Weber's Social Theory


Weber's analysis of modern societies:

  • Rationalisation 
  • Bureaucracy 
  • The origin of capitalism and rationalisation 
  • The "Iron Cage" 

Basic concepts and theories 

  • Social action and social relationships 
  • Power and legitimate order authority - three types 
  • Class, status and party (political power) 
1 of 8

Rationalisation and Bureaucracy

Rationality refers to:

  • Social actions, social relationships and social institutions becoming increasingly more rational. The two meanings of the term rational:
    • Not based on traditional values, human feelings and passions and moral values
    • Based on the consideration of the most effective means of achieving the ends 
    • The latter is called by Weber "instrumental rationality"

Bureaucracy refers to:

  • Refers to the institutional aspect of rationalisation e.g. the universalities, the government and the big private corporations which are 
    • Dispassionate, impersonal and predictable 
    • The only effective way of managing big organisations (e.g. government and corporations) 
2 of 8

The Origin of Capitalism

What is pursued in capitalism?

  • Weber says is not "the greed for gold... unscrupulous pursuit of selfish interest" and "bound to no ethical norms whatever"
  • There is an essential difference between capitalism and piracy 
  • "The pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise." 
  • Capitalism is not a pleasure - the lifestyle of the capitalist (the essence of the capitalist ethose) is not to pursue a purely "hedonist" attitude. 
  • The leading motive - "a man exists for the sake of his business, instead of reverse" 
  • The ideal type of capitalist "avoids... unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power." In doing so "he gets nothing out of his wealth for himself except the irrational sense of having done his job well." 
3 of 8


  • Capitalism is irrational - "making money for the sake of making money is absolutely irrational" // "what is natural and rational is to make money for satisfying the needs."
  • Capitalist ethos is unnatural - "ran against the most natural tendencies of the human mind" // "it does not come naturally to human beings to earn more and more money." 
  • Natural tendencies of the human mind - to have a settled condition and be happy and to this purpose it is enough to earn as much as necessary 
  • Capitalist spirit was unethical - "the conception of money making as an end in itself was contrary to the ethical feelings of whole epochs." // "it was at best tolerate if not utterly condemned." 
  • Capitalism had to fight for supremacy - capitalism thus had to struggle to assert the necessity of "pursuit of material gain beyond personal needs" against traditional values and the natural tendencies of the human mind. 
  • The historical task - Weber concludes, the only way the spirit of capitalism could win was to turn making profit and work into ethical obligations - but how? 
4 of 8

The Relevance of the Religion

  • At the end of capitalism - "a man's salvation was the most important thing in life." For people, the after life was "more certain than all the interest of life in this world and the beyond meant everything." 
  • Protestant religion - the spirit of capitalism was needed, thus the help of religion. Capitalism found a powerful moral support in the Protestant movement and especially in its most radical sect Calvinism. 
  • Salvation vs. predestination - Protestant faith proclaimed that the conviction of salvation is revealed not in a gradual accumulation of good works. The destiny of the individual in the after life is decided by God on the baiss that only He knows how. 
  • The proof of salvation - all believers can do is to look for signs of their predestined fate after life. God's blessing was revealed for them in (1) the multiplication of profit and possessions; (2) the success of occupation. 
  • Productivity and work ethic - to make profit the capitalist system needs good workers (work ethic - doing the job as if it is one's duty). Labour "must be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling." 
  • The salvation of the workers - labour performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a restless, systematic work. 
5 of 8

Capitalism Today

No moral foundations 

  • Today the capitalist functions purely as a technical and self-perpetuating machine
  • It is endowed with the power to educate and select the economic survival of the fittest
  • "Whoever does not adapt must go under or at least cannot arise."
  • Only self-interest reigns 
    • The individuals action is guided by the rationalisation which in Weber's terms signifies a "deliberate adaption to situations in terms of self-interest." 
  • There is no alternative 
    • The capitalistic economy presents itself to an individual, as an order in which he must live merely out of "weakness and helplessness and because there is no alternative." 
6 of 8

The Iron Cage

A pessimistic view

  • As a result Weber's judgement is gloomy and pessimistic. 
  • "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling, we are forced to do so."
  • We are condemned "to being without any reason for so being." 


  • Describes a life characterised by abstinence from wordly pleasures (austerity)
  • Those who practice ascetic lifestyles often perceive their practices as virtuous and pursue them to achieve greater spirituality. 
  • Renouncing the World: many ascetics believe the action of purifying the body helps to purify the soul, and thus obtain a greater connection with the Divine or find inner peace. This may take the form of self-mortification, rituals and reunciations of pleasure. 
  • The signs of ascetic life - the fanatical opposition of the Puritans to the ordinances of the King, permitting certain popular amusements on Sunday outside churches by law. 
7 of 8


  • Detachment and loneliess: no hope that the state of grace and forgiveness could come from magic or could be given by the religious authorities (confession). Resulted in "a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual." 
  • Lack of spontaneity - any surrender to temptations of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment was a sign of damnation, which could not be redeemed by further good work or good behaviour. 
  • Worldly asceticism - instead of renouncing the worldly affairs, the Protestants applied the methodical self-control to their everyday tasks (social functions considered to be a calling or a divinely given task)
  • The moral foundations of modern life 
    • It was this rational regulation of the whole of conduct that could support and legitimate the rational organisation of capitalist labour and capitalist enterprise and the development of rational technique and law. 
8 of 8


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Social Theory resources »