Max Weber

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Max Weber (1864–1920) was a sociologist born and raised in Germany. He was surrounded by a family that was filled with intellectual discourse which ultimately left him bored of traditional school. After high school, he went on to Heidelberg University and the military, continuing to higher education and finally earning his Ph.D. in 1889. He taught economics at Friedburg University before going back to Heidelberg, at which time he had a falling out with his father that was never rectified. In 1897, he experienced a psychological breakdown. After many years of trial and error, he was able to move back into academia where he became an editor of a prominent science journal. Ultimately, it was after this time that he started writing and publishing his most prominent sociological works, one of which is the more well-known work of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", among others.[1][2]

His interpretation of sociology[edit]

Weber differed from other previous social theorists like Marx or Durkheim, because he sought to understand the subjective contexts in which social actions existed rather than attempting to identify objectively defined 'social facts', like Durkheim would coin them, that he observed in society. Thus, Weber could be said to focus on the symbolic meanings of the society itself, not simply the purpose of symbolic meaning but the actual content itself. Rather than creating a blanket statement about abstract, hidden rules about how a society operates, he prefered to point out specific beliefs and doctrines that would lead to specific actions taking place. He placed an importance of the interconnectivity of aspects of social life, rather than the hierarchical nature of Marx's or Durkheim's work in what drives a society forward (e.g. one relating to capital and the other relating to social cohesion).


Weber's main point about conceptualizing the specific contextual versions of societies that have existed and continue to exist, he emphasizes the conception of the term Verstehen, a term that already exists in German and means, literally, "understanding". The point of using the word Verstehen is to point out that the multidimensional nature of individual and collective actions requires one to be aware of a multitude of plateaus of sociological understanding in order to fully grasp their establishment. For instance, one could say that the drive for profits is more than simply the collection of capital, but also the idea that the collection of capital is valuable in it of itself can also be pointed to as a motivation. Thus, one must point to both the rational calculations performed and the non-rational assumptions that one takes in order to completely understand the directions that individuals, and consequently, societies move.

Ideal Types[edit]

To define these types of things, Weber also understands that the world does not operate in extremes. Instead, he uses 'ideal types' in order to compare and contrast existing behaviors and structures with a theoretical yardstick to be able to fully acquire its nuance. An ideal type is simply a concept taken to its maximally possible extreme, e.g. capitalism being fully free of any legislative intervention, communism as a completely stateless society at which there is zero opportunity to establish class, libertarianism as complete or near-complete abolishment as government, etc. This level of nuance can seem obvious to some people today, but the early conception that one cannot simply make sweeping declarations in a science as complicated as sociology and that one instead must compare and contrast to these ideal types laid the groundwork for more prominent theorists today that learn from Weber's archetypes of understanding.[3]

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism[edit]

Stemming from his idea of Verstehen, or understanding, he studied the rise of the economic movement of capitalism among the country that he lived in and around. This particular work would go on to strongly influence political literature after the fact, creating a connection between historical cultural context with economic principles acquiring mainstream practice. Notably, Weber rejected Marx's notion that religion was purely a tool for oppression, identifying instead that while it could potentially be that, it can also be an organically shifting cultural presence that primes members of a society to enshrine certain nonreligious principles extending beyond the simple churches or scriptures that they may consume. Thus, to understand capitalism at the fullest extend would require an amount of understanding of the historical context that it was able to thrive and be instituted.

Historical context[edit]

Roughly following a historical line of feudalistic economies and a relatively recent change to the movement of private ownership of land to the common person rather than royalty, Weber sought to analyze society through the tools of Marxism, whilst simultaneously criticizing the more revolutionary aspect of it, preferring to take a more passive approach to writing about society as more of an observation-centric analysis on capitalism, which eventually made him determine that while capitalism seems like the economic aspects consume all cultural elements of a society, it is in reality embedded in a much wider cultural totality that encompassed it.

Parallels between the two systems[edit]

Throughout his essay, Weber clearly lays out what his perspective is on the aspects of Protestantism and capitalism, and how the cultural and economic models of characteristics from each philosophy have enough similarities that they interconnect with each other and create a sort of feedback loop that allows them both to be embellished. Stemming both from the political change of throwing out the kings and queens in favor of citizen ownership of private property and the Martin Luther's 95 Theses of criticisms on Catholicism, that socio-historical analysis would continue to suggest that a drive to rationalization and a shift in the ideological frame caused a major societal shift in how it was structured.

The Protestant ethic[edit]
See the main article on this topic: Protestant work ethic

The protestant ethic is hallmarked by two very important qualities that Weber notes, both heavily contributing to the individualistic notions of countering Catholicism and embodying Protestantism. Those two qualities are as follows:

  1. A type of religious 'calling', where the doctrine generally states that individuals are to show their worship in god not on an off day, but through their labor as a sort of 'in-practice' worship, akin to demonstrating worship beyond what happens in the church. This idea has the result of teaching people that there is intrinsic value in the work itself beyond whatever it is that one would produce via the labor, counter to the previous idea of simply growing crops for those you sell it to. This is also in part to the idea that wasting time is one of the "deadliest of sins" one can commit, given that one is on this earth for a limited amount of time. The means to an end becomes an end in it of itself.
  1. A type of religious asceticism that extends to the general sphere, where while one is expected to work, they are also expected not to hoard wealth beyond what is necessary. No matter how much wealth one has, they are continuously expected to commit to hard psychological and physical labor. No one is excepted from this doctrine (at least publicly). Thus, while one person may have more wealth than another, they are both equally expected to work in God's calling to enact their worship regardless of how comfortable that one could live. This sort of systemic and traditional schedule that one works being more desirable than working when one feels like it only further pushes the rhetoric of asceticism, embellishing the idea that one should not waste their time or resources, while simultaneously not accumulating it without reason.

These two qualities of Protestant culture at the time were incredibly important to the development of the specific type of labor and commodity exchange today. Weber makes sure to mention that it's not simply a matter of desiring capital or resources, as that has always been apparent. Rather, it is about the form of individual exchange and labor that is instituted, and following his theme of discussing the process of rationality, the protestant ethic was a convenient tool that allowed the people to be more compliant with the tenets of capitalism that shall follow below.

The spirit of capitalism[edit]

The economic structure of capitalism that Weber observed during his time could not have sprung up extemporaneously. Indeed, it required a couple of specific mindsets that would result in the institution of rationally calculated work in comparison to ad hoc work that arose when needed. These two things that early capitalism required from the members of society to successfully cohere:

  1. The first being a strong work ethic: living in a capitalist society that strongly emphasizes this concept can make it seem easy to think that one needs a strong work ethic, but the way that Weber describes it is more specific than what was simply stated. Instead, it requires not just a willingness to work, but an actual conviction to commit and cohere to the rationally decided rules and regulations that are placed upon you, and your commitment and grit dedicated to the work that you supposedly agree to. Instead of suggesting that someone can work a job they want, it requires that people, for the most part, are willing to work in jobs they don't like for a significant amount of time without outward complaint. This point coincides with the protestant calling because no matter what job one had, that would be considered the correct worship towards God, and therefore a valuable thing in it of itself no matter how figuratively or literally shitty the job was. The end result was a large group of people that essentially believed in the value of hard work for the sake of the value of hard work.
  1. The other thing that is required for a capitalist structure to be instituted is the mass desire to reinvest your capital. Rather than simply spending your money on hard-earned commodities, though that did happen, one needs to also act in accordance to either saving it for long-term advantages, whether it be interest rates or higher technologies that allowed you to do your job better, or outright buying objects or property that allowed you to further your business moving forward. You see this in the modern era of today in the form of investing in school, government, roads, military, and companies investing in advertising, additional buildings, and different materials for their product, all which result in the hopeful conclusion that one will acquire even more money from this. This coincides with the principle of asceticism, because asceticism requires one not just to save their money, but not to spend it irresponsibly, and also not to simply hold on to it for no reason other than accumulating wealth. Instead, the money collected is expected to be used effectively and constructively, with reserve.

Because these four concepts paired and lined up with each other cleanly enough, the cultural and economic functions created a social feedback loop resulting in the overdevelopment of both of these societal principles, causing this specific strain of capitalist ideologies to be instituted in europe and the west. Here one can see the importance in not just understanding the economic conditions at the time, but also employing the mindset that was common at the time. This was the type of Verstehen that Weber practiced in order to do his studies.


Over time, that specific version of Protestantism would quickly fade away. However, the capitalistic system obviously did not. One could have multiple explanations for this, but Weber suggests that it has to do with the overrationalization of society, where a larger emphasis was being placed on rationale and systemic establishments over cultural and social enforcements on things. Measurable and objective work and commodities started gaining traction, and after a while the philosophies behind capitalism became absorbed into capitalism itself and being differentiated from the original Protestantism, the ideology remained not in religious terms but in secular terms.[4]

The historical process of rationality[edit]

Weber analyzes the cultural and economic trends that result in the totality of what a society is, and part of this historical analysis stems from what Comte talks about with his three stages of human society and thought. However, he tends to space it out a bit differently. Instead of laying out clear stages of areas of types of thinking, Weber applies nuance by referencing three observable happenings that serve as benchmarks for the types of rationale that exists during a given time or place. These three things are:

  1. An ad hoc explanation for things, akin to magic
  2. A more internally consistent explanation of things, akin to religious claims
  3. A completely rational thought process, science, if you will

These three things blend into each other and slowly translate to one another over time, reflecting a sort of evolution on human thought and the urge to place order on things and establish a rationale for what happens around someone. While the specific ideal types of these stages are clear cut, we can use these benchmarks to apply where a person or social group is at on this scale of thought. For example, it's easy to claim that some people in the US are closer to the science-thinking ideal type than other people who are more inclined towards the religion explanation.

His definition of religion[edit]

But what does Weber even mean by religion? Emile Durkheim focuses on functionalist group tendencies, but Weber defines 'religion' to be a bit more specific than Durkheim's. Weber's definition of religion encompass three characteristics, again of ideal types, that consist of:

  • An existence of metaphysical claims and beliefs, things that he calls 'mysticism'. This is where spirits and other such things supposedly exist, presented as a probable source for an explanation of why something happens.
  • A relatively common sentiment of right or wrong, with the express purpose of establishing what types of behaviors are favorable and what types of behavior are not
  • A belief in an existence of actual evil in the world, suggested as a contrast to the existence of an all-good deity e.g. God.

If something has these three somewhat narrower criteria, then congratulations, you have a religion. Notably, contrary to Durkheim's structural version of religion, this one adds structural cohesion as but one of the pieces on the list, claiming that a legitimate religion would require more than just social cohesion. Stemming from the philosophy of Verstehen, Weber thus has the idea that religious beliefs are separate to those of scientific rational ones on the basis that they require different types of thinking to come to conclusions of.[5]

Irrationality of overrationality[edit]

However, when you get too rational, you run the risk of achieving what Weber calls the irrationality of overrationality. When society goes a little too crazy establishing rationale into more and more of it's daily life, you lose more of the ability to apply nuance to situations. The more clear-cut a rule is, the harder it is to bend in your favor, the more brittle it is able to be snapped. The idea of rationalization to make things more efficient and communicate more effectively is one that no doubt can be heralded, but if you wait too long and keep adding in rationale to as much as you possibly can, you start stepping into the realm of irrationality for the reason that you lose certain abilities to act as an individual with nuanced positions and thoughts. It's a dialectic that is troublesome to maintain effectively.

The iron cage of bureaucracy[edit]

Through his works, consequently, Weber talks about the ideas of bureaucracies, a purely-rationalized ideal type that one can refer to many examples of something close to that. A company or a government puts you through paperwork after paperwork just to do as something as simple as change your office. However, the main concept of the iron cage does not simply extend from its nearly all-encompassing effect of rules and regulations, but that the rules and regulations themselves can only be reasonably changed by using the rules and regulations to change them. This creates a self-fixing loop that deters most people from legitimately making an effort to change the laws that are presented to them.[6]

The distribution of political power[edit]

Weber, as a multidimensional theorist, continued his critique on Marx's stances of his view of society. Similar to his work about Protestantism and how it connects to capitalism, Weber argues that there are more than one type of social group that could potentially wield political power. His point is that one does not necessarily have to have economic capital available to them in order to enact any sort of social or systemic change in the society they live in, and in fact could potentially wield another type of 'capital', one that is more abstract and socially defined than the seemingly-objective establishment of monetary and property-based resources.


Weber starts off by defining power, in this way: "The chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others." This type of quote reflects from his view of social life in that while it does include monetary types of power within it's definition, as having more money gives you more economic will vs. people with less money, it is also broad enough to reflect other types of social and individual power that may also manifest. In addition, it also reflects the possibility of having more than one type of power coinciding into a single group or individual resulting in an exponential increase of what that power entails, considering that even in the Modern US monetary value is not entirely the full picture for how much power someone has over another.

Class, Status, Party[edit]

Part of Weber's stance about the different types of power are dependent on defining what types of social groups exist and what types of power manifest from those appropriate social groups. In his essay about Class, Status, and Party, he spells out not one type of group, but three types of groups that all contribute to some form of power that can potentially be used in tandem with each other to bolster yourself and increase your capability to change rules and change minds. Importantly, it is crucial to note that certain things can apply to multiple social groups, and can therefore create multiple types of power depending on the societal context. Therefore, it is important to connect the intersectionality of the types of capital, material and nonmaterial, that exist.


The first social group that Weber discusses is the already previously known social group known as "class". This definition given in particular is not one that reflects a community of people, but rather instead an unrelated group of people defined by their position in the economic structure in regards to their relationship with the means of production to the extent that economic structures ascribe relevant importance to action within a society. In particular, the type of economic wealth that one has is also important, making a differentiation from quantitative types of capital, such as warehouses, land, or houses which have clearly defined and measurable uses, to qualitative types of capital such as money, workers, or technological mastery that have a variable demonstration of use.

At its ultimate core, class is defined as a framework of "market situation", where one's position and capabilities within the market are sufficiently realized within the scope of what they are capable of, defined by their skillset and wealth. Thus, any sort of action that comes from class warfare is going to be based in economic interest, an assessment of wealth and property inequality or inequity. This is largely the only type of action that can come from this type of social group, because while these people share a certain thing in common e.g. their position within the market, that is also usually the only thing they have in common, where they could potentially differ greatly in race, religion, gender, and other types of ways to segregate people socially. Thus, one must not actually address it as a "group" in conventional terms at all, but more as an aggregates of people that happen to have similar desires and drives, not because of interconnected social action but simply because of the state of the economy at the time.

All in all, class is a way to largely identify economic functions and possible economic grievances, but that is where the ability to analyze society stops due to the sheer broadness of the definition. It's essentially a double edged sword that can only be used broadly for types of power that exist.


The second social group that Weber discusses is one of "status". Rather than an aggregate suggested by the relationship with the overall market context, status groups are actual big-g groups that can be more clearly defined. Nevertheless, they still have some amount of broadness due to the fluctuating nature of social definitions of groups. That being said, one important concept connected to status groups is related to the concept of "honor", which is subjectively defined by the collective society as a whole, and a value judgment based on aspects of their personality, culture, or even their class status. However, unlike classes, status groups can also transcend beyond fundamental class status. For instance, the idea of a 'gentleman' as a status label can be applied to a person no matter the capital they own, as it's a label ascribed almost entirely by action and not one's capability to play in the market. As a result, people defined as a gentleman during a time when that label was valued consequently would gain treatment different from non-gentlemen.

Status is usually defined by a specific style of life, where as long one remains the confines of the restrictions set by the definition of that type of 'honor', they will receive the privileges that are associated with that type of status. Of course, the opposite is possible, where one experiences a certain amount of 'dishonor', where it results in that social group losing power and potentially becoming pushed further away from the mainstream. This type of evolution towards more extreme versions of a social group creates a sort of 'caste' at which a group is essentially isolated save for simply necessary interactions with people outside the social group. Going beyond simple ethnic segregation, it can expand and result in further segregation within the ethnic groups, as evidenced by social boundaries between lower class African Americans or Europeans in America versus upper class ones, especially in recent history where segregation was still a systemic issue.

Occurring from a correlation of the relationship with the market, groups of people are distanced and separated based on this subjective definition of honor, and the consequential privileges manifesting from this separation can vary to something as insignificant as acceptability to eat certain foods to enacting legislation to benefit that social group. As a result, the general effect is ultimately a "hinderance of the free development of the market." The stratification that comes from not just production and acquisition of goods but also the specific consumption habits of those people connects and demonstrates to be an important factor in determining power in the definition that Weber gives at the beginning of his work.


The last, and least developed category of power that Weber writes about is the classification of a social group geared specifically towards political power, or "party". After having discussed the economic order and the social order and how they intertwine with one another, the legal order is the final area in society that Weber differentiates. In this particular section of his work, the word "party" doesn't necessarily refer to institutionalized parties like Democrats or Republicans, but rather groups of people who are fighting and advocating for a specific political interest, social, economic or otherwise.

Parties are not ultimately defined by either solely the economic sphere or the social sphere, and it also need not be defined by a guaranteed mix between the two. Instead, possible political action results from some sort of mix of both of these without a specific equation as to where it comes from. But what ultimately matters is not either of these areas of society but rather the motivation for political action: the common drive to change legislation to a certain outcome, resulting in economic or social change. In addition, it almost undoubtedly requires an amount of association, as without coherence political action scarcely goes anywhere significant.

Overall, it does not matter what means that a party uses in order to attain their predisposed ideals, but simply the association at which they strive for a certain point of view. Despite these categorizations to these types of social groups and the power they entail, one is not confined or stuck within any specific group. Just because they suggest an association does not mean that they are necessarily confined or restricted to it entirely, whereas people are constantly shifting and fluxing their association with certain groups. Weber's main point isn't the movement between the groups, but rather the forms of the groups themselves and their primary motivations and appropriate power that stems from their realization.[7]

Legitimate Domination[edit]

Finally, Weber derives ideas from his perspectives on power to a more limited application of it: domination. Rather than general power, domination is a specific type of power that is able to prime other people to following your will, the capability to impose your will on others, if you will. Here, domination is defined as, "the probability that certain specific commands will be obeyed by a given group or persons." When a hierarchal relationship is acknowledged as legitimate, there is a base minimum of, at least, voluntary compliance on the order to committing to what is being asked. While the motivations may vary from the base instinctual one to the rationally calculated one, it is all nonetheless reflective of an establishment of a legitimacy to the order that a person is instructing you to enact behaviors or thoughts.

However, the types of dominance can be recognized in different forms, so Weber makes sure to attempt to create a classification system for this.

Types of authority[edit]

Weber discusses three types of authority: Rational, Traditional, and Charismatic. He makes the argument that legitimate domination stems from one of or a combination of these three types of relationships/hierarchies, and proposes this as a potential framework to understanding why people cohere to instructions given to them.

Rational authority[edit]

The first type of authority Weber discusses is the one of Rational-Legal authority. Rational-Legal authority entails the idea that the rules and regulations, not the person holding command of that particular office, are the objects of sublimation and committal. That being said, while the person in office may create or destroy rules and regulations based on their own subjective viewpoint, one only follows them to the extend that an individual follows the law or rule itself, with the assumption that the rules themselves are internally consistent(at least in regards to form and not content). In addition, one conforms to the authority only to the extent that they are systematically expected to conform to that authority, where that authority answers to the rationally laid out authoritative superior up the chain of command.

Specifically, no one person is exempt from this type of authority. Whoever is in the office or position that entails that they have the power and influence necessary for the people under them to commit to the things that they enact is not unique to any individual that is in that position. Rather, the authority given to that office is as such: given to that particular office indiscriminately of whoever resides in that office.

Traditional Authority[edit]

Weber then points out a type of authority related to but not entirely located within the sphere of bureaucracy: Traditional authority. Rather than cohering to the laws or regulations that are rationally calculated into your specific role of how you interact with those laws, traditional authority entails that one is able to convince people to do things based on the social evaluation of the title that they hold. Legitimacy can be claimed by long-standing traditions, or otherwise long-term appointment where the value is placed directly on the title. This rides on the assumption that, because a particular person or group has a particular title, they are therefore entitled to tell you what to do based on the value placed on the title itself e.g. karate master, preacher, or even teacher.

In comparison to the strictly-defined parameters of action enacted by rational-legal authority, traditional types of authorities have more lenience in regards to what is considered acceptable for one to attain in the position that they hold. Some actions are bound to the label or meaning of the specific tradition that the title or position entails, while others are simply not bound to any types of rules at all. In particular, the boundaries of one's authority in this type of position stems from the general subjective sentiment of those that are subject to the person in traditional power, meaning that however far that the entity in power is accepted to go is ultimately decided by those under them.

One important distinction that one can make between this type of authority and rational-legal authority is that rules proclaimed by traditional authority are not clearly laid out diagrams for action, but instead marketed as 'wisdom', tautologies and statements made over time shaping a sort of 'culture' centered around the roles presented by the traditional authority. In addition, it lacks some key characteristics that allow one to differentiate between the two, such as a rationally established hierarchy, a regular system of appointment, or technical training as a regular requirement. For these reasons, one can infer that a traditional authority effectively sums up to a number of ad-hoc decisions within the parameters of the meaning and value of that particular label placed on that tradition.

Charismatic authority[edit]

The last type of authority Weber discusses is "Charismatic Authority", which is one that centers not on rationally decided rules or a title attained by a person, but instead authority given to the person themselves reflecting the value that that person is attributed to have. An individual that is attributed with this type of authority is regarded as somehow 'better' than the rest of the individuals normally considered within the same group for some extraordinary reason. They are regarded as having near-superhuman ability of some kind or another, capable of doing things that most other people would not be expected of doing. In particular, the recognition of this type of authority is not actually based on the genuineness of the person, but rather on the personal judgments of those worshipping that person on what they perceive as 'genuine', and the subsequent actions that follow suit to that judgment.

As a consequence, this type of authority is one such that can be delegitimized as quickly as it is recognized, as if the leader is shown to be inept, incompetent, or some other similar characteristic running contrary to the view of their 'superhuman' ability, this will erode the authority they have, resulting in a simple recognition of a person, not someone to be heralded. That being said, a group of people supporting this type of authority is called a 'charismatic community', a group of people attributing power to an individual not based on rules or titles but based on their mass-defined perspective of who they are and what they're capable of doing.

In a social group such as this type of authority, people under the charismatic leader all follow a communistic relationship amongst the 'followers'. There are no formal rules, abstract legal principles, or any process of judicial decision directed at them. Instead, judgments and statements are constantly and paradoxically presented as absolute, whilst continuously changing and modifying the actual stances that exist. This works because the power is regarded inside the person themselves, resting in a lack of a scope of what is considered acceptable behavior. Notably, this type of power is considered to be completely independent of economic qualifications in regards to their relation to the market, and the ideal is that they do not use their charisma for economic attainment.

Over time, when we get more rationalized, the result of charismatic authority becomes more rationalized as well. The aspects of charisma are attributed to and absorbed by the system/bureaucracy that surrounds it, resulting in a 'routinization' of charisma leadership, where leaders are elected not based on policy but on the perception of what they are capable of. [8]