Wednesday, July 13, 2011

(c) Max Weber- Social action, ideal types, authority, bureaucracy, protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

(c) Max Weber- Social action, ideal types, authority, bureaucracy, protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

Ideal Type

According to New Websters Dictionary (NWD 1985), ‘ideal’ is a ‘conception or a standard of something in its highest perfection’. The term ‘type’ means a kind, class or group as distinguished by a particular character (NWD 1985).

Ideal types are concepts formulated on the basis of facts collected carefully and analytically for empirical research. In this sense, ideal types are constructs or concepts which are used as methodological devices or tools in our understanding and analysis of any social problem.

Construction of The Ideal Type

For the construction of ideal types, the sociologist selects a certain number of traits from the whole which is otherwise confusing and obscure, to constitute an intelligible entity.

For example, if we wish to study the state of democracy in India (or for that matter of secularism, communalism, equality a court of law) then our first task will be to define the concept of democracy with the help of its essential and typical characteristics. Here we can mention some of the essential characteristics of democracy, namely, existence of a multi-party system, universal adult franchise, formation of government by peoples representatives, peoples participation in the decision making, equality before law, respect to majority verdict and each others’ views as well. This formulation of a pure type or an ideal type concept of democracy will guide us and work as a tool in our analysis. Any deviation from or conformity to it will unfold the reality. Ideal types, therefore, do not

represent the common or the average characteristics but focus on the typical and the essential characteristics.

Characteristics of Ideal Types

i) Ideal types are not general or average types.

ii) Ideal types are not a presentation of total reality or they do not explain everything. They exhibit partial conception of the whole.

iii) Ideal types are neither a description of any definite concept of reality, nor a hypothesis, but they can aid both in description and explanation.

iv) In this sense we can say that ideal types are also related to the analytic conception of causality, though not, in deterministic terms.

v) They also help in reaching to general propositions and in comparative analysis.

vi) Ideal types serve to guide empirical research, and are used in systematisation of data on historical and social reality.


The first kind of ideal types are rooted in the historical particularities namely, Western Ideal Types city, the Protestant ethics etc. In reality, this kind of ideal types refer to the

phenomena that appear only in the specific historical periods and in particular cultural areas. The second kind relates to the abstract elements of social reality, for example, the concepts of bureaucracy or feudalism. These elements of social reality are found in a variety of historical and cultural contexts. The third kind of ideal type relates to the reconstruction

of a particular kind of behaviour.

Ideal Types of Historical Particulars

According to Weber capitalism has been fully realised in modern western societies. Weber constructs an ideal type of capitalism by selecting a certain number of traits from the historical whole to constitute an intelligible entity. This was to show that there was a spiritual affinity between Calvinism and the economic ethics of modern capitalist activity.

Weber tried to show that there was a close affinity between this type of

economic activity and elements of Calvinist doctrine. According to the Calvinist ethic, God is all powerful and above common man. Man has to work for God’s glory on earth and this can be done through hardwork and labour which are rational, regular and constant. The calling of the individual is to fulfil his duty to God through the moral conduct of his day to day life

whether he is rich or poor. For him work is worship and there is no room for idleness and laziness. This specific character of Calvinistic belief accounted for the relation between Calvinist doctrine and the spirit of capitalism which was characterised by a unique devotion to the earning of wealth through legitimate economic activity. This is rooted in a belief in

the value of efficient performance in the chosen vocation as a duty and a virtue.

Abstract Elements of Social Reality

i) Bureaucracy

Weber pointed out that bureaucracy was the best administrative form for the rational or efficient pursuit of organisational goals. Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy comprised various elements such as (a) high degree of specialisation and a clearly-defined division of labour, with tasks distributed as official duties, (b) hierarchical structure of authority

with clearly circumscribed areas of command and responsibility, (c) establishment of a formal body of rules to govern the operation of the organisation and administration based on written documents, (d) impersonal relationships between organisational members and the

clients, (e) recruitment of personnel based on ability and technical knowledge, (f) long term employment, promotion on the basis of seniority and merit, (g) fixed salary and the separation of private and official income.

ii) Types of Authority

To understand the various aspects of authority Max Weber constructed its ideal types in terms of three types of authority. These are traditional, rational and charismatic.

Traditional authority is based upon the belief in the sanctity of ageold customs and rules. Rational authority is maintained by laws, decrees, regulations. Charismatic authority is characterised by exceptional virtue possessed by or attributed to the leader by those

who follow the leader, have confidence in the leader and are devoted to the leader.

iii) Types of Action

According to Max Weber “Sociology is a science which attempts the interpretative understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its cause and effects”. Here we can point out the following important elements of social action

i) social action includes all human behaviour.

ii) social action attaches a subjective meaning to it.

iii) the acting individual or individuals take into account the behaviour of others.

iv) social action is oriented in its course.

Action is social when the actor behaves in such a manner that his action is intended to influence the action of one or more other persons.

Weber has talked about four types of social actions. These are i) Zweckrational or rational action with reference to goals, ii) Wertrational or rational action with reference to values, iii) traditional action and iv) affective action.

Reconstruction of a Particular Kind of Behaviour

This ideal type includes those elements that constitute rationalising reconstructions of a particular kind of behaviour. For example, according to Weber, all propositions in economic theory are merely ideal typical reconstructions of the ways people would behave if they were pure economic subjects. These include laws of supply and demand, marginal

utilities etc. Supply of commodity in the market governs prices in relation to demand. Similarly, utility of a commodity for consumption is higher or lower depending upon the units available for consumption. Economic theory rigorously conceives economic behaviour as consistent with its essence.


Weber located a positive relationship between the Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism. Western capitalism, according to Weber, assumed its shape because it was supported by a certain belief system, namely, the “Protestant ethic”. Weber argued that the Protestant ethic is closely associated with the spirit of capitalism.

The Spirit of Capitalism

According to Weber, the capitalists desired wealth not for enjoyment or luxurious living. They wanted it so that they could use it to make more wealth. The thirst for money-making for its own sake is the very essence of modern capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system which aims at the unlimited accumulation of profit through the rational organisation of


Capitalism arose in the Western nations like England and Germany, which experienced what we call the “Industrial Revolution”. The growth of the factory system, new techniques of production, new tools and machines made it possible for the capitalists or the owners to earn vast amounts of money. The production process had to be rationally organised; in other words, efficiency and discipline were essential.

The worker was a means to an end, the end being profit. The attitude towards work was that it should be done well not because one had to do it, but because it carried an intrinsic reward. The popular American saying, “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well”, sums up this attitude. Hard work and efficient work was an end in itself.

The Protestant Ethic: Features Influencing the Development of Capitalism

Let us first clarify a few historical details. What is Protestantism? As the name suggests, it is a religion of protest. It arose in the sixteenth century in Europe in the period known as the Reformation.

Its founding fathers like Martin Luther and John Calvin broke away from the Catholic Church. They felt that the Church had become too immersed in doctrines and rituals. It had lost touch with the common people. Greed, corruption and vice had gripped the Church. Priests had a life-style more suitable for princes.

The Protestant sects that sprang up all over Europe tried to recapture the lost spirit of the Church. They stressed simplicity, austerity and devotion. Calvinism founded by the Frenchman John Calvin was one such sect.

Weber summarised the Calvinist ethic in five points.

a) There exists an absolute transcendent God who created the world and rules it, but who is incomprehensible and inaccessible to the finite minds of men.

b) This all powerful and mysterious God had predestined each of us to salvation or damnation, so that we cannot by our works alter a divine decree which was made before we were born.

c) God created the world for His own glory.

d) Whether he is to be saved or damned, man is obliged to work for the glory of God and to create the Kingdom of God on earth.

e) Earthly things, human nature, and flesh belong to the order of sin and death and salvation can come to man only through divine grace.

This helped to create a disciplined and dedicated workforce without which

capitalism could not have emerged.

Power and Authority

In ordinary usage, the term ‘power’ means strength or the capacity to control. Sociologists describe it as the ability of an individual or group to fulfil its desires and implement its decisions and ideas. It involves the ability to influence and/ or control the behaviour of others even against their will.

For Max Weber, power is an aspect of social relationships. It refers to the possibility of imposing one’s will upon the behaviour of another person. Power is present in social interaction and creates situations of inequality since the one who has power imposes it on others.

Weber discusses two contrasting sources

of power. These are as follows

a) Power which is derived from a constellation of interests that develop in a formally free market. For example, a group of producers of sugar controls supply of their production in the market to maximise their profit.

b) An established system of authority that allocates the right to command and the duty to obey. For example, in the army, a jawan is obliged to obey the command of his officer. The officer derives his power through an established system of authority.


Herrschaft is a situation in which a ‘Herr’ or master dominates or commands others. Raymond Aron (1967: 187) defines Herrschaft as the master’s ability to obtain the obedience of those who theoretically owe it to him.

Elements of Authority

i) An individual ruler/master or a group of rulers/masters.

ii) An individual/group that is ruled.

iii) The will of the ruler to influence the conduct of the ruled which may be expressed through commands.

iv) Evidence of the influence of the rulers in terms of compliance or obedience shown by the ruled.

v) Direct or indirect evidence which shows that the ruled have internalised and accepted the fact that the ruler’s commands must be obeyed.

Types of Social Action.

i) Zweckrational action or rational action in relation to a goal

An example of this is an engineer constructing a bridge, who uses certain materials in a certain manner to achieve goal. This activity is directed towards obtaining that goal, namely, completing the construction.

ii) Wertrational action, or rational action in relation to a value

Here, one may give the example of a soldier laying down his life for the country. His action is not directed towards attaining specific material goal like wealth. It is for the sake of certain values like honour and patriotism.

iii) Affective action

This kind of action results from the emotional state of mind of the actor. If some one is teasing a girl in a bus, she may get so irritated that she may slap the offending person. She has been provoked so much that she has reacted violently.

iv) Traditional action

This is an action, which is guided by customs and longstanding beliefs, which become second nature or habit. In traditional Indian society, doing ‘pranam’ or ‘namaskar’ to elders is almost second nature needing no prompting.

Types of Authority

Traditional Authority

This system of legitimation flows from traditional action. In other words, it is based on customary law and the sanctity of ancient traditions. It is based on the belief that a certain authority is to be respected because it has existed since time immemorial.

Charismatic Authority

Charisma means an extraordinary quality possessed by some individuals . This gives such people unique powers to capture the fancy and devotion of ordinary people. Charismatic authority is based on extraordinary devotion to an individual and to the way of life preached by this person. The legitimacy of such authority rests upon the belief in the supernatural or magical powers of the person. The charismatic leader ‘proves’ his/her power through miracles, military and other victories or the dramatic prosperity of the disciples. As long as charismatic leaders continue to ‘prove’ their miraculous powers in the eyes of their disciples, their authority stays intact.

Rational-legal Authority

The term refers to a system of authority, which are both, rational and legal. It is vested in a regular administrative staff who operate in accordance with certain written rules and laws. Those who exercise authority are appointed to do so on the basis of their achieved qualifications, which are prescribed and codified. Those in authority consider it a profession and are paid a salary. Thus, it is a rational system.

It is legal because it is in accordance with the laws of the land which people recognise and feel obliged to obey. The people acknowledge and respect the legality of both, the ordinance and rules as well as the positions or titles of those who implement the rules.


Bureaucracy, as just mentioned, is the machinery, which implements rational-legal authority. Max Weber studied bureaucracy in detail and constructed an ideal type which contained the most prominent characteristics of bureaucracy.

Major Features of Bureaucracy

i) In order that the bureaucracy may function adequately, it relies on the following rules and regulations.

a) The activities which comprise bureaucracy are distributed among the officials in the form of official duties.

b) There is a stable or regular system by which officials are vested with authority. This authority is strictly delimited by the laws of the land.

c) There are strict and methodical procedures which ensure that officials perform their duties adequately.

ii) The second feature of bureaucracy is that there is a hierarchy of officials in authority. By this we mean that there is a firmly built structure of subordination and superordination. Lower officials are supervised by higher ones and are answerable to them.

iii) The management of the bureaucratic office is carried out through written documents or files. They are preserved and properly kept by clerks who are specially appointed for this purpose.

iv) The work in the bureaucratic office is highly specialised and staff is trained accordingly.

v) A fully developed bureaucratic office demands the full working capacity of the staff. In such a case, officials may be compelled to work over-time.

Characteristics of Officials in Bureaucracy

Weber mentions the following characteristics of officials in a bureaucratic set-up

i) Office-work is a ‘vocation’ for officials.

ii) They are specially trained for their jobs.

iii) Their qualifications determine their position or rank in the office.

iv) They are expected to do their work honestly.

Their official positions also have a bearing on their personal lives. Let us see how.

i) Bureaucratic officials enjoy a high status in society.

ii) Often, their jobs carry transfer liabilities. By this we mean that they may be transferred from one place or department to another leading to some instability in their professional and personal lives.

iii) Officials receive salaries not in accordance with productivity but status. The higher their rank, the higher their salaries. They also receive benefits like pension, provident fund, medical and other facilities. Their jobs are considered very secure.

iv) Officials enjoy good career prospects. They can move from the lower rungs of the bureaucratic ladder to higher ones if they work in a disciplined manner.

1 comment:

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