Max Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who is best known for his theory of the development of Western capitalism that is based on the "Protestant Ethic." In addition, Weber wrote widely on law and religion, including groundbreaking work on the importance of bureaucracy in modern society. He also worked to establish the discipline of sociology based on an objective scholarship.
Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfurt, Germany, into a wealthy manufacturing family. He studied at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin and joined the faculty at Heidelberg in 1896. A prolific writer and scholar, Weber resigned his professorship in 1907 after coming into an inheritance that made him financially independent, allowing him to devote all his energies to scholarship.
Weber's most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), introduced the concept of the "Protestant Ethic." Weber theorized that certain Protestant religious beliefs promoted the growth of capitalism. He claimed a relationship existed between success in capitalist ventures and Protestant (in particular, Calvinist and Puritan sects) theology. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination posited that individuals could never know if they were to receive God's salvation. This doctrine bred psychological insecurity in John Calvin's followers, who eventually looked for signs that might indicate they were in God's grace. From this search for signs developed the Protestant Ethic, which called for unceasing commitment to work and ascetic abstinence from any enjoyment of the profit realized from such labors. The result, Weber argued, was the
rapid accumulation of capital that fueled the rise of Western capitalism.
Weber also analyzed how politics, government, and law have developed in Western and non-Western cultures. He proposed the idea of the charismatic leader, who exhibited both religious and political authority. Weber was more interested, however, in the development of modern government and the growth of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a method of organization based on specialization of duties, action according to rules, and a stable order of authority. For Weber, bureaucracy was an expression of "rationality," which in his terminology meant the use of rules and procedures to determine outcomes rather than sentiment, tradition, or rules of thumb.
Weber's sociological theories had a great impact on twentieth century sociology. He developed the notion of "ideal types," which were examples of situations in history that could be used as reference points to compare and contrast different societies. This approach analyzes the basic elements of social institutions and examines how these elements relate to one another.
Weber died on June 14, 1920, in Munich, Germany.
Kim, Sung Ho. 2004. Max Weber's Politics of Civil Society. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Milovanovic, Dragan. 1989. Weberian and Marxian Analysis of Law: Development and Functions of Law in a Capitalist Mode of Production. Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury.
Schroeder, Ralph, ed. 1998. Max Weber, Democracy and Modernization. New York: St. Martin's Press.