheless pursued with
rational means--for example, ascetic self-denial in the pursuit
of holiness. Affective action is anchored in the emotional state
of the actor rather than in the rational weighing of means and ends,
as in the case of participants in the religious services of a fundamentalist
sect. Finally, traditional action is guided by customary habits
of thought, by reliance on "the eternal yesterday;" the
behavior of members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation might serve
as an example of such action.
classification of types of action serves Weber in two ways. It permits
him to make systematic typological distinctions, as for example
between types of authority, and also provides a basis for his investigation
of the course of Western historical development. Raymond Aron rightly
sees Weber's work as "The paradigm of a sociology which is
both historical and systematic."
was primarily concerned with modern Western society, in which, as
he saw it, behavior had come to be dominated increasingly by goal-oriented
rationality, whereas in earlier periods it tended to be motivated
by tradition, affect, or value-oriented rationality. His studies
of non-Western societies were primarily designed to highlight this
distinctive Western development. Karl Mannheim puts the matter well
when he writes, "Max Weber's whole work is in the last analysis
directed toward the question 'Which social factors have brought
about the rationalization of Western civilization?' " In modern
society, Weber argued, whether in the sphere of politics or economics,
in the realm of the law and even in interpersonal relationships,
the efficient application of means to ends has become predominant
and has replaced other springs of social action.
theorists had attempted to conceive of major historical or evolutionary
tendencies of Western society in structural terms: for example,
Toennies' conception involved a drift from Gemeinschaft (community)
to Gesellschaft (purposive association); Maine's, a shift from status
to contract; and Durkheim's, a move from mechanical to organic solidarity.
Weber responded to similar concerns by proposing that the basic
distinguishing marks of modern Western man were best viewed in terms
of characteristic shifts in human action that are associated with
characteristic shifts in the social and historical situation. Unwilling
to commit himself either to a "materialistic" or an "idealistic"
interpretation of history, Weber's ultimate unit of analysis remained
the concrete acting person.
sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit,
as its "atom." . . . The individual is . . . the upper
limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct. . . . Such concepts
as "state," "association," "feudalism,"
and the like, designate certain categories of human interaction.
Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to "understandable"
action, that is without exception, to the actions of participating
Weber's focus on the mutual orientation of social actors and on
the "understandable" motives of their actions was anchored
in methodological considerations, which account for much of the
distinctiveness of his approach.