Lecture 5: Weber: Methodology of the Social Sciences

Max Weber

  • Weber was a trained lawyer who took interest in the economy.  He was very upset when he saw injustice. His father mistreated his mother because of patriarchy. This effected Weber greatly
  • He argues that sociology is different from natural sciences
  • His three major themes include Methodology, Forms of Social Action, Class and Power, and Rationalization
  • Methodology: How do we study society?
  • Ideal types: The complexity of studying society, which is not as simple as it could be as in natural sciences
  • Forms of Social Action, Class and Power: Actions are different for every individual because they attach various meanings to them
  • Rationalization: Rationalization is the study of bureaucracy. As society gets more complex, they become silicified because there is always a formula for everything. Everything is too polished, too slick, where everything is organized
  • Action: When the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his or her behavior. Weber was not politically radical, but he wanted to get to the ROOT of the problem. You may perceive something once looking at it, but it may have a subject meaning which is attached by an individual. He argues that in natural world, there is no purely causal connection, but sociology is both interpretive and casual social science where individuals interpret and attach meanings to their actions. Meanings themselves become causes, and there are varieties of meanings that individuals attach, which is what makes it complex

Sociology: An Interpretive and Casual Social Science

  • For Weber, natural science has no meaning. Particularly, natural science we can talk about gender laws of nature, but not actual meanings according to Weber. For sociology, the search for laws of nature is deeply problematic because sociology is not based on law. Rather, it consists of interpretation which provides meanings. These interpretations are done by people (Ex. Bacteria don’t blush, particles don’t get pissed off! Atoms don’t agonize)
  • He argues that historical events are unique, because they cannot be repeated again. But sociology is somewhere in between history and natural sciences
  • He argues that in sociology, generalizations are possible to some extent (Ex. Hitler is unique and passed away, but his ideas can be generalized to this day)
  • Sociology aims to understand and explain events (Ex. In Japan, citizens don’t hold doors for each other. This leads to question of interpretation, where for people there it is considered culturally polite)
  • Sociology: Subjective meanings but objective analysis is possible
  • Weber argues that as humans when we engage in social analysis, we have no choice but to bring interpretations, which differ based on each individuals certain understanding and perception
  • He argues that when we study something, it has value relevance, leading us to study it (Ex. Poverty and capitalism)
  • Value-Relevance he argues is unavoidable
  • Value-Neutral: A role of a social scientist is not to influence individuals based on their own values, instead certain protocols are given to lead individuals to a certain direction
  • For Weber, the value of social science includes providing clarity of what is going (providing root to the problems). He says that there should be distinction between FACT/VALUE. Facts are what ought to be, but values are based on individuals and their values
  • He argues that science, derives from values, but cannot tell individuals what they ought to do. They act based on their own values
  • Science provides a sense of probably results of pursuing particular means for obtaining particular goals
  • He claims that social science cannot help us to choose between competing values. There is no scientific basis for choosing certain values.
  • He argues that just because sociology is subjective meanings
  • His main concern was the objectivity in sociology
  • He came up with the concept of IDEAL TYPES (“Model”). For Weber; it is not to be confused with the “best” type. He talks about theoretical constructs, just like models that do not exist in reality because they cannot exist in their pure form. Therefore, such Ideal Types are “Utopias”, that are not actualized (Ex. People aiming to graduate University, but it have not yet happened, therefore it is Utopias) Utopias is the level of ideas. We think about Utopias, but they have not yet happened. Ideal types are one-sided constructs.
  • He argues that in reality there are so many varieties of ideal types, which come out from certain ideas and are actualized to some extent (Ex. Ideal type of capitalism, free markets socialism, democracy)
  • Ideal Types of Social Action
  • Weber argues humans have multiple reasons to act in certain way and attach values to them
  • Value Rational: Driven by certain overarching values that drive that particular action
  • Instrumental / Goal Rational: Action that is not driven by values that people hold dearly, but it is based on calculations and instruments (how will certain action achieve my goal) (Ex. Going to university to gain specific job in future)
  • Traditional: Actions based on traditional values (Ex. Going to University because everyone in the individual’s family went to University)
  • Affectual: Actions based on emotions (Ex. Going to university not necessarily to study, but to meet other students and to build relationships)
  • He argues that unintended consequences are attached to all these social actions. 


  • In general, Weber argues that value rationality gives way to instrumental rationality. You begin with overarching values, and narrow down to constricting values (Ex. What can an individual gain out of it?)
  • Rationalization is similar to Marx’s concept alienation
  • For Weber as societies develop further, more human beings caught up in situations of their own makings, where rationalization process itself represents the unexpected, multiple possibilities or the richness of life with calculated predictability
  • The Bureaucratization of Social Life: Proper rules, regulations, and procedures (Ex. ID’s, registration of births, deaths, addresses, names). This is rationalization of social life, according to Weber as society develops. He argues that this is inevitable at a certain extent
  • As rationalization increases, it squeezes out elements that define human beings as human beings according to Weber
  • Rationalization for Weber is a universal phenomenon which restricts the importance of charisma and individually differentiated conduct
  • Weber argues that this process is inevitable as societies become complex, but it is these processes restrict the complexity of life. For him, bureaucracy can be very inefficient because rules can become goals themselves
  • Structural changes happen, and they happen because of agencies
  • Enlightenment: The deployment of reason, which sheds light. People who are very hopeful of the future, because they have intellectual tools to understand the society
  • Unlike the conservative thinkers, Weber does not want to go back. He does not dismiss reason, but he breaks it down to two dimensions including narrow rationality and rationalization of every sphere of life
  • Narrow rationality is driven by purely concerns of how it benefits a certain individual. On the long run it creates various rationalizations
  • Rationalization of every sphere of life includes religion, law, politics, art, architecture, education, friendship, Relationships
  • Value / Substantive Rationality: Action framed by larger meaningful values. It is an end in itself, not a means to an end. There is no narrow cost / benefit analysis (Ex. Environmental activists or doctors who really want to heal). Action is framed by larger meaningful values, not in terms because the end goal is completely outside the action. There is no narrow-cost benefit (Ex. Taking political actions, but not for a career in politics, for wealth, reorganization)
  • Formal / Instrumental Rationality: The opposite of value / substantive rationality. Means-ends calculations or narrow cost-benefits analysis. Action is simply a means to some other end (Ex. Doctor who only wants to make money). Everything is driven by a narrow set of values
  • Weber argues that value rationality appears to be irrational but formal rationality is irrational (Ex. Clear cutting for a forest company, as long as you get the end value, the money as quick as you can)
  • The Iron Cage: For Weber, the society resembles an iron cage, where human beings are dominated by calculative rationality at work. They feel that they are dominating society; however, it is the other way around.  He argues that the world is increasingly becoming an iron cage, resulting to two possible spheres
  • Possible spheres that are not rationalized include the erotic (Ex. Pornography and the sex toy industry) and the aesthetic (art) spheres (Ex. You are moved by an artwork, where you cannot provide measurements or accounts)

Overall, Weber argues that these two spheres play a major role in shaping modern world

Note Created by
Is this note helpful?
Give kudos to your peers!
Wanna make this note your own?
Fork this Note