Max Weber

Max Weber (1864–1920) is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Sociology”.1 His emphasis on the historical influence of ideas encouraged sociologists to consider more than just a society’s material culture and institutional structures. One of his primary interests was Verstehen, the emic understanding of the social actor in human exchange. Weber saw value in looking at the meaning social actors associate with behavior. Consider this analysis of Weber’s view and its value today.

In 1904–5, Weber wrote a two-part article, later combined with an introduction (written in the year of his death) and footnotes in the seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

If capitalism is a regular orientation to the achievement of profit through economic exchange (p. x), Weber saw a distinct modern iteration in the West, a rationalized capitalistic enterprise requiring a disciplined formally free labor force and regularized investment of capital (p. xi, xxxiv). Rather than a mere pursuit of gain through unlimited greed, Weber explores historical peculiarities (p. 12) where Puritan entrepreneurs combine the impulse to accumulation with a positively frugal life-style, a rational capitalism that Weber understood was based upon a “this-worldly asceticism” (p. xii, xxxi). Such a notion stands in contrast to the Catholic ideal of an other-worldly monastic life with its objective of transcending the mundane.

The spirit (Geist) of capitalism is an attitude, an ethos, which seeks profit rationally and systematically in a self-controlled manner (p. 26–27). The Protestant ethic Weber explores and describes is rooted in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. As such, Calvinism supplies the moral energy of the capitalist entrepreneur (p. xiii), a drive leading to duty in one’s calling. The ideas become effective forces in history (p. xviii).

Weber argues that in Calvinism, a sovereign God through fiat decree predestines ones to eternal salvation and others to damnation. The former are the elect of God. Both the faith to be saved and the resulting salvation are gifts of God given to the chosen. In reciprocal gratitude, the elect respond with a life of good works or rational labor (p. 107), demonstrating one’s effectual calling (pp. 68–71).

However, Weber also identifies other motivations. For example, one might be uncertain about election/salvation and consequently feel the need to prove one’s redemption to the community of saints and larger world through good works. “The essential elements of the attitude which was there called the spirit of capitalism are the same as what we have just shown to be the content of the Puritan worldly asceticism” (p. 123). Weber notes that authentic piety favors success in capitalism by insuring integrity and fostering habits of prudence (p. 260).

Interestingly, although Weber traces the historical interdependence of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, especially from the 16th to the 19th century, by 1905 he concludes that capitalism rested on mechanical foundations, no longer in need of religious support. He describes the sense of personal duty as “the ghost of dead religious beliefs” (p. 124).

Going further he says, “The pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport” (p. 124). He seems also to claim that the spirit of capitalism now operates analogously to natural selection, lifting up and rewarding people who go to greater capitalistic extremes, casting out those who refuse to play the game. Weber characterizes victorious capitalism as an “iron cage” (p. 123) and that “no one knows who will live in this cage in the future” (p. 124).2

1 Montesquieu (1689–1755) is credited with the early assumption that disciplines like law, economics, or politics should be studied in relationship to each other rather than separately. This assumption was the seedling of sociology. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) is also considered a principal architect of modern social science. He was impressed with the functional role of society’s structure.

2This blog post is co-authored by Christopher Strauss, a Professor of Literature at the University of New Mexico, Los Alamos, and Dr. Robert Strauss, Lead Faculty of Communication at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.