Max Weber

The Work

Max Weberconceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action. Inhis analytical focus on individual human actors he differed from many ofhis predecessors whose sociology was conceived in social-structuralterms. Spencer concentrated on the evolution of the body socialas analogous to an organism. Durkheim's central concern was withinstitutional arrangements that maintain the cohesion of socialstructures. Marx's vision of society was informed by his preoccupationwith the conflicts between social classes within changing socialstructures and productive relations. In contrast, Weber's primary focuswas on the subjective meanings that human actors attach to their actionsin their mutual orientations within specific social-historical contexts. Behavior devoid of such meaning, Weber argued, falls outside thepurview of sociology.

Four major types of social action are distinguished in Weber'ssociology. Men may engage in purposeful or goal-oriented rationalaction (zweckrational); their rational action may bevalue-oriented (wertrational); they may acto from emotional oraffective motivations; or, finally, they may engage in traditionalaction. Purposeful rationality, in which both goal and means arerationally chosen, is exemplified by the engineer who builds a bridge bythe most efficient technique of relating means to ends. Value-orientedrationality is characterized by striving for a substantive goal, whichin itself may not be ration--say, the attainment of salvation--but whichis nonetheless pursued with rational means--for example, asceticself-denial in the pursuit of holiness. Affective action is anchored inthe emotional state of the actor rather than in the rational weighing ofmeans and ends, as in the case of participants in the religious servicesof a fundamentalist sect. Finally, traditional action is guided bycustomary habits of thought, by reliance on "the eternal yesterday;" thebehavior of members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation might serve as anexample of such action.

This classification of types of actionserves Weber in two ways. It permits him to make systematic typologicaldistinctions, as for example between types of authority, and alsoprovides a basis for his investigation of the course of Westernhistorical development. Raymond Aron rightly sees Weber's work as "Theparadigm of a sociology which is both historical and systematic."

Weberwas primarily concerned with modern Western society, in which, as he sawit, behavior had come to be dominated increasingly by goal-orientedrationality, whereas in earlier periods it tended to be motivated bytradition, affect, or value-oriented rationality. His studies ofnon-Western societies were primarily designed to highlight thisdistinctive Western development. Karl Mannheim puts the matter wellwhen he writes, "Max Weber's whole work is in the last analysis directedtoward the question 'Which social factors have brought about therationalization of Western civilization?' " In modern society, Weberargued, whether in the sphere of politics or economics, in the realm ofthe law and even in interpersonal relationships, the efficientapplication of means to ends has become predominant and has replacedother springs of social action.

Earlier theorists had attemptedto conceive of major historical or evolutionary tendencies of Westernsociety in structural terms: for example, Toennies' conception involveda drift from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft(purposive association); Maine's, a shift from status to contract; andDurkheim's, a move from mechanical to organic solidarity. Weberresponded to similar concerns by proposing that the basic distinguishingmarks of modern Western man were best viewed in terms of characteristicshifts in human action that are associated with characteristic shiftsin the social and historical situation. Unwilling to commit himselfeither to a "materialistic" or an "idealistic" interpretation ofhistory, Weber's ultimate unit of analysis remained the concrete actingperson.

Interpretative sociology considers theindividual and his action as the basic unit, as its "atom." . . . Theindividual is . . . the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningfulconduct. . . . Such concepts as "state," "association," "feudalism," andthe like, designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence itis the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to "understandable"action, that is without exception, to the actions of participatingindividual men.

Weber's focus on the mutual orientationof social actors and on the "understandable" motives of their actionswas anchored in methodological considerations, which account for much ofthe distinctiveness of his approach.

From Coser, 1977:217-219.


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