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Max Weber's Key Contributions to Sociology Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published March 30, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Max Weber (1864-1920) made contributions to and reinvented many fields in the late 19th to early 20th century, ranging from sociology, to economics, law, religion, and business.
  • One of Weber's most famous works, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argues that, while culture of protestantism was a primary reason why capitalism developed in Europe before other parts of the world, the values of capitalism itself had overtaken its protestant roots.
  • Weber also studied power through the lense of the historical development of cities. His theory of power extended to his Marx-influenced explanation of social stratification which defined social standing in terms of economic class, status, and power. Someone can have any combination of these.
  • Weber originated social action theory, which differentiates four drives that cause human behavior.


Max Weber (pronounced "Vay-bur") is widely considered to be one of the founders of sociology. Weber contributed broadly to sociology, as well as impacting significant reorientations to the fields of law, economics, political science, and religious studies.

Weber's writings helped to establish social science as a distinctive field of inquiry. Additionally, Weber created the "Rationalization thesis," which was a grand analysis of the dominance of the west in modern times as well as an explanation for the development of modern capitalism called the "protestant ethic thesis." 

Max Weber was born in 19th-century Prussia to a notable family. Weber trained in law at universities in Heidelberg and Berlin, eventually writing works on Roman law and agrarian history under August Meitzen, a prominent political economist.

After studying legal practice and public service, Weber conducted a study on the displacement of German agrarian workers in East Prussia by Police migrant laborers, the notoriety of which led to a professorship in political economy at Heidelberg University in 1896 (Weber, 2017). 

After the death of his father in 1897, Weber retreated from academic life and shifted his studies to miscellaneous, publishing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Eventually, Weber re-emerged, creating major methodological essays relating to the comparative sociology of world religions and economics. These would cement Weber's reputation as one of the founders of modern social science.

Shortly after he resumed his prolific yet sporadic career, Weber died suddenly of the Spanish flu at the age of 56.

Major Works and Theories

Social Stratification

Max Weber created his own theory of social stratification, defining social differences through three components: class, status, and power. Here, class is a person's economic position based on both birth and individual achievement.

status is one's social prestige or honor either influenced or not influenced by class; and, lastly, power is the ability for someone to achieve their goals despite the resistance of others. 

Although Weber was influenced strongly by Marx's ideas in his theory of social stratification, he rejected that communism was a possible outcome, arguing that such a system would require an even greater level of negative social control and bureaucratization than capitalism (Brennan, 2020). 

Weber responded to Marx's theory of the proletariat by outlining more class divisions. Weber claimed that there are four main classes: the upper class, white-collar workers, petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class. These effectively parallel the class structures used by many sociologists. 

Weber treated the three sources of socioeconomic status: class, status, and power, as separate but interconnected sources of power, each effectinng social action differently. This view differed from that of Marx, who saw class as the definitive factor in stratification.

For example, while Marx considers both the managers of corporations, who control firms they do not own; and low-level workers to be members of the proletariat, Weber differentiates these groups in terms of their economic position. 

According to Weber, people could have varying degrees of class, status, and power. For example, a wealthy immigrant family composed of software engineers may have high economic class, but little power or status. Similarly, a religious saint may yield high status and exert immense influence on society, but have little in the way of economic worth (Brennan, 2020). 

Book Synopsis: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber & Kalberg, 1904) have had a long-lasting impact on the field of economic history, showing that relgiion is a major force for social change. 

In this work, Weber argued that the ethics of ascetic Protestantism were foundational to the genesis of modern capitalism. Weber observed that many protestants are involved in business.

He argued that capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and the pursuit of it as virtualism. He intended to find out how exactly this connection between profit and virtue emerged. 

Protestantism, Weber observed, gives the activities that people conduct in the real world a religious character. Calvinism in particular believed in predestination, that God had predetermined who was to be saved and damned.

As a result, Calvinists developed a psychological need to find out whether or not they were saved. Profit and material success came to be seen as signs that God had predestined the person experiencing them to be saved. Weber noted that other protestant groups, such as Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists, shared similar attitudes  (Weber & Kalberg, 2013). 

The Protestant Ethic also established capitalism as a uniquely western phenomenon, which Weber argued through undertaking several major studies into the sociology of religions in Asia in particular.

Although this protestant ethic created an environment where profit was seen as virtuous, Weber contended, capitalism became a belief system in itself, with people becoming locked into its spirit because of its usefulness for modern economic activity. 

Weber believed that the impulse to acquire wealth ultimately had little to do with capitalism itself. Instead, The Protestant Ethic, where people led ascetic lifestyles, worked long hours for the glory of God, viewed idleness as a sin, and saved and invested mooney, led to the spirit of capitalism. Which requires capital for investment, requires a hard-working work force, and values productivity (Thompson, 2018).

Social Action Theory

Weber sought to highlight how behavior in the social sphere is related to individuals' sense of cause and effect, or thier instrumental rationality. In essence, Weber believed that human beings adapt their actions according to social contexts and how these actions affect the behavior of others.


There are three main points to social action theory. Firstly, Weber argued that a sense of empathetic understanding, or "Verstehen," is crucial to understand human action and social change.

The essence of verstehen is that, in order to understand the cause of an action, someone has to understand the meaning attached to it by the individual (Weber, 1936).

Weber distinguished between two types of Verstehen: the verstehen that resulted from direct observation, and that sociologists can apply when trying to understand the motives that give rise to a particular action.

He called these Aktuelles and erklärendes verstehen, respectively. Someone who observes someone's emotional state from their body language or facial expression would be employing aktuelles verstehen, while someone using eklarendes, or empathetic understanding would examine why someone is doing an action in the first place.

Weber argued that the best way to achieve empathetic understanding is by taking the place of the person doing the activity  (Weber, 1936).

Four Types of Social Action

Weber believed that sociologists can generalize the motivations for human action into four basic categories. These are custom, affective social action, rational social action with values, and rational-instrumental social action.

Traditional social actions, or customs, are expected rituals performed in particular situations. These have two further subcategories: customs and habits. Both are familiar practices that are normally doone and popularized within a culture.

While customs are passed from generation to generation, habits tend to be learned in increments, becoming normalized to the point that they may even be attached to someone's personality (Weber, 1936).

Affective social action, otherwise known as emotional action, is the second motivation for human action that Weber proposes. Emotional actions take place when someone acts impulsively, acting without thinking about the consequences.

These can be either uncontrolled — when someone takes account of their own feelings over those of others — or the result of emotional tension — the frustration that a person may have when not fulfilling their goals, and the reactions to dissatisfaction that result.

Weber's other two social actions are rational. People, according to Weber, can either carry out rational social actions because of their values — like the dictates of their religion — or in order to achieve a specific goal. These social actions are called value-based and rational-instrumental social actions, respectively  (Weber, 1936). 

The final point of Weber's theory of Rational action argues that the structure of societies shapes human action because certain societies and groups encourage certain types of motivation.

Weber acknowledges, however, that there can still exist a lot of variation within these groups.

The City

Max Weber also made significant strides in the study of urban culture. In his notable work, The City (1921), Weber examined the role of the city as the carrier of the modern capitalist economy and as a precursor to the modern state. In this work, Max Weber argued that the city served as a historical precedent and basis to modern systems of political and economic power.

To do this, Weber provides a history of the city, beginning with the typical medieval occidental city. Weber analyzes the types of urban ownership that existed in these cities, peoples' legal status, and the relationships between different social urban groups.

Weber then focuses on the features and distribution of political power in different historical cases, before considering the struggle between different groups for power in the city, and how these power struggles are essentially similar throughout different periods of history.

Finally, in the last chapter, Weber extrapolated this historical analysis to an explanation of how modern political systems work (Weber, 1921). 

Bureaucratic Theory

One widely-used Weberian theory today is Bureaucratic theory. Weber both coined and defined the term bureaucracy, and detailed ways that bureaucratic management can be used to treat all members of an organization equally with a clearly-defined division of labor (Sager & Rosser, 2009). 

Bureaucracy, as defined by Weber, is an organizational structure characterized by many rules, standardized processes, procedures, and requirements, as well as a clear and meticulous division of labor, clear hierarchies and professional and almost impersonal interactions between employees.

These bureaucracies have six major components: task specialization, formal selection, impersonality, hierarchy, rules, and career orientation. Each of these features are functional. The division of labor allows workers to have a clear idea of what exactly they do and what expertise and skills they will employ. Formal selection, or hiring and placing employees on the basis of their specialties and technical skills further clarifies the division of labor.

Impersonal relationships, meanwhile, eliminate nepotism, politics, and outsider involvement and emphasizes rational over emotional social actions in decision-making.

Hierarchy creates a clear picture of class within an organization; rules and regulations coordinate employee performance and efforts, and career orientation allows bureaucracies to select candidates primarily based on their competencies, ensuring that people wind up in the jobs most suitable to them (Sager & Rosser, 2009). 

Critical Responses to Weber

Max Weber's ideas have been incredibly influential in modern sociology. As a result, his works have received substantial amounts of criticism and evaluation.

Critics have examined Weber's claim that bureaucratic organizations are based on rational and legal authority. Parsons (1947) and Gouldner (1954) for example noted that, while Weber says that authority rests both on the "legal incumbency of office" and "technical competence," superiors often in practice do not have more knowledge and skills than the people they manage.

Other studies, such as Udy (1959) found that there is no correlation between the level of bureaucracy in an organization and its rational attributes. 

Weber's social action theory — in particular, his typology of social action — has received severe criticism. Talcott Parsons (1947), for example, considered the actions of people to be involuntary, directed by the meanings attached by actors to things and people.

Others, such as P.S. Cohen, have considered Weber's typology of social action to be confusing due to his emphasis on the subjective meaning of the actor — something which cannot truly be experienced.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, March 30). Max Weber's Key Contributions to Sociology Theory. Simply Sociology.


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