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Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ and Weber’s rationality theory

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Max Weber’s observations and conclusions regarding modernity and its causes have named him one of the most influential sociologists of our era. Weber believed that in the West rationality had come to become the predominant impetus for action. Weber said that Rationality was one of four motivations towards actions–the remaining three, Traditional, Affective, and Value-Oriented, had been based on more humanistic qualities and had all faded into almost insignificance in the modern age. He thought that this change in stimulus had led to men becoming dehumanised, trapped in the ‘iron cage’ of production and bureaucracy. Weber’s writings sought to understand why Capitalism had come to predominate in the West, rather than other parts of the world, and to examine the different aspects of such a society. Weber argued that sociology was inevitably a subjective science that was dominated by the importance of the individual; this belief led him to employ very unique methods of analysis.

In order to fully understand some of Weber’s key ideas, it is necessary to quickly look at his very unique methodology. Notably, Weber’s basic view of Sociology was quite different to his contemporaries, most distinctly to Emil Durkheim, as he didn’t believe that it was an objective, scientific field. He argued that the natural sciences entailed people observing processes, such as cell formation, and devising laws and rules based on what they had seen. Conversely, social science entailed the observation of people, all of who were guided by subjectivity and motivated by emotions. Weber was inspired by Kant’s belief that it was impossible to have knowledge free of interpretation; our cultural values would lead us to lay emphasis on certain aspects of a given topic and to focus on particular concepts. These differences had to be taken into careful consideration when making conclusions, as well as noting the further subjectivity of the sociologist himself. Weber also believed that in sociology one had to focus on the individual rather than the collective, he called his analysis of the individual Understanding, or Verstehen; observations of what people do and what motivates them.

Although he believed that a combination of more scientific methods, such as statistics, was also important, he gave priority to the empathetic observance of individuals. In making his analysis, Weber organised articles into ‘ideal types’, which he claimed referred to the ‘logically consistent’ features of an issue. This method was supposed to be used as a form of comparison, a measurement: not as concrete reality, as Weber didn’t believe that such a thing existed. In his own words, “An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct. . . . In its conceptual purity, this mental construct . . . cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality

Weber believed that the spread of Protestantism in the West had inspired the growth of rationality and consequently the development of Capitalism. In his research, Weber looked at the histories of various cultures, comparing each to one another. By looking at their similarities and differences he discovered what he claimed had made some countries become distinctly modern and others to remain basically traditional. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the one main difference was religion: he believed that Protestantism formed a frame of mind which was highly rational, as opposed to the magical elements of traditional beliefs. Weber described this thesis in his most well known book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s actualargument in this book has caused some confusion and controversy, as he seems to have oscillated between a ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ argument.

The first says that Calvinism created Capitalism while the ‘weak’ argument just says that the change in religion removed obstacles to capitalism, the beginnings of which were already established. In either case, Weber certainly qualifies his thesis that Protestantism had an effect, be it passive or aggressive, on the growth of Capitalism. The spread of Lutheranism in 1517 was a very important period in European history. The changes that Martin Luther made completely changed people’s outlook of religion. By making changes such as translating the bible into German so that all could read it and introducing hymn singing to the churches he made religion more accessible to the masses. People began to have a more personal relation to God and in many ways faith became much more ardent. The teachings of Luther were adopted and amended by John Calvin, who added one very significant modification, that of Predestination. Predestination said that God had decided each person fate before they were even born and that this decision was irreversible.

According to Weber, this created a sense of anxiety in the people, which was countered or obscured by hard work. Furthermore Weber said that people believed success in work would prove they were of the select few chosen by God to go to heaven; this belief led people to work hard and accumulate wealth. Most importantly perhaps, Weber argues that Puritans were not interested in high risk ventures like previous merchants but wanted regular, methodical work and weren’t interested in spending but in saving and investing–these characteristics created an ideal basis for the growth of Capitalism.

Now we come to a wider analysis of what I believe was Weber’s main theme: the predominance of rationality in modernity. Weber explored rationality at all levels of society, including bureaucracy, the state, and even music. Weber believed that bureaucracy was the most important characteristics of modern rationality. Due to the shear size of modern communities, some sort of heavily organised system was necessary to maintain the efficiency demanded by a rational environment. Thus we have bureaucracy, the main points of which Weber dominated in an ‘ideal type’: hierarchy of authority, impersonality, written rules of conduct, promotion based on achievement, specialised division of labour, and last but not least, efficiency. Weber argued that the combination of these characteristics created an environment in which people lost their humanity, became ‘specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart’.

Bureaucracy entailed an oligarchy, having a few people at the top of a community with an immense amount of power–according to Robert Michels, ‘who say organisation say oligarchy’. By nature, the men at the top of a hierarchy have more information than their subordinates, and the power to grant or deny raises, hire and fire employees and to grant promotions. These factors give create a strong divide between the boss and his subordinate; in a hierarchy these relationships continue all the way down the scale, thus everyman is both responsible to and for another man and divisions are made through out. Therefore bureaucracy creates isolationism. This argument parallels Marx’ interest in the isolationism of modern society, though with a key difference.

Marx believed that isolation was caused by capitalism and thus would end with the rise of Socialism. Weber on the other hand, believed that isolationism would be as, if not more, predominant in a Socialist society as it would remain a highly bureaucratised culture. Weber argued that there was a paradox to rational thinking as it often led to irrationality. He claimed that men became to obsessed by efficiency and production that they lost track of their humanity, this is exemplified by the well known crises of the Chevrolet Corvair which was made so badly, in the name of economising and efficiency, that the car was highly unsafe and caused widespread accidents. Therefore, Weber believed that the rational desire for efficiency inevitably led to bureaucratisation, which in turn meant the dehumanisation of mankind: the Western man became no more than ‘a cog in the bureaucratic machine’.

Weber believed that this rationality was visible on all levels of society. He took, for example, great interest in the running of the state and the characteristics of authority. According to Weber, there were three kinds of authority: Traditional, Rational-Legal, and Charismatic. He believed that the Rational-Legal had come to predominate, there was no longer as much power in personal ties, that leaders were anchored in impersonal rules that had been legally established. This further emphasises the dehumanisation of bureaucracy. Weber looked at an interesting aspect of rationalisation in his book ‘The Sociology of Music’ in which he noted that the Western 12-tone octave was designed in a very ‘rational manner’. Western society also developed orchestras in which music became a mass, organised activity and people had specific roles and positions; in a sense, even the orchestra became bureaucratised. Thus Weber gives us an idea of how rationality and bureaucratisation has infiltrated into every strata of society, leaving us in very much dehumanised and isolated world.

In this essay I have only touched on one angle of a life-long body of writings in which Weber investigated economics, history and other issues of sociology, which I have not been able to touch on here. His Rationality Theory, however, is one of the most important of his theories and flows throughout much of his work. Weber paints us a picture of a society that had mastered the ‘practical application of knowledge to achieve [a] desired end’. The contagious obsession with rationality had spread to every level of society, and from a modern viewpoint its effects had been highly successful: huge material gain, increased standards of living, tight controls, the list goes on. However, Weber believed that with this ‘success’ had come huge drawbacks–ultimately it had trapped people in a debased and inhuman society. Weber saw no escape from this ‘polar night of icy darkness’ as he called it, claiming that we had gone too far down the road of bureaucratisation and capitalism to go back.


1)Collins, Randall.: Max Weber :a skeleton key /Randall Collins. Beverly Hills : Sage, c1986. 151 p. Masters of social theory ; v.3

2) Parkin, Frank.: Max Weber /Frank Parkin. London : Routledge, 1988. 123 p. ( Key sociologists).

3)Giddens, Anthony.: Politics and sociology in the thought of Max Weber Anthony Giddens. London : Macmillan, 1972. 64p ; 21cm. ( Studies in sociology).

4)Weber, Max, 1864-1920.: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism /Max Weber ; translated by Talcott Parsons. 2nd ed. / introduction by Anthony Giddens.. London : Allen and Unwin, 1976. 292 p.

5)Ringer, Fritz K.: Max Weber’s methodology :the unification of the cultural and social sciences /Fritz Ringer. Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press, 1998. viii, 188 p.

6)Schluchter, Wolfgang.: Paradoxes of modernity :culture and conduct in the theory of Max Weber /by Wolfgang Schluchter ; translated by Neil Solomon. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1996. 389 p.


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