ideal type

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ideal type


pure type

Any conceptualization (idealization) of a general or particular phenomenon which, for analytical and explanatory purposes, represents this phenomenon only in its abstract or ‘pure’ (hence ‘idealized’) form(s). The foundations of ideal-type analysis in sociology derive from Max WEBER, who was influenced by the use of ideal types in economics. An element of idealization is a feature of any use of general concepts, whether in science, social science, or everyday life (see also TYPIFICATION). However there are variations in the extent to which concepts are idealized (compare TYPE, TYPOLOGY).

The most explicit use of abstract and idealized concepts occurs both in the physical sciences (e.g. the concept of the ‘perfect vacuum’) and the social sciences (e.g. in economics, the concept of ‘perfect competition’). In the physical sciences, the use of idealizations allows a more simplified account of phenomena. This makes possible the formulation of high-level universal generalizations (SCIENTIFIC LAWS), in terms of which real world cases can be analysed and explained as more complex empirical departures.

Weber's use of ideal types occurred with a somewhat different aim. Most clearly apparent is what Weber did not mean by ideal types:

  1. they do not state an ethical ideal;
  2. they do not state an ‘average’ type;
  3. they do not ‘exhaust reality’, i.e. they do not correspond exactly to any empirical instances.

What Weber has to say more positively about ideal types is that:

  1. they are mental constructs which are ideal in the ‘logical sense’, i.e. they state a logical extreme;
  2. they ‘distort’ and abstract from reality;
  3. they can be used to formulate an abstract model of the general form and the interrelated causes and effects of a complex recurring phenomenon (e.g. BUREAUCRACY). A further requirement is that these concepts must be ‘objectively possible’, in that they must approximate to concrete realities and also be ‘subjectively adequate’, i.e. be understandable in terms of the subjective orientations of a hypothetical ‘individual actor’ (see also METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM).

Weber's main use of ideal-type concepts was to provide clearly stated ‘general’ concepts (e.g. ‘rational’ or ‘traditional’ – see TYPES OF ACTION) which in turn can be used to allow the unambiguous statement of ‘historical’ concepts, formulated as departures from general ideal-types. Classification and comparison of phenomena and the appraisal of causal hypotheses are facilitated by this means. For example, while the specific ideal-type concept of the PROTESTANT ETHIC is formulated by Weber as approximating to ‘rational action’, and possessing causal significance in the rise of Western capitalism, Roman Catholicism and non-Western religions are formulated as historically specific types of traditional and nonrational action, which retard capitalism. Ideal types are used by Weber in thought experiments (e.g. Weber's estimation that rational capitalism would have originated in Asia as well as in Europe had there been any form of religion in Asia equivalent to Protestantism). Historical concepts formulated as specific departures from ideal types bring a precision which would otherwise be lacking in such comparative analysis.

It is clear from this that Weber's deployment of ideal-type concepts involves him in the use of explicit (or implicit) type generalizations, i.e. assumptions about the ‘lawlike regularities’ associated with the occurrence of empirical approximations of ideal-type concepts and models. In this way Weber refers to ‘typical complexes of meaning’ or ‘established generalizations from experience’, such as GRESHAM'S LAW (i.e. ‘that bad money drives out good). Without assumptions of this kind there could be no appraisal of causal significance in ideal-type analysis.

In contrast with the position in the physical sciences, Weber does not in general envisage that an agreement on ideal-type concepts will emerge in sociology or that such concepts will become the basis of a system of high-level general laws. At times, he refers to the role of ideal-type concepts as HEURISTIC, as merely aiding the clearer description and analysis of historical cases. Among the reasons for this limit on the 'S cienticity’ of sociology is the continued presence he sees for multiple perspectives within (see OBJECTIVITY AND NEUTRALITY, FACT AND VALUE). The difficulty that arises from Weber's position is that it renders ideal-type analysis in sociology essentially arbitrary.

Two main responses exist to this problem in Weber's approach. Critics, such as PARSONS (1937), argue that whatever differences of degree must be recognized between sociology and physical science, ideal-type analysis can only become coherent by seeking the cumulative development of general concepts and the development of a potentially unitary theory in sociology, avoiding Weber's ‘type atomism’. Other critics (e.g. Winch, 1958) argue that ideal-type analysis should be dropped as utterly inappropriate to sociological analysis once this is seen as involving the ‘meaningful understanding’ of specific cases and not the development of general concepts and general theories.