Max Weber Sociology

Max Weber is regarded as a 'founding father' of sociology. His contributions have left a lasting mark on how we think, approach and understand the social world around us. Below, we shall look at how Max Weber and his sociological theory builds upon (and challenges) the work of Karl Marx. Within this, we shall look at his views on social class, 'status', 'power' and 'authority'

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Table of contents

    Understanding, even briefly, Weber's sociology will be vital for any budding sociologist!

    We will:

    • Recap social stratification and understand how Max Weber sees society and stratification
    • Consider the similarities and differences between Karl Marx and Max Weber's views on stratification
    • Briefly look at the four different types of Social Action introduced by Max Weber

    We will start by looking at social stratification and its dimensions.

    Dimensions of social stratification

    Max Weber (2012) paints a more complex picture of social stratification than Marx.

    But what exactly is 'social stratification'?

    Well…

    Social stratificationdescribes the way society is structured into a hierarchy of unequal strata or layers” (Wilson, 2017, pg 19).

    And if you are wondering what a 'hierarchy' is…

    Hierarchy refers to a ranking order, where some have power and authority over others. A hierarchy is typically depicted as a pyramid.

    A social hierarchy ranks according to privilege. Those who are most privileged are at the top of the pyramid, and at the bottom are those who are least. Here, privilege can take the form of greater social and economic resources and opportunities awarded to different (stratified) groups or individuals.

    • Social class, gender and ethnicity are ways people are stratified.
    • Greater resources may include wealth, income, power, access to private education, and access to private healthcare.

      Have you heard of the 'Gender Pay Gap'? How about the 'Black Lives Matter' Protests? Either way, I would argue to you that these are both, in many ways, to do with the consequences of social hierarchies!The Gender Pay Gap highlights how women are paid less, relative to men, solely due to their gender. This and other forms of gender-based hierarchies are what feminists call the patriarchy!

    To summarise, social stratification looks between whom social inequalities exist within society. It breaks down the hierarchical structure of society.

    Max Weber's Sociology, picture social a hierarchical pyramid structure, StudySmarter Who do you think sits at the top of the social hierarchy?

    How does social stratification relate to Max Weber?

    Karl Marx and Weber both looked deeply at the structure of society, and they both acknowledged that the structure of society is stratified according to social class.

    However, unlike Marx, Weber developed this idea of social class further and considered that there were other, non-economic factors in how people are divided. These factors are called dimensions of social stratification.

    Weber looked at the following dimensions:

    1. Social class

    2. Status

    3. Power (and authority)

    So let's explore these 'dimensions' of social stratification a little further. Let's look at the size, scale and influence of each.

    Max Weber and social stratification

    Max Weber saw society stratified in 3 main ways: social class, status, and power. Unlike Marx, who focused solely on social class and framed it in terms of a power struggle, Weber looks at how each 3 affect life chances.

    Social class

    For Weber, social class is defined by both economic (i.e. wealth) and non-economic factors. Social class is one of these non-economic factors, as it relates to life chances. Life chances can vary greatly by the occupation we hold.

    In other words,

    Class is a group of people who have similar life chances; that is chances of being successful (or otherwise) in life and opportunities in education, health and so on.” (Wilson, 2017, pg. 97)

    So, what affects our life chances? Great question...

    Well, Weber believed that our life chances are tied greatly to our occupation due to the levels of income different occupations hold. Consequently, non-economic factors like the skills and qualifications people hold affect the types of occupations we can have and the relative wealth that comes from these.

    If you've ever wondered why university education is held in such high regard, particularly by your parents and grandparents, this is why! These Higher Education qualifications have historically been the key to achieving greater paying occupations, such as lawyer or doctor.

    But what about today?

    Did you know that in the UK, the average plumber, electrician, and brick-layer earn more than the average wage for University graduates? (see HESA report, 2022)

    As a result, Weber saw there being 4 main social classes:

    1. Property owners
    2. Professionals -- e.g. doctors, lawyers, engineers, judges, accountants, consultants
    3. Petty bourgeoisie -- e.g. shopkeepers, independent contractors
    4. Working class -- e.g. factory workers, cleaners, delivery drivers, retail assistants

    The higher social class you are, the greater the opportunities provided to you.

    Status

    Alongside social class, Weber saw status as another form of social stratification impacting our life chances.

    Status refers to how much prestige or social standing a group or individual has.

    Weber argues that:

    1. Different groups have different levels of status.
    2. Status is not tied to class or income.

    Investment bankers and politicians, whilst being part of a high social class, (i.e. professionals) have very low 'status' – they are often disliked by the public.

    NHS and hospital support staff (e.g. nurses and physiotherapists) have relatively low paying jobs yet have very high status attached to them. Just think back to the pandemic and how we often referred to them as heroes!

    Why is status important?

    Status is important as it can affect our life chances. Status can impact our health, family life, education, and our experience with the criminal justice system.

    Health: Lower levels of perceived status are linked with: (1) higher levels of stress, (2) lower cognition, (3) weaker immune system, and (4) reduced fertility!1

    Criminal justice system: In prison, high status can lead to better treatment by other inmates. Alternatively, being seen to come from a higher/lower status group can influence sentencing times from Judges and jurors. Our perceived levels of dangerousness, guilt, and innocence can all be affected.

    Power

    Another important form of social stratification according to Weber is power. For Weber, the influence of 'power' is shown in how it affects the life chances of others.

    Power is the ability to exercise one's will over others (Weber, 1922).

    For Weber, people have power insofar as they can get other people to behave as they want them to. He highlighted 2 main ways in which people exert power:

    1. Through force and coercion, e.g., a military invasion or the threat of violence
    2. Through authority – i.e., when people willingly agree to do something. People agree because they see this exercise of power as legitimate.

    As a result, Weber saw power greatly tied to authority. He argued that there are 3 types of authority:

    1. Traditional authority
    2. Rational-legal authority
    3. Charismatic authority

    Take a look at this table explaining the source of each type of authority.

    TraditionalRational-LegalCharismatic
    Source of PowerLong-standing customs and traditionsAuthority in the office, not the PersonBased on personal qualities that inspire
    Leadership StyleHistoric personalityBureaucratic officialsDynamic personalities
    ExamplesPatriarchy, aristocracy British Parliament, United States Congress, The Supreme Court, etc.Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Greta Thunberg

    Max Weber and social stratification: criticisms

    Weber certainly provides a fuller picture of the different ways in which society is stratified. However, there are a few criticisms that have been levelled his way.

    Likewise to Marx, Weber does not consider how the following affect life chances, and how these shape social inequalities:

    1. Gender
    2. Ethnicity
    3. Geographical differences

    Social class: similarities between Karl Marx and Max Weber

    As alluded to earlier, when it comes to social class, there are similarities between Marx and Weber. After all, Weber was a huge admirer of Marx's work! Let's recap what some of those similarities are:

    1. For both, the structure of society is stratified according to social class.

    2. Like Marx, Weber believed the main social class distinctions were between those who did and did not own the means of production, e.g. factory/property/company owners and the workers within them. In short, “ownership and non-ownership of property is the most important basis of class divisions” (Wilson, Kidd and Addison, 2017, pg.25).

    Social class: differences between Karl Marx and Max Weber

    There are several key differences between Karl Marx's treatment of social class and Max Weber's (2012). Let's outline them below:

    1. Weber saw both economic and non-economic factors influencing class position. I.e., skills, qualifications; status; power.

    2. Weber saw class divisions as four-fold. This refers to the four social classes of property owners, professionals, petty bourgeoisie and working class.

    3. Weber believed social class was one form of social stratification, alongside status and power. All three were important to understand as they each combine to affect our life chances.

    4. Weber argued that as capitalism expands, so do the middle classes. This, rather than Marx's account that capitalism would inevitably lead to class conflict and a revolution.

    5. Marx believed that social class-based revolution was inevitable - it was only a matter of time. Weber (2012), on the other hand, argued that it was not inevitable.

    6. Political power doesn't just come from economic power (i.e. class position). Political power is tied to authority, according to Weber.

    Types of social action according to Max Weber

    Social Action was another significant contribution Weber introduced to sociology. In fact, it became its own theoretical approach – Social Action Theory. Social Action Theory is also known as Interactionism. Why?

    Instead of just focusing on how institutions and large social structures affect us as individuals and groups, Weber believed that people and their (inter)actions with others contribute to the shaping of society.

    In fact, it is the meanings we attach to our actions and how they may affect others that are important to understand. If you're intrigued, I highly recommend checking out our Social Action Theory article.

    But, briefly:

    Social action is an action behind which an individual attaches meaning and one which may affect others.

    Eating in-of-itself is not an example of social action, as it does not consider anyone else. However, if you were to leave eating some of your food, so you could give it to someone else, then that would!

    Alternatively, making sure you eat fruit and vegetables is also a form of social action – as you have chosen these knowing that you need to eat healthy foods to function well.

    A little confusing, I know, but, hopefully, explaining the 4 types of social action will make it a little clearer.

    1. Instrumentally rational action

    This is an action performed to achieve a goal efficiently.

    • Cutting vegetables to make a salad
    • Buying a microwavable meal to save time on cooking
    • Putting on goggles when you're swimming to see better

    2. Value rational action

    This is an action performed because it is desirable or expresses a value.

    • A person enlisting as a soldier because they are patriotic
    • A person sharing a politicised social media post because it agrees with their outlook
    • Going to a public protest

    3. Traditional action

    This is an action that is done out of a custom or habit.

    • Taking off your shoes before entering the house because you have always been told to do so
    • Saying “bless you” after someone sneezes

    4. Affectional action

    This is an action by which you express emotion(s).

    • Hugging someone when you see them after a long time
    • Laughing at a funny joke
    • Shaking your head to express disagreement with someone or something

    What type of social action do you think an Instagram post would be? I ask this because: can an action be more than one type at the same time?

    For example, why do you post pictures on Instagram? Why do you reshare specific content? Is it to express your values? Is it because it's a custom/habit? Do you use Instagram to express your emotions?

    Max Weber's Sociology - Key takeaways

    • Max Weber (2012) paints a more complex picture of social stratification than Marx. Weber saw society stratified in 3 main ways: social class, status, and power. He focused on how each of these affect our 'life chances'.
    • For Weber, social class is defined by both economic (i.e. wealth) and non-economic (e.g. skills and qualifications) factors.
    • Weber saw status as another form of social stratification, impacting our life chances. He saw status as separate from social class.
    • Power is the ability to exercise one's will over others (Weber, 1922). For Weber, people have power in so far as they can get other people to behave as they want them to. He identified 3 types of authority that can give someone power.
    • Weber introduced the idea of social action into sociology. He argued that people and their (inter)actions with others contribute to the shaping of society. Weber broke down social action into 4 types.

    References

    1. Jian Wang and Liuna Geng, Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Physical and Psychological Health: Lifestyle as a Mediator, International Journal of Envrionmental Research and Public Health, 2019
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Max Weber Sociology

    Why is Max Weber important to sociology?

    Max Weber introduced key sociological concepts and theories that are still used today. For example, the concepts of status, power and authority, and his use of Social Action Theory – also known as Interactionism.  

    What is Max Weber's sociological perspective?

    One of Max Weber's sociological perspectives is the Social Action Theory. Weber believed that people and their (inter)actions with others contribute to the shaping of society. In fact, it is the meanings we attach to our actions and how they may affect others that is important to understand.

    What does Max Weber say about social inequality?

    Max Weber talks about social inequality indirectly. His view of social stratification makes the argument that social inequality takes the form of unequal life chances based upon social class position, level of status and the amount of power (and authority) different groups of people hold. 

    What did Max Weber contribute to sociology?

    Max Weber expanded the concept of social class, introduced the ideas of status, power and authority, and social action

    What is social stratification according to Max Weber?

    A society structured into a hierarchy of layers. In particular, hierarchies based on (1) social class, (2) status, and (3) power.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    A social hierarchy ranks according to ___.

    Which of these is NOT one of the 3 main ways in which society is stratified, according to Weber?

    Social stratification looks at between whom social 1. ___ exist within society. It breaks down the 2. ___ structure of society.

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