Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist. He apparently suffered some kind of mental collapse after confronting his father for abusing his mother. He is said to have recovered through rationality. This might have contributed to Weber’s emphasis on rationality when looking at greater social processes.
Along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, Weber is usually marketed at universities as one of the “big three” in classical sociological theory. So undergraduate students must learn something about his ideas if they wish to obtain a sociology degree from the academic PTB.
We don’t know if Weber was aware of Marx, but Weber’s notions of status and party extend Marxist analysis, which focuses on the ideas of class, ownership and the means of production.
For Weber, social position depends not only on economic class but also on status (social prestige, such as a priest or judge) and party (political power).
Unlike Marx, whose theory was geared toward social transformation, it’s believed that Weber became frustrated with politics and, in his research, sought only to understand. Knowledge for knowledge sake. However, Weber’s professorial paychecks and all the status that went with them probably didn’t hurt the process.
This is a role that some professors (and students) seem to play. They’re quite content to believe they’re “neutral” until somebody or some political force threatens their professional standing. Then suddenly they’re not neutral at all. In fact, the changing tides of academic politics can make or break a career. There’s nothing neutral about it and there never was, a point that thinkers like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu rightly pick up on.
Academic politics aside, in studying world religions Weber is usually credited with making lasting contributions to the sociology of religion, particularly with regard to his development of ideal types, his work on charisma and his distinction between ethical vs. exemplary prophets.
Weber’s work on religion was vast in scope. But he relied on translations of original texts, leading some scholars to say that he constructed “grand theory” (which means grandiose theory) based on his misrepresentation of scripture.
Regardless, Weber produced a recognized classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argued that the Calvinist view of salvation facilitated the development of Capitalism. According to Weber, the Protestant work ethic sanctioned hard worldly work and the reinvestment of profits as a fulfillment of religious duty. Protestants could be simultaneously wealthy, religious and guiltless—an ethic already present among Jewish minorities throughout Europe.
Weber also had important insights about the process of secularization, rationalization, and bureaucratization in modern societies. He pondered how individual freedom would fare amidst not only the wheels of industry, but also among the rows of offices that coordinated them.
Weber married a wealthy distant cousin, an arrangement that set him up nicely so he didn’t have to worry about money. Apparently the marriage was never consummated. His wife, Marianne Weber, née Schnitger, went on to become a feminist author, activist, and organizer of his posthumous publications. She also wrote a biography that shed much light on her famous husband.¹