Max Weber

How would you define power, and how would you decide whom to give it? And how is power maintained? These are some of the questions Max Weber’s work attempted to answer. In this article, we'll meet Max Weber, and explore his social and political theory, how he defined politics and authority and what he thought of bureaucracy.

Max Weber Max Weber

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Table of contents

    Max Weber Biography

    Max Weber was a German sociologist who is often cited as the founder of sociology alongside Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. Weber was born in Erfurt, Germany in 1864. He died in 1920 after contracting the Spanish Flu. Weber studied law at the University of Berlin, gaining his doctorate in 1889.

    Weber's parents had a conflictual relationship. Weber's father was involved in politics and would entertain politicians and academics in his home. Weber's mother was a devout Calvinist with a strong sense of morality.

    Calvinism is a branch of Protestantism. It's a theological system that emphasises the sovereignty of God and humans' natural inclination to sin. According to Calvinism, salvation is only possible through God.

    His parents' conflict was arguably the cause of Weber's inner conflict throughout his life. He was only able to leave his parents' home in 1893 when he married Marianne Schnitger.

    Schnitger was an early feminist sociology writer, the author of Weber's biography and the editor of his works.

    Max Weber, Max and Marianne Weber 1894, StudySmarterFig. 1 Max and Marianne Weber 1894

    Weber’s philosophy was influenced heavily by the works of Kant, Nietzsche, and Marx. He was particularly interested in power relations, and how power is exercised in society.

    Weber is remembered for his formulation of the connection between Protestantism and capitalism (see below), for his contribution to sociology, and for the concept of liberal imperialism.

    He helped create a realist sociological methodology.

    Realism: in sociology, it's the perspective that equates social facts to physical facts. Social facts can therefore be studied through observation, measurement, comparison, and experimentation. Crucially, Weber believed that societies and social behaviours had to be studied in comparison to each other. This is because it would be more difficult to understand them in isolation.

    Weber was among the first to study and compare the religions and social and political systems of the Western and Easter countries. We drew accounts of Germany as well as China and India.

    Liberal imperialism was an ideology supported by Weber in his youth. In his later life, he changed his mind about whether Germany should support the imperialistic policy of expansion over other countries. However, he stayed true to his beliefs in Liberalism. The core belief of liberalism is the support of individual rights, and it's debated whether Weber supported liberalism for this reason. Instead, Weber aspired to what he saw at the time in countries such as France and the United Kingdom. This was the development of liberal democratic systems based on elections, parliaments, and constitutions. This was opposed to the German aristocracy, which Weber saw as obsolete. We are going to further discuss Weber's support for these systems when we discuss bureaucracy later on in this article.

    The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber

    Weber’s political and social theory explores the rise of rationalisation, bureaucratisation, and power relations in modern society.

    Rationalism is a western school of thought that considers human logic and reasoning as the main source of knowledge.

    Here, we will focus on his theories of power, and how the power of the state is justified. In his theory of power, we can find a realist approach to explaining the social and political structure of contemporary society. For Weber, power is individuals' ability to achieve what they want in a social context, even against the resistance of others.

    Power: for Weber, power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others.

    A central theme of Max Weber’s political and social theory concerns his understanding of the development of capitalism. His work diverges from Karl Marx’s commentary on capitalism, as he disagrees that exploitation is central to capitalism. Instead, Weber sees the rise of capitalism as strongly correlated to Protestantism.

    He explored this theory in his most notable book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, inspired by his experience of his mother's religion, he argued that Protestantism was the major driving force in the rise of our current market-driven capitalist society.

    Capitalism is a political and economic system that prioritises financial gain over social justice.

    In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber discusses that according to Calvinism, humans cannot know who God will save. This insecurity leads those who believe in Calvinism, to work relentlessly, while abstaining from earthly pleasures to avoid “hellfire”. According to Weber, this ethics results in the social and political structures that support the accumulation of capital we see epitomised in capitalism.

    By the time The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was published, Neo-romanticism started emerging. Neo-romanticism emphasises the importance of inner feelings, and shook the Capitalist structure Weber discussed. This cultural shift inspired Weber's exploration of authority, which we'll discuss below.

    Max Weber’s Definition of Politics

    Weber initially defined politics very generally. In his essay ‘Politics as a vocation’ (1919), Weber states:

    The concept (politics) is extremely broad and includes every kind of independent leadership activity.1

    For Weber, politics could be seen as permeating all aspects of society. He gives examples of trade unions, banks, education, and even power relations in marriages. Yet, as he notes, his definition of politics is too broad to give any real analysis. Instead, Weber’s focus is on the politics of the state and ‘political’ organisations.

    Max Weber: The Political State

    Max Weber notes that the political state cannot be defined by its activities. This is because there are no activities that have not been undertaken by states, and there are no activities that are conducted only by the state.

    Thus, for Weber, the state can only be defined by the “specific means that are peculiar to it1”. Weber argues that the means that is peculiar and unique to the state is the legitimate use of violence. Although this is not the only means of the state, for Weber, it is what is exclusive to the state.

    For Weber, the state holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical violence or the only source of the ‘right’ to employ violence.

    Max Weber, Max Weber in 1918, StudySmarterFig. 2 Max Weber in 1918

    Max Weber: Politics as a Vocation

    Max Weber gave a series of lectures on the concept of politics as a vocation. Given what we’ve already discussed, Weber was concerned with whom we entrust with governing the institution whose unique feature is the legitimate use of violence.

    His lectures explore three types of internal justifications, or sources of authority, for the state's domination of subjects.

    Domination: the probability that commands will be obeyed by a group of people.

    Authority and domination are used synonymously in Weber’s work. He identifies three types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal.

    Let’s explore them.

    Max Weber: Traditional Authority

    This justification is based on the idea that traditionally powerful groups or people maintain their power due to habit or cultural acceptance of the hierarchy.

    Traditional authority is maintained through the claim of leaders, and the belief of their subjects, that there is something of value in long-standing social rules. Adherence to traditional principles is what guarantees the authority of traditional leaders.

    Examples of traditional authority include gerontocracy (authority of elders) or patriarchy (male authority based on sex). Weber argues that traditional authority both creates and perpetuates inequality. Unless commonly accepted social or religious customs are challenged, it is likely those with traditional authority remain dominant.

    Max Weber: Charismatic Authority

    A charismatic leader, on the other hand, is not obeyed due to custom or habit, yet is chosen by the people to lead. That is also to say that the leader is justified due to their charisma: the aspects of their personality that are deemed extraordinary. Subjects may deem this person to have supernatural or exceptional qualities that justify their power.

    Whether this is true is beside the point; subjects just have to believe it to be true. Weber was particularly focused on this type of justification, believing it to be more powerful than traditional or legal justifications. This, for Weber, is where the notion of politics as a vocation is at its strongest. The devotion of subjects towards the charismatic leader is directed entirely towards the person and their qualities.

    Max Weber: Legal Authority

    This legitimising force rests on the belief in the legality of the rules put in place by the leader or state, and the right of those given authority to command. Legal authority develops true systems of laws and regulations that lead to written legal codes and rights that moderate the state’s role.

    In a system that allocates authority through legal means, those who rule have, or at least supposedly have, a legitimate right to do so based on written law. Therefore, the subjects in such a system accept their right to rule. Rules that are based on a rational legal system are likely to entail regular elections, established offices, and written constitutions.

    Max Weber Bureaucracy

    Weber envisaged a future in which legal justifications for authority would become more prevalent. While charismatic leaders may appear occasionally, the tendency is for states to become rational and bureaucratic.

    Bureaucracy is the rational organisation of human activity to maximise efficiency.

    Weber saw the development of legal authority to be tightly bound to the development of bureaucracy (at least in the West). Weber’s focus on legality and rationality led him to study the expansion of enterprises.

    Bureaucracy is a means of employing rationality to organise such enterprises. While often used pejoratively in everyday terms, Weber argued that bureaucracy was the most efficient, effective, and rational way to organise human activity.

    He saw the development of bureaucratic organisation to be the unique mark of modern societies. He identified six features of an idealised bureaucracy:

    • Hierarchy of authority

    • Impersonality

    • Written rules of conduct

    • Promotion based on achievement

    • A specialised division of labour

    • Efficiency

    Don’t forget that this is ideal: critics often argue that Weber is wrong about bureaucracies, as they seldom live up to his ideals. Yet, Weber defined bureaucracy in this idealised way so that he may more accurately identify its expansion and power in modern society.

    Weber’s essential thinking about bureaucracies is that they are rooted in rational principles to more efficiently attain goals. The bureaucratic organisation of human activity has become the dominant indicator of modern society, understanding their development and the growth in their power is thus central to Weber’s social theories.

    Max Weber - Key Takeaways

    • Max Weber was a German sociologist concerned with the concept of power.
    • Weber was particularly interested in rationalisation, bureaucratisation, and the formation of our market-driven capitalist society.
    • Weber defines the state as the only institution able to carry out legitimate acts of violence.
    • Weber saw that the legitimacy of a state’s authority was reliant on three types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and legal.
    • Bureaucracy is fundamentally a rational phenomenon, as is the legal authority needed for the regulation of people’s activities to increase efficiency.


    1. Max Weber Politics as a Vocation 1919
    Frequently Asked Questions about Max Weber

    Who is Max Weber?

    Max Weber was a German sociologist, often cited as one of the founders of sociology.

    What is the political and social theory of Max Weber?

    Weber’s political and social theory surrounds how rationality and bureaucracy have shaped our society and capitalist structure. In particular, his theory investigates power and how authority has been justified.

    What is bureaucracy according to Max Weber?

    According to Weber, bureaucracy is the rational organisation of human activity to maximise efficiency. In its ideal form, it should exhibit the six features he identifies.

    What is authority according to Max Weber?

    Authority is the probability that commands will be obeyed by a group of people, which has three justifications (traditional, charismatic and legal).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of authority is represented by patriarchy according to Max Weber?

    What type of authority did Max Weber see as becoming more prevalent?

    Which of these is not a feature of bureaucracies?


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