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Ideal types

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Max Weber, sociologist

Max Weber, sociologist via Wikipedia

We often hear the term, ‘ideal types,’ but just what does it mean? Well, anyone who’s taken a course in classical sociology should, at least, have some inkling.

Strictly speaking, ideal types are conceptual tools developed by the sociologist Max Weber. They represent an exaggerated category designed to facilitate understanding and dialogue.

Ideal types do not represent statistical averages. Nor do they accurately describe every aspect of a given phenomenon. Rather, they are abstract generalizations.

Weber argues that science cannot avoid developing concepts that are, to some extent, abstract generalizations. This is pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about language and semiotics in general. But Weber isn’t so much offering a philosophical critique of signs. Rather, he’s talking more about getting what he sees as the right balance between the range and focus of a given study. He claims that the type is created through the use of reason, and lies somewhere between meaningless details (i.e. empirical studies devoid of a meaningful, interpretive theory) and overly obscure generalizations (i.e untenable ideas and opinions not carefully thought out with reason).

While ideal types may describe ethical ideals, Weber says that the types themselves do not advocate a particular ethical ideal.

From today’s standpoint, Weber’s reliance on reason to ‘get it right’ and his apparent ability to separate ethics from the pursuit of understanding both have been roundly critiqued from several angles. Nevertheless, an updated version of Weber’s ideal type arguably remains a useful theoretical approach to typology, providing it consciously embraces not only rational but also emotional, aesthetic, intuitive and ethical components.

A good example of Weber’s ideal types is found in his distinction between ‘exemplary’ and ‘instrumental’ religious prophets.

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2 thoughts on “Ideal types

  1. To my knowledge, Weber never claimed Ideal Types were the only or best way of classifying or listing group representations. Every critique I’ve come across of it lists its faults or shortcomings as a total scientific image, which misses the entire point.

    Also, while ethical methodology should always be utilized in the pursuit of understanding, the understanding itself is separate from ethics and morals. Truth and facts are truth and facts, regardless of the ethics and morals of the person or people viewing them. It is in the application and practice of the knowledge that ethics and morals come into play.
    (Apologies if this is a bit disjointed. I’m not entirely awake.)

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  2. Thanks for your comments. Some would say that the pursuit of understanding cannot be divorced from ethics. This is partly because money is almost always directly or indirectly involved, and to spend it for understanding – instead of in some other way – is, one could argue, a choice involving ethics.

    As for truth, it seems that this, too, is a potentially problematic concept. While truth and facts may be truth and facts from God’s perspective, for most of us mere mortals, we only see from a perspective and, to borrow from St. Paul, through a glass darkly.

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