Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Weber, Max

core definition

Maximilian Karl Emil Weber, know as Max, was a German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist who had a major impact on sociology and the conduct of social research.

explanatory context

Weber came from a wealthy, staunchly Calvinist family and was born in Erfurt. He went to the University of Heidelberg in 1882 and in 1895 was appointed Professor of Political Economy at the University of Freiburg and a year later got a professorship at Heidelberg. He had attacked the ruling Junker aristocracy as historically obsolete and was politically active in the left-liberal Protestant Social Union. He promoted a policy of imperial expansion for Germany as the only means of achieving genuine national maturity. Weber suffered a nervous collapse after his father’s death in 1897 and for five years he was intermittently institutionalised and did not teach again until after World War I.


Weber is probably best known for the development of social action theory, the methodological construct of ideal types and his view of the capitalism as driven by a Protestant ethic.


Weber argues that this Protestant ethic developed primarily out of the Calvinists' belief in predestination. Calvinists could not know or directly affect their fate after death but it was possible for them to get indications as to whether they were saved or damned and a major sign of salvation was success in business.


Weber (1964, p. 29) defines sociology as 'that science which at the interpretive understanding of social behaviour in order to gain an explanation of its causes, its course and its effects.'


Coser (1971, p. 218) claims that 'Weber's ultimate unit of social analysis remained the concrete acting person.' Indeed Weber (1922, p. 132, 142) asserted:

Interpretive sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit, as its 'atom', - if the disputable comparison for once may be permitted. In this approach, the individual is also the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct ... In general, for sociology, such concepts as 'state', 'association', 'feudalism' and the like designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to 'understandable' action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individual men.

According to Weber, differences between the natural and social sciences are due to the intentions, interests and aims of the investigator and are not due to the subject matter of human action. [Coser, 1971, p. 219]. There is no inherent difference in methods of investigation between the two. Weber did not subscribe to a simple Naturwissenshaft-Geisteswissenschaft division of the sciences. For Weber, both types of science involved abstraction, and therefore selection, as each realm has a vast store of facts such that no total explanation is possible.

'The natural scientist is primarily interested in those aspects of natural events that can be formulated in terms of abstract laws. While the social scientist may wish to search for such lawful abstract generalisations in human behaviour, he is also interested in particular qualities of human actors and in the meaning they ascribe to their actions.' (Weber, quoted in Coser, 1971, p. 219)

When social scientists abstract from reality they take concrete individual cases as 'instances' to be subsumed under theoretical generalisations, or uses them to concentrate attention on particular features of phenomena.


For Weber, interpretive understanding was a preliminary step in the establishment of causal relationships. Because 'any interpretive explanation must become a causal explanation if it is to reach the dignity of a scientific proposition.' (Coser,1971, pp. 220-1)


Objectivity and subjectivity

Arguably Weber's method of 'meaning comprehension' leaves his method wide open to attacks as being too subjective. Weber argued that all science is approached subjectively in that all scientists have their own values and points of view to start with (and are searching out answers to particular questions). What is important, for Weber, is that subjectively derived meanings can be put to the test. The interpretation, not the selection, must be objective.

Here Weber confounds value-laden perspectives with subjectivity and objectivity

Weber's methodology

Consider areas of substantive importance. Consider the 'key' concepts from an historical perspective.

The choice of 'key' concept is dependent upon the historical development of substantively important social issues, and the recurrence of emergence of particular aspects provides the first clues to the 'key' concept.

Embryonic key concepts are used as the links that fit the 'facts' together in a plausible way.

Ideal types

The key concepts are developed into ideal types. These typologies are explored and a rationalised theory outlined surrounded by a multitude of empirical examples.

Arguably, the examples are never fully or convincingly followed through but are the basic evidence for the plausibility of the story.

Ideal types are ultimately aimed at abstract exploration of the core of the concept. (This was an aspect that Weber developed late in his life). Ideal types are to be meaningful and eventually verifiable. The ‘adequacy’ of the ideal type is what makes Weber's approach ‘scientific’. Verification does not mean adopting the scientific method (of experiment) nor of simplistic falsificationism. Empirical 'facts' are not allowed to destroy a plausible theory, the elements of a social theory are testable via experimentation but must be tested over time by reference to historical data. (This, argues Weber, reflects the processes of pure rather than applied science). Historical material is not amenable to experimental type control so the theory has to be sophisticated enough to take into account changes in associated variables. However, to stop the theory becoming too complex a decision about what is really important has to be made. This raises the possibility of circularity

Ideal types provide an escape from generalisation on the one hand and from particularisation on the other. 'An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more-or-less present and occasionally absent ‘concrete individual’ phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasised viewpoints into a unified analytical construct.' (Quoted in Shils & Finch, 1949, p. 90)

Ideal types 'never correspond to concrete reality but always move at least one step away from it ... There has never been a full empirical embodiment of the Protestant Ethic, of the "charismatic leader", or of the exemplary prophet".' (Coser, 1971, p. 223)

There are three kinds of ideal types, those derived form historical particularities (such as 'modern capitalism','Protestant Ethic'); those involving abstract elements of social reality (e.g. 'bureacracy', 'feudalism'); and those referring to typical rationalised behaviour based on a stated premise (e.g., actions of the 'economic rational man', supply and demand functions).

Causality and probability

Coser states that Weber emphatically did not reject causality in the social sciences. Weber believed in historical and sociological causality. However, Weber expressed it in terms of probability. This conception of probability, however, has 'nothing to do with an insistence on free will or the unpredictability of human behaviour’.

On the contrary, Weber was adamant that complete unpredictability was the result of insanity and that to express causality as a probability statement was due to the extreme difficulty in making entirely exhaustive causal imputations. [Schutz agrees, but see Lessnoff]


'Historical causality determines the unique circumstances that has given rise to an event. Sociological causality assumes the establishment of a regular relationship between two phenomena, which need not take the form 'A makes B inevitable', but may take the form 'A is more or less favourable to B'.' (Quoted in Main Currents p. 193 and requoted in Coser, 1971, p. 225)

Historical causality asks what caused the Russian Revolution of October 1917? Sociological causality asks what are the causes of all revolutions or of particular ideal types of revolutions


analytical review

Encyclopedia of Marxism, (undated) provided the following biography of Weber:

....German sociologist and political economist best known for his thesis of the “Protestant Ethic”; an early proponent of positivist sociology and historiography, he promoted the thesis that the significance of a historical phenomenon was determined by the viewpoint of the investigator, rather than by any objective significance; developed the concept of ‘ideal types’ as a tool for isolating sociological phenomena for the purpose of analysis; his methodology was consciously directed against Marxism, promoting the idea of a plurality of historical factors as against what is today called ‘essentialism’....

In his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism published in 1905, Weber attributed the success of German capitalism to the psychological consequences of Calvinism. However, when the Protestant morality that he had come to accept as inescapable destiny came under attack from young avant-garde literary circles such as Stefan George’s group and others, Weber began a series of discussions with Stefan George and the poet Friedrich Gundolf, which contributed much to the evolution of his ideas.

During this period, Weber promoted the need for social theory to adopt a value-free methodology, and he engaged himself in comparative studies of Eastern religions with those of Christian Europe.....

Kim (2012) wrote:

Arguably the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century, Max Weber is known as a principal architect of modern social science along with Karl Marx and Emil Durkheim. Weber's wide-ranging contributions gave critical impetus to the birth of new academic disciplines such as sociology and public administration as well as to the significant reorientation in law, economics, political science, and religious studies. His methodological writings were instrumental in establishing the self-identity of modern social science as a distinct field of inquiry; he is still claimed as the source of inspiration by empirical positivists and their hermeneutic detractors alike. More substantively, Weber's two most celebrated contributions were the “rationalization thesis,” a grand meta-historical analysis of the dominance of the west in modern times, and the “Protestant Ethic thesis,” a non-Marxist genealogy of modern capitalism. Together, these two theses helped launch his reputation as one of the founding theorists of modernity. In addition, his avid interest and participation in politics led to a unique strand of political realism comparable to that of Machiavelli and Hobbes. As such, Max Weber's influence was far-reaching across the vast array of disciplinary, methodological, ideological and philosophical reflections that are still our own and increasingly more so....

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site described Weber's methodology thus:

Max Weber (1864-1920) argued against abstract theory, and he favored an approach to sociological inquiry that generated its theory from rich, systematic, empirical, historical research. This approach required, first of all, an examination of the relationships between, and the respective roles of, history and sociology in inquiry. Weber argued that sociology was to develop concepts for the analysis of concrete phenomena, which would allow sociologists to then make generalizations about historical phenomena. History, on the other hand, would use a lexicon of sociological concepts in order to perform causal analysis of particular historical events, structures, and processes. In scholarly practice, according to Weber, sociology and history are interdependent.

Weber contended that understanding, or verstehen, was the proper way of studying social phenomena. Derived from the interpretive practice known as hermeneutics, the method of verstehen strives to understand the meanings that human beings attribute to their experiences, interactions, and actions. Weber construed verstehen as a methodical, systematic, and rigorous form of inquiry that could be employed in both macro- and micro-sociological analysis.

Weber's formulation of causality stresses the great variety of factors that may precipitate the emergence of complex phenomena such as modern capitalism. Moreover, Weber argued that social scientists, unlike natural scientists, must take into account the meanings that actors attribute to their interactions when considering causality. Weber, furthermore, sought a middle ground between nomothetic (general laws) and idiographic (idiosyncratic actions and events) views in his notion of a probabilistic adequate causality.

Weber's greatest contribution to the conceptual arsenal of sociology is known as the ideal type. The ideal type is basically a theoretical model constructed by means of a detailed empirical study of a phenomenon. An ideal type is an intellectual construct that a sociologist may use to study historical realities by means of their similarities to, and divergences from, the model. Note that ideal types are not utopias or images of what the world ought to look like.

Weber urged sociologists to reflect on the role of values in both research and the classroom. When teaching, he argued, sociologists ought to teach students the facts, rather than indoctrinating them to a particular political or personal point of view. Weber did argue, however, that the values of one's society often help to decide what a scholar will study. He contended that, while values play this very important role in the research process, they must be kept out of the collection and interpretation of data.


Aron (1964, p. 67) sees Weber's work as:

The paradigm of a sociology which is both historical and systematic.

associated issues


related areas

See also

ideal types

social action


Researching the Real World Section


Aron, R., 1964, German Sociology. New York, Free Press.

Coser, L.A., 1971, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in historical and social context. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Encyclopedia of Marxism, undated, Glossary of People: Weber, Max (1864-1920), available at, accessed 14 May 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

Kim, Sung Ho, 2012, 'Max Weber', in Zalta, E.N. (Ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), first published 24August 2007; substantive revision 31 July 2012, available at, accessed 14 May 2013, still available 29 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Chapter 4 Chapter Summary: Max Weber's Methodology, available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 29 December 2016.

Shils, E., & Finch, H. (Eds.), 1949, Max Weber and the Methodology of the Social Sciences. New York, Free Press.

Weber, M., 1922, Gesammelte Aufsaetz zur Wissenschafteslehre. Turbingen.

Weber, M., 1964, Weber: Basic Concepts in Sociology. New York, Citadel Press.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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