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Compare and contrast the explanations of social change of Karl Marx and Max Weber

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Karl Marx (1818- 93) thought social change is what was needed for a better society, and to get social change he believed there must be class conflict. Marx’s major concern of social change was economic change. His most well known work dealt with class conflict, the opposition between the capitalists also known, as the bourgeoisie who are the people responsible for controlling the land, factories, etc. and the working class, which are sometimes referred to as the proletariat, are the workers that are being exploited by the bourgeoisie.

Marx aspired to build a science of society, but did not describe himself as a sociologist. It was partly for this reason that it was not until the following generation that most of his work began to be recognised. The growth of the European labour movement inspired Marx’s work, as did the British materialist tradition. He argued that the existence of private property was what divided people into their social classes and tried to show how and why these classes were inevitably drawn into conflict with each other. He showed this by explaining that the classes were involved in relations of exploitation. The property- owning class or bourgeoisie benefit at the expense of the propertyless, leading to a struggle over the distribution of economic resources.

Marx believed that the least developed forms of society were those in which the mode of production could be described as primitive communism. He argued that as technology develops and production expands, so the property relations must change. If they did not, societies would not be able to continue to expand their powers of production. The form of society that was emerging in Western Europe at the time was an especially capitalist one. Starting in the commercial centres of the feudal world a class of private property owners had changed into the most important economic force.

Thus in Marx’s theory of social change, different stages in the developments were defined in terms of their mode of their production, with each containing elements within it that point towards a higher and complex form of social organisation, and as capitalist societies continued to change socially, Marx argued, exploitation would grow and their superstructures no longer encourage economic growth. A revolution of the workers would have to occur to overcome this. He thought they would become aware of their alienation and attempt to change the conditions that produced it. He also thought that this would establish a more advanced form of communist production.

Marx accepted the fact that his own theories were relative down to his own class. He believed that others looking form another perspective in a different class would get a greater understanding and a deeper meaning of their society than those who were connected to the ruling class.

Marx had developed this theory by comparing it with all that had come before and how things became what they are now. He tried to describe the main characteristics of this new industrial order and believed there was a purpose to these changes. It was this base that he took to all factors of life including religion, political systems, education and so on. One of his most important insights, which are still referred to in sociological theory, is that of the revolutionary nature of modern capitalism, a system that is constantly undergoing change at a vast pace changing the world economically and socially.

Unlike Karl Marx, Max Weber (1864- 1920) based his ideas on people’s actions rather than from structures. He argued that observations were impossible without a concept of some kind. There can be no knowledge of things, as they actually exist, independently of thought. To have knowledge is to give meaning to the world and to interpret it in some way. His ideas continued to present that the world does not simple present its self to our senses already interpreted. The observer must interpret it. All observers, chose particular aspects of reality to give them meaning and significance.

Weber believed that these concepts that give meaning to the world come from different cultural values. He suggested that they vary according to social groups and change over time. Because there are no universal values, there can be no universally valid scientific concepts. Therefore reality can only ever be known and understood from value and time relevant points of view. Also in this way, he distinguishes between factual judgements and value judgements.

According to Weber, the most important types ideal types of social action. This emphasis on action shows a contrast to Marx’s theory. Weber has identified four types of action as the fundamental building blocks for sociology. The first is instrumentally rational action, which is when people adopt a purely technical means for the attainment for their goals. For example a business owner will act in a way, which is most efficient for his or her company to make them earn the most money.

The next is value rational action- this is action that is rational is relation to some irrational chosen value. Here there is no suggestion that actions are technically appropriate in cause- effect terms. Weber’s third type of action is one called traditional action, which is unreflective and habitual. It hardly involves any rationality at all. People act in this way as a matter of routine, simply because that is the way they have previously acted in that situation. Finally comes affectual action. This is what directly expresses an emotion. An example would be an angry outburst.

As these four types are ideal types they do not exist in reality. All concrete patterns of action are likely to be interpretable in terms of more than one type. In order to see how closely a course of action corresponds to these and other ideal types, one must use a technique which Weber called understanding. Weber said that the idea of a social science is to use ideal types as a way of understanding the meanings that people give to their actions, including their motives and intentions. Sociologists must infer these meanings from their observations of the person’s actions by empathizing with them.

From Weber’s perspective, the transition from feudal pre- industrial societies to modern industrial capitalism is seen in terms of a shift in the typical meanings that individuals give to their actions. He argued that Europe had undergone a period of rationalisation. This involved a shift from value rational actions to instrumentally rational actions. In medieval societies people’s way of thinking was driven by religion and political values. A great deal of their everyday action was not rational at all. In character it was traditional and tradition itself, in may cases, was treated as an absolute value. However, in more modern societies, our way of thinking is more based on a rational calculation of the likely effects of different actions. In these, more modern societies social life has opened up to become more rational and reflective. Much of everyday actions remain traditional with little consideration for ultimate values.

In comparison with Marx’s theory which Weber saw as unacceptable, Weber’s theory led him to reject deterministic systems of explanation. Weber argued that society should be conceived primarily in terms of the meaningful social action of people. He continued, that any study of social development must recognise the part played by the individual. He also stressed that individuals have free will. Unlike Marx’s theory, he said that individuals have the power to act freely and not simply as the occupants of class positions and social roles. Marx’s theory limited people to their social classes and exploited the lower classes. The future, in Weber’s view is undetermined and cannot be predicted, whereas Marx said that he would predict the revolt in the workers who were being exploited to establish a more advanced form of communist production.

Marx suggested that history was the product of economic change and collective action, however Weber disagreed with this and went on to produce an advanced theory of ‘methodological individualism’ rather than Marx’s ‘methodological collectivism’. Marx’s emphasis of objectively determining laws with the assumption that culture existed merely as a passive reflection of material forces is what Weber specifically opposed. Weber believed that this emphasis diminished the active role of the individual.

Weber argued that sociology has to be based on understanding the meanings of people different types of actions as previously discussed rather than trying to analyse human action from external points of view. It is for this reason that I would favour Weber’s theory. He focuses more on the each person and their individual actions and points of view, instead of seeing society as combined into groups of different classes. I feel that Weber would gain more valid findings from his research for the same reason.

Weber criticised Marx’s theory as he felt that social change is always ‘open- ended’, based as it is on the unpredictability of human action. Marx attempted to predict how people would react in any given context and Weber found this impossible. It would mean that sociology would always lack the predictability of action conditioned by laws and would therefore defy his suggested theory.

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