Max Weber

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Max Weber
Maximilian Karl Emil Weber
BirthplaceErfurt, Saxony, Kingdom of Prussia
Known for Weberian bureaucracy, Disenchantment, Ideal type, Iron cage, Life chances, Methodological individualism, Monopoly on violence, Protestant work ethic, Rationalisation, Social action, Three-component theory of stratification, Tripartite classification of authority, Verstehen

Weber, Max

, German sociologist
Weber, Max (mäks) (vāˈbər), 1864–1920, German sociologist, economist, and political scientist. At various times he taught at Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Heidelberg. One of Weber's chief interests was in developing a methodology for social science, and his works had a considerable influence on 20th-century social scientists. As a technique of sociological analysis, he devised the concept of “ideal types,” generalized models of historical situations that could be used as a basis for comparing societies. He opposed the orthodox Marxian view of the time that economics was the preeminent determining factor in social causation and instead stressed the plurality and interdependence of causes. Weber emphasized the role of religious values, ideologies, and charismatic leaders in shaping societies. In his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1920, tr. 1930) he developed a thesis concerning the intimate connection between the ascetic ideal fostered by Calvinism and the rise of capitalist institutions. A keen observer of politics in his own time, he first admired, then repudiated Otto von Bismarck, and he later advocated for Germany a democratic form of government somewhat on the American model. He has also been influential in using statistical sociology in the study of economic policy. Among his other books are Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [economy and society] (4th ed. 1956) and General Economic History (1924, tr. 1927).


See From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (with a biography and appraisal by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 1946); studies by J. Freund (1968), A. Mitzman (1969), W. G. Runciman (1972), D. Beetham (1974), W. J. Mommsen (1974), G. Roth (1979), and J. Alexander (1983).

Weber, Max

, American painter
Weber, Max (mäks) (wĕbˈər), 1881–1961, American painter, b. Russia. At 10 he accompanied his family to Brooklyn, N.Y. He studied art at Pratt Institute and in 1905 went abroad. In Paris he studied under J. P. Laurens, later visiting Spain and Italy and returning to New York in 1909. Weber's work in the following decade was fauvist and then cubist inspired. Characteristic of the latter trend is his well-known Chinese Restaurant (Whitney Mus., New York City). He began to introduce Jewish subjects into his work c.1917. During the 1920s, Weber alternated painting with teaching. Contemporary and social themes were his subjects in the 1930s, when his work became increasingly abstract and revealed a new energetic use of line. Weber is represented in leading galleries throughout the United States. He wrote several essays on art theory.


See study by L. Goodrich (1949).

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Weber, Max


German economist, historian and major classical sociologist and, along with MARX and DURKHEIM, usually regarded as one of a ‘trinity’ of major classical sociologists. Weber was born in Erfurt, Thuringia, and educated at the Universities of Heidelberg, Berlin and Göttingen. After initial studies in philosophy and law, his interests gravitated towards economics, history and latterly sociology. As a result, Weber's scholarship cannot be confined within narrow disciplinary boundaries; he taught law in Berlin from 1892, before becoming professor of political economy at Freiburg in 1894, and professor of economics at Heidelberg in 1897, when a depressive illness interrupted his research and precluded further involvement in teaching until he accepted chairs in sociology at Vienna in 1918, and at Munich in the following year. Throughout his life Weber took an active interest in the social and political affairs of Germany; his politics were nationalist in tendency, yet critical, liberal and anti-authoritarian, especially in his defence of academic freedom against those who sought to make the universities subserve the interests of the state.

Weber's scholarly output is formidable in extent and controversial in its content and interpretation. In summary his aims were:

  1. to put the social sciences on a sound methodological footing;
  2. to establish their limits with respect to VALUE RELEVANCE and social policy issues;
  3. to provide a range of generalizations and concepts for application to the study of substantive problems;
  4. to contribute to the study of issues that interested him, especially those associated with the nature and origins of modern industrial society and of the process of rationalization that underpinned it.

In pursuit of these aims he wrote extensively on the methodology and philosophy of the social sciences (especially see Weber, The Methodology fthe Social Sciences (ed. Finch), 1949), and contributed to the study of ancient society, economic history, the comparative religion and social structures of China, India and Europe, and, inter alia, to the sociologies of law, politics and music. For translations of these see The Religions of China (1951), Ancient Judaism (1952). The Religion of India (1958), The City (1958).

The most comprehensive systematization of his sociological thinking is Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922). Bendix, Max Weber: an Intellectual Portrait (1960) remains a very useful overall guide to Weber's work; Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber (1946) is a ‘classic’ compilation.

For Weber, the aim of sociology was to achieve an interpretative understanding (see also MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING) of subjectively meaningful human action which exposed the actors’ motives, at one level ‘the causes’ of ACTIONS, to view. Acting individuals constituted the only social reality, and so he was opposed to the use of collective concepts (like the STATE, SOCIETY etc.) unless these were firmly related to the actions of individuals. He also opposed the idea that the social sciences could discover laws, especially development laws, in the manner of the natural sciences, though he thought that social scientists could, and should, employ lawlike generalizations – statements of tendency – about the nature, course and consequences of human conduct. These were possible because human behaviour tended to follow more or less regular patterns. They were necessary in order to establish the causal adequacy of explanation (see POSTULATE OF ADEQUACY), and could be given statistical expression provided that the statistics were supported by a meaningful interpretation of the conduct to which they referred, Weber's work abounds in generalizations, and in concepts ranging from a basic typology of social action (see TYPES OF SOCIAL ACTION to well-known constructs like BUREAUCRACY, CHARISMA, etc., all of which are designed to facilitate the analysis of action and to elucidate its causes, consequences and institutional expressions. Many of these concepts are IDEAL TYPES, i.e. logical simplifications of tendencies more or less present in a complex reality, constructed from a one-sidedly selective viewpoint by the sociologist. Weber insisted that scientific concepts cannot exhaust reality, which is infinite and too complex for the finite human mind to grasp completely. Concepts, therefore, could never stand as final, exhaustive, definitive accounts, but were rather HEURISTIC DEVICES against which reality could be compared and measured for the purposes of its further exploration and explanation.

The intimate connection between social sciences and values arose from this need for selectivity; social science was ‘value relevant’ in that the problems which scientists selected for study, and their conceptualization, were determined by the values of the scientists and/or those of their communities (see VALUE RELEVANCE). Yet social science also had to be value free insofar as values should not be allowed to intrude into the actual investigations and their results (see VALUE FREEDOM) and science could never finally validate value judgements, moral choices or political preferences. In this sense, the world of science and the world of moral and political choice were seen by Weber as logically disjunct. To assume otherwise would be to abdicate the human responsibility for making choices and standing by their consequences.

Weber held these views during the bitter debates about methodology and values which took place in early 20th-century German social science (see also METHODENSTREIT). At the same time he developed his own research interests which found a major focus in the process of rationalization underpinning modern industrial society. Weber applied the term RATIONALIZATION to the West in order to capture a process of disenchantment or demagification of the world, in which action was increasingly reduced to prosaic calculation and oriented to the routine administration of a world dominated by large-scale organizations and the specialized division of labour which found their ultimate expression in bureaucracy. Weber felt uneasy about this process which he saw as destructive of human vitality and freedom; the rule-bound bureaucratic milieu compelled people to become narrow specialists; orientation to its values made people into conforming moral cowards who preferred the security of the routine to the exercise of creative imagination and responsibility which were necessary for the preservation of human freedom – the highest ideal of the West.

Weber saw this process as uniquely European in origin. In a sweeping comparative analysis of European and Oriental religion and social structures – somewhat misleadingly subsumed under the rubric of the SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION – he tries to show how human beings, orienting to different religious, social and political values, created ideas and structures that inhibited the process in the East and facilitated it in the West. In these studies he tried to indicate how Western religion alone broke the power of MAGIC and thus exercised a decisive influence, independently of economic interests, on the rationalization of economic and social life. Here also he sought to demonstrate how the decentralized Western political structure, together with the legacy of ROMAN LAW, created the conditions for the development of individual rights and rational administration which capitalism needed and further fostered as it grew. The much discussed, sometimes maligned and much misunderstood PROTESTANT ETHIC thesis (Weber, 1930) is, therefore, but a small fragment of a much larger analysis of Western capitalist society and its origins.

Weber's emphasis on the power of religious interests to influence human conduct makes it tempting to regard him as a thinker opposed to Marx. Yet this judgement may be too simple. Weber regarded MARX and NIETZSCHE as the two intellectual giants of his age. Thus, while he rejected the crude economic determinism of vulgar Marxists, it is by no means obvious that he imputed such determinism to Marx himself. Weber, in fact, accepted that economic interests were a prime, indeed often a decisive, mover in shaping human action. More, his concern about modern society's implications for human freedom and creativity have something in common with the concern that Marx expressed through his concept of ALIENATION. Nevertheless, Weber's analysis of the structure and dynamics of modern capitalist society differs from Marx's. He does not, for example, see it splitting up into two great hostile classes based on property relations. Instead he saw the bases for conflict group formation as being wider, involving:

  1. a larger number of classes, determined by market relationships and thus by credentials and skills as well as property relations;
  2. potentially complicating considerations of status and party which provided possible foci for conflict independently of class (see also CLASS, STATUS AND PARTY, and MULTIDIMENSIONAL ANALYSIS OF SOCIAL STRATIFICATION).

Above all, however, Weber did not share Marx's optimism about the possibilities for liberation held to inhere in socialism. Insofar as socialism involved the centralization of economic and political power it would extend bureaucratization and thus intensify, rather than alleviate, the problems confronting freedom.

When it touches the future of Western society, therefore, Weber's work is shot through with pathos; it seems ironic to him that a people who established individual freedom should have created conditions that did so much to diminish it. His analysis of modern mass-democratic politics did little to reassure him. Based as they were on mass bureaucratic parties, led by individuals who compromised their ideals in the interests of preserving their organizations, and their jobs, these politics tended to be supportive of the status quo and provided little scope for critical input from the individual. Weber's longing for great charismatic leaders, for people who, by sheer force of their personalities, could rouse the masses and challenge the structure of bureaucratic domination, is perhaps understandable in the light of this analysis, even if it is a little distasteful in the light of a figure like Hitler. Weber, however, was not a proto-NAZI; he clearly believed in political conflict, in which the leaders and their parties competed for power through the mechanism of elections; he defended academic freedom and the rights of Jewish and Marxist intellectuals against a state that tended to discriminate against them. Nevertheless, his nationalism was undoubted, and this makes it difficult for some people to accept him as a liberal thinker (DAHRENDORF, 1967).

Weber's output has not escaped criticism. Some have suggested that he failed in his aim to provide an adequate foundation for a ‘meaningful sociology’ (SCHUTZ, 1967; WINCH, 1958), and, indeed, others have suggested that his empirical work is more concerned to elucidate the structural determinants of action than with meanings. His views on ethical neutrality have also come under attack (especially see GOULDNER, 1973), though they also attract considerable support in contemporary sociology. As Boudon and Bourricaud (1989) suggest, however, ‘the Weberian heritage has furnished a series of continually relevant landmarks to those researchers who have not given up the association of both a wide-ranging historical-comparative perspective with careful institutional analysis and personal commitment with methodological detachment.’

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Weber, Max


Born Apr. 21, 1864, in Erfurt; died June 14, 1920, in Munich. German sociologist, historian, economist, and jurist. Professor in Berlin, Freiburg, Heidelberg, and Munich.

The range of Weber’s scientific activity is very broad: from the agrarian history of the ancient world to the study of the situation of the East Elbian peasants in Germany at the end of the 19th century to the sociology of religion and the methodology of the social sciences. Characteristic of the body of Weber’s work as a whole is the evolution from historical-economic problems to issues of general sociology. Weber was influenced considerably by positivism, neo-Kantianism, and “philosophy of life” (a theory of W. Dilthey’s). His philosophic positions represent an attempt to synthesize what he saw as the positive propositions of these theories—primarily Kantianism, along with certain elements borrowed from Marxism. As distinct from the psychologizing methodology of history of Dilthey and the ideographism of H. Rickert, the theory of sociological cognition of Weber ascribed great importance to the unity of the principle of causality and the theory of “understanding.” According to Weber, the task of sociology is to provide “understanding,” the interpretation of the subjective motives of individual action. This interpretation must be verified empirically, and it is itself part of the causal explanation of an individual event. Weber provided a typology of individual social actions in terms of their degree of rationality. For the methodology of the social sciences, Weber suggested the theory of ideal types as a means of explanation and of generalized study of individual historical phenomena. Ideal types are abstract constructs, intellectual constructions of the possible course of a process; they are created by the scientist as research tools. In his theory of ideal types, Weber poses the important questions of the correlation of empirical and theoretical levels of cognition, and he attempts to provide an analysis of the process of the formation of scientific abstractions. In the light of scientific logic, the process of constructing an ideal type is similar to the process of creating an idealized abstraction, and the ideal type as a whole is similar to the ideal model. However, in the gnoseological aspect the ideal type of Weber is an idealistic interpretation of the model and the process of its creation.

Weber applied his methodological principles to the theory of the origin of “modern Western European capitalism.” In a number of works (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904, and others), Weber asserted, on the basis of a comparative analysis of the ’ ’economic ethic’ ’ of various religions (including Protestantism, Confucianism, and Buddhism), that capitalism was able to emerge at first only in the West as a result of the spread of Protestantism in this area—in particular, Calvinism, the “economic ethic” of which corresponded most closely in Weber’s view to the “spirit of capitalism.” In resolving the question of the interaction of the religious ideology and socioeconomic structure of society, Weber attempted to “supersede” the Marxist theory of the base and superstructure: he presented religion as an independent, active force that determines the emergence of capitalism. Along with classes, Weber’s theory of social structure distinguishes status groups, which are associated with a position of social prestige and a particular life-style, and power groups, the clearest expression of which in Weber’s view were political parties. According to Weber, status groups are totally autonomous with respect to the class division of society. Weber was also the author of theories of bureaucracy, authority, and power. He had considerable influence on the development of contemporary bourgeois sociology.

Weber viewed the future of capitalism pessimistically. He regarded Marxist ideas of the socialist transformation of society as a real threat to the existence of Western capitalism. Weber criticized the foreign and domestic policy of the kaisers from a national-liberal perspective. He considered it necessary that a number of reforms be introduced and that the kaiser’s regime be replaced by a bourgeois parliamentary republic.


Gesemmelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, vols. 1-3. Tübingen, 1920-21.
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre . Tübingen, 1922.
Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Tübingen, 1956.
Gesammelte politische Schriften. Tübingen, 1958.
In Russian translation:
Gorod. Petrograd, 1923.
Istoriia khoziaistva. Petrograd, 1923.
Agrarnaia istoriia drevnego mira. Moscow [1925].


Danilov, A. I. Problemy agrarnoi istorii rannego srednevekov’ia v nemetskoi istoriografii kontsa 19-nachala 20 vv. Moscow, 1958. Pages 96-105.
Kon, I. S. Pozitivism v sotsiologii. Leningrad, 1964. Chapter 5.
Bendix, R. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. New York, 1960.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Weber, Max

(1881–1961) painter, sculptor; born in Bialystok, Russia. Emigrating with his family to Brooklyn (1891), he studied at the Pratt Institute (1898–1900), in Paris with Matisse (1908), then settled in New York (1909). His paintings and sculptures were influenced by expressionism, as seen in The Geranium (1911), and by cubism, as in Chinese Restaurant (1915). He moved to Garden City, Long Island (1920) and began his representational period. By the late 1930s he focused on religious subjects, as in Adoration of the Moon (1944).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.