Frequently Asked Questions

 

Who was Max Weber?

He was a German academic, born 1864 died 1920. He is generally identified as a sociologist but he was something of a social science polymath. He pioneered empirical survey work and made major contributions to comparative historical sociology, political sociology, social economics, religion, law, music and social science methodology. He was also greatly concerned about the course of German politics and social policy about which he wrote much.

What is Max Weber Studies?

It was founded in 1999 following a meeting of the British Sociological Association’s Weber Studies Group. It is a peer reviewed journal and is happy to consider the work of young scholars as well as more established teachers and academics. The journal is active in helping to sponsor events and conferences related to Max Weber. It also undertakes translation of selective articles into English.

What is his most famous work?

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is a modern classic. Weber gave it to a lady friend, the pianist Mina Tobler, who said she read it as a great unfolding novel. This is the best place to start your reading of Max Weber. It is also the most controversial essay Weber ever wrote.

What is his most obscure work?

His doctoral thesis: The History of Commercial Partnerships in the Middle Ages. Within the history of law, though, it is a fairly conventional book.

What is his longest book?

Economy and Society comes in at 1469 pages in its English translation, though the German Complete Works edition have split it up into six separate volumes. Weber was drastically shortening his many original manuscripts but died before he completed his final version of this work.

What is his main idea?

That the distinctiveness of modern capitalism stems from religious origins, namely the Puritans’ fear of damnation.

What is his most famous concept?

Lots to choose from. Max Weber was a coiner of concepts and this was part of his methodological approach. Many of his concepts are in general use, even though most people do not know that it was Weber who created them. For example: charisma, value freedom, value judgement, Protestant work ethic, bureaucracy, church and sect, vocation, elective affinities, theodicy, class, status, legitimacy, state and power, rationalization, disenchantment, asceticism, acquisitive spirit, ideal type, patriarchalism, patrimonialism, ethics of responsibility and conviction. Not all of these concepts are unique to Weber, though his use and definition of them are.

What is his most used concept?

Charisma. He took this idea from academic theology, where it referred to a religious person who was gifted by divine grace. In religious writings, Jesus of Nazareth or Mohammad are stand-out personalities, people follow them regardless of the cost to themselves. Weber applied this idea not just to religious figures, but to political leaders as well. Charismatic figures are literally extra-ordinary, they succeed against the odds and they have a committed following of supporters. Mahatma Gandhi is a good example. Weber tended to approve of charismatic leaders because they can shake up moribund political systems. But he died before the rise of totalitarian states and the manufactured cult of the personality (Hitler, Stalin, Mao). Today the concept has been almost destroyed by its use in everyday contexts – for objects and celebrities promoted by advertising and public relations.

What’s his most important concept?

Rationalization. It is the sociological process of how a belief, or an idea, or rational insight is applied, used and reified. The early Christian communities become rationalized into an institution, the Church. A factory is the rationalization of work practices. Modern capitalism is the rationalization of a whole economic way of life. Scientific socialism is the rationalization of revolutionary belief. What once was authentic is formalized into a process that alienates its practitioners from the original magic of their calling, whether this is the pneuma of collective worship, the precious nature of craft, the social and cultural interaction of market participants, or the fervour generated by injustice. The stripping away of magic results in disenchantment, but in the modern world is reckoned as progress.

What were his politics?

He wanted to see Germany as a great power alongside Great Britain, France, the United States and Russia. To this end Germany’s political system needed to be reformed on modern lines and its social policy on women, education, trade unions, freedom of the press, and political parties should be progressive. At the start of the First World War he served as a reserve captain running military hospitals. His initial enthusiasm for the war turned into despair at the stalemate on the western front. After the German Empire collapsed in November 1918, he became an active member of the German Democratic Party, which was a centre party of progressive middle class thought.

Where did Weber live?

Berlin’s Charlottenburg till he was 28, then Freiburg im Breisgau in Baden before moving to Heidelberg, where he stayed from 1897 to 1918. Heidelberg is a tourist town, so do the Weber trail. He had a flat in the famous Hauptstrasse, and if you walk into the university square, opposite the bus-stop, is the red sandstone building where he lectured. For exercise Weber walked up to the castle and back. Later he moved to a large villa on the other side of the River Neckar, opposite the castle. In his day it was 17 Ziegelhäuserlandstrasse, and is now renamed Max-Weber-Haus. He and his wife, Marianne, rented the first floor – the one with the large balcony. In fact, his grandfather Georg Friedrich Fallenstein built the house, and his mother, Helene, was brought up there. In the 1848 revolutions Heidelberg was centre of democratic-national agitation against Prussian autocracy and Fallenstein was a leading figure. Weber inherited the anti-Prussian ethos and he never wanted to return to Berlin, even though it was the centre of the German Empire. He spent the last two years of his life in a very turbulent Munich, dying of pneumonia in a small flat off the English Garden.

Was he married?

Yes, he married Marianne Schnitger in 1894. Each academic marriage is peculiar in its own way - theirs was especially strange and productive. They had no children.

Was Weber a Puritan?

Don’t be silly!  The heyday of Puritanism was the seventeenth century in Holland, Germany, Britain and those pilgrim fathers who settled in New England. Puritans only live on today as sects of biblical literalists. Weber was brought up in cosmopolitan Berlin where his father was a very worldly politician. But he did inherit a ferocious work ethic, especially from his mother who was both high and strong-minded.

Was Weber religious?

Not in the sense of going to church and saying his prayers. He seems to have given up any personal belief in the Christian myth soon after his confirmation. But he used to attend church services to hear his cousin, who was training to be a pastor, give sermons. Also as a young man Weber was drawn into deep conversations with his mother and her sister about Christian theology. So, he had a capacity to empathize with those who did adhere to religious beliefs.

What is the sociology of religion?

In Weber’s case he wanted to work out the influence of religious beliefs on everyday behavior, and in particular economic behaviour. So, he was less interested in what priests and holy men believed in but rather how those beliefs were absorbed and acted upon by ordinary people. Here, he found magic rather than religion was often more important. Magic is instrumental – you do something like light a candle in a shrine, or make a sacrifice – and hope it will bring you good luck, victory in battle, success in business, or sound health. 

What is the sociology of law?

Weber studied law to postdoctoral level and completed his professional legal practice. Much of his legal writings are the work of jurist where Weber establishes what law is – it is a codified system of rules with law-giving and law-finding institutions that are backed by enforced compliance. Weber establishes what law is by analysing its emergence from convention and traditional customs. Another jurist, Rudolf Stammler, produced a first sociology of law and this thwarted Weber’s ambitions in the field. Weber’s interest in the subject became a critique of Stammler who made the erroneous assumption that laws could become the social and normative superstructure of society. This led Weber to discuss what following a rule entails – a central issue in sociology. Weber’s late social economics emphasizes the role played by law in the pursuit of capitalistic opportunities.

What is social economics?

There are economic phenomena like the sustainable provision of material wants, markets, prices, work practices, technology, transport, resources and their exploitation. Economics is the discipline that studies these. But the sociologies of other domains continuously impact upon any given pattern of economic life. So, politics, law and custom, religion, and kinship all structure those economic patterns. The modern discipline of economics is hard-nosed in its rigorous analysis of possibilities and choices but it is not a hard science. The ideas of economists are a product of prevailing interests and ideas, and he commissioned Joseph Schumpeter to write the first book on that subject.

What is sociology?

When Weber, in the 1890s, started out in his academic career as a jurist and an economist, sociology modeled itself as a natural science, with society conceived of as a biological organism subject to evolutionary processes. Weber wanted nothing to do with this and he mainly ignored sociology. But in his empirical work on farm labourers and in historical work on the Puritans and the spirit of capitalism, as well as other case studies, he was effectively doing sociology. We can re-construct his overall view of society as being divided analytically into domains: the economy, religion, culture, education and science, the political system, law, kinship, neighbourhood, the interpersonal realm. Each of these domains will be ordered through institutions and values, but there is no assumption of an overall order across domains, which may conflict with each other at the level of their basic values and structures. In the last decade of his life Weber succeeded in expounding the ground rules for sociology as a method, which is now known as the theory of social action.

Why is Weber relevant in the global age?

His formulation of social science methodology is classic and an indispensable starting point for any social scientist. Issues of causality, understanding, and validity still remain unresolved and working these problems through Weber’s writings is still necessary. His big question – and the comparative essays this question led to – as to why modern capitalism arose in the West and not in older and in many ways more advanced civilizations like ancient Rome, India or China still attracts great attention.

What is the Complete Works of Max Weber?

The Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, or MWG for short, was a project started in the 1970s with Horst Baier as the major initiator. Its main sponsor is the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The MWG is almost complete and by 2016 it is hoped it will have published every letter, lecture, and written work of Max Weber. For the complete bibliography see side-bar on home page.

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