SOC 320 UCSD Sociological Theory Discussion Questions

SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
Instructor’s Comments
Topic 9: Max Weber: Meaning, Social Action, and Social
This topic focuses on the sociological theories and methods of Max Weber
(pronounced “VAYber”). Many consider him one of the giants of sociological theory
(along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim) and he gets quite a bit of attention in
mainstream theory texts. We certainly are not flowing down the mainstream, but his
ideas do merit careful consideration because they have been very influential to the
discipline. In addition, he offered an interesting and persuasive view of both
sociology’s proper subject matter and the research methods he encouraged
sociologists to use. These views have been especially influential in the development
of social psychology and interpretive sociology. My comments will first address his
views on sociology’s appropriate subject matter and methods. I will then describe a
few of his more influential theories of society.
Sociology’s Subject Matter: Social Action
Weber’s conception of sociology’s subject matter reflects his assumptions about what
drives human behavior and, thus, society. Unlike Durkheim, Weber was very
interested in the roles that individual actions play in the unfolding of social history (if
you are curious about this line of thought, I highly recommend reading Leo Tolstoy’s
novels, especially War and Peace, and/or Victor Hugo’s commentary about the battle
of Waterloo in Les Miserables). Weber’s ultimate goal was to produce theories of
society and social relations that gave us some deeper sense of the various factors that
led to any particular social event, organization, etc. Integral to this understanding,
for Weber, was a deep understanding of what accounted for the actions of the people
who were experiencing/creating the social situation (whether it be a large-scale
social organization or the relations between friends and lovers). This orientation
forced Weber to consider the factors that explained individual behavior.
Weber argued that human behavior was unique (compared to the behavior of other
species) in that our actions were primarily the result of the meanings that we gave to
stimuli in our environment. Working in the shadow of learning theorists in psychology
(e.g., Pavlov), Weber argued that the “stimulus-response rules” that governed animal
behavior were too simplistic to explain human actions. In the case of humans, we
might associate certain responses with particular stimuli (like studying (response)
when presented with an exam (stimulus), but that our responses usually are shaped by
the particular meanings that we give the stimulus. For example, some people might
view the exam as a threat to their identity and thus study hard, while others might
see the exam as a manifestation of capitalist exploitation and refuse to study and/or
take the exam. Thus, where we might think of other species’ behavior as reflecting
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
the association of stable responses with specific stimuli (stimulus => response), human
behavior involves the intervention of meaning before an action is selected (stimulus
=> meaning => response).
Therefore, Weber’s view was that in order to understand a society, one has to
understand the behaviors of actors in that society. The only way to understand why
people do what they do is to gain an understanding of the meanings that people give
to the stimuli in the social setting. Aha!!! We have here the seeds from which one
can develop an interpretive sociology–a discipline that must pay keen attention to
the role of meanings (and subjectivity) in shaping social reality. From this
perspective, the discipline of Sociology should attend primarily to the ways meanings
both guide behavior and emerge from social interaction.
The title of this section declares that Weber advocated that sociologists study “social
action.” How does that relate to his concern with meaning? Well, Weber is arguing
that any meaningful response (i.e., not just a reflex) to a stimulus must reflect the
prior social experiences in which the actor learned the meanings they now associate
with the stimulus in question. Whew! Did you follow that one? Here is another go at
it: people are not born with a set of meanings for the world, instead they learn to
give meanings to things through interacting with others. Anything that is subjectively
meaningful must have become so as the result of earlier social experiences. If
meanings guide most human responses to stimuli, then social interaction is the root of
human behavior. Weber used this logic to argue that most human behavior is “social
action.” In making this argument, Weber outlined what he saw as the subject matter
for sociological inquiry: the social processes of meaning making and their impacts on
the individual and social behaviors.
Sociological Methods: Verstehen
Weber advocated that the goal sociological inquiry should be to ascertain the
meanings that ultimately explain behavior and the resulting social formations. In
other words, sociologists should make every attempt to uncover the meanings that
guide social action. Weber attempted to spell out how sociologists could uncover
these meanings using what he referred to as the method of verstehen (meaning “to
understand” in German). Central to this method was a deep exploration of both the
individual’s meanings (when the sociologist had access to the individuals involved in
what s/he was studying) and of the available meanings that existed culturally. This
exploration required very intimate knowledge of the situation, from both the
microscopic views of the actors and the macroscopic views of the entire culture. One
really needed to know what meanings were possible (cultural analysis) as well as the
particular idiosyncratic meanings that any individual might have had based on her/his
prior biographical experiences.
As you might imagine, Weber’s brand of sociology is very time intensive. It requires
that the sociologist gain an encyclopedic knowledge of the culture(s) that one is
examining, as well as the unique biographies of the social actors.
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
One of the consequences of the verstehen approach is that flies in the face of the
scientific emphasis on objectivity because subjectivity lies at the heart of the
analysis. Weber, however, did not completely reject positivism because he believed
that social phenomena have a clear line of prior causal events/behaviors. What he
argued was that the causes of the actions (objective events) were meanings
(subjectively experienced). This meant that sociologists had to do the hard work of
explaining the causes of behavior by thoroughly understanding the meanings that the
actor(s) gave to the underlying stimuli (applying verstehen). Using this kind of
understanding the sociologist could then map out the casual chains linking prior social
experience, meanings, and behaviors.
Weber’s line of argument leads to an interesting philosophical question: if objective
events (behaviors) are the result of unobservable subjective processes, what is the
foundation of “reality?” Is reality some singular thing we all inhabit, which is
objectively observable or, at least, measureable, and agreed upon by multiple
observers? Or, is “reality” something less clear cut, less universal, residing in the
imaginative realm of each of our own subjective thoughts, feelings, and perceptions?
It turns out this question is an important one that will help explain some of the
theories we will be examining later in the course.
Some of Weber’s More Influential Theories
I will now move on to examine a few of Max Weber’s more influential insights. He was
quite prolific, so it is difficult to decide just which of his insights to explore. I made
my choices to reflect what I think have been his most enduring legacies to the field.
The first insights I chose are his theories about what holds social groups together and
what leads to social changes (recall that these were central questions in Durkheim’s
work on social solidarity).
Theory of Social Order and Change
One could argue that Max Weber’s primary goal in his sociological work was to provide
a scientific account of the origin and development of modern Western societies. He
seemed very preoccupied with trying to understand just how in the world social life
(and individual thought and action) had taken such a remarkably dismal turn. Like
most of the other sociological theorists we have discussed, Weber was unhappy with
current social conditions and hoped to offer people a way to begin improving their
Keep in mind that Weber viewed society as a dialectic (of sorts) between individual
subjectivity (which leads to the behaviors that constitute society) and larger social
structural and cultural processes. Society reflects the behavior of social actors who
act based on the meanings they give to their situations, and these meanings derive
from their interactions with other social actors. I hope that last sentence does not
make you dizzy…but it is worth a few minutes meditation.
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
Have you finished meditating? Okay, let me try to paint a little clearer picture.
Weber was arguing that there is a dialectical relationship between ideas and social
structures. Remember how Marx and Hegel used dialectical reasoning to make their
cases. In Weber’s view, ideas cannot exist without social cultures and structures.
Think about it: social structures and cultures cannot exist without the ideas and ways
of thinking that support them. Conversely, thoughts, ideas, and meanings shape the
patterning of behaviors that we come to think of as social structure. Therefore, these
ideas come from the very social structures that we create with our behaviors, but
these behaviors reflect the ideas we carry around in our heads (which come from the
cultures and structures we inhabit?). Still dizzy. Still going in circles.
Of course, we are not just social robots, are we? Are our hopes, dreams, thoughts,
feelings, and actions just a reflection of the ideas that circulate within our culture? Is
there no room for free will and individuality? If there is no free will, how is social
change possible? Weber left room for creative social change by arguing that people
are not completely programmed by society, but have agency (the ability to think and
act somewhat autonomously from cultural ideas). Though constrained by cultural
ideas (Marx’s false consciousness or Gilman’s “wrong ideas”), it was possible, in Weber’s
view, for people to think and behave “outside the box.” In fact, it was the ability to
think outside the box that led to social change.
What was Weber so concerned about?? Was it capitalism? Sexism? Racism? For Weber,
the most pressing problem facing Western societies was an evolution of ideas and
social structures that were increasingly dehumanizing. The main culprit was
something he referred to as “rationalization.” He saw rationalization as ultimately
undermining human agency, the quality of thought (and behavior), and, ultimately,
human society. I will discuss his views on this process below.
The Rationalization of Society
Before you go any further, I’d like you to read a quote from Max Weber’s Gesammelte
Aufsaetze zur Soziologie and Sozialpolitik. In this passage he describes his vision of
the modern person: someone laboring within a bureaucratic structure, whose thoughts
and behaviors come to be more and more centered on moving up (or down) the chain
of positions within the bureaucracy. For Weber, the bureaucracy represented the
leading edge of social structural changes that were being driven by increasing
rationalization in society. In his words:
“Imagine the consequences of that comprehensive bureaucratization and
rationalization which already today we see approaching. Already now,
throughout private enterprise in wholesale manufacture, as well as in all other
economic enterprises run on modern lines, Rechenhaftigkeit, rational
calculation, is manifest at every stage. By it, the performance of each
individual worker is mathematically measured, each man (sic) becomes a little
cog in the machine and, aware of this, his one preoccupation is whether he can
become a bigger cog…. The problem which besets us now is not: how can this
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
evolution be changed?–for that is impossible, but: what will come of it? We
willingly admit that there are honorable and talented men at the top of our
administration; that in spite of all the exceptions such people have
opportunities to rise in the official hierarchy, just as the universities, for
instance claim that, in spite of all the exceptions, they constitute a chance of
selection for talent. But horrible as the thought is that the world may one day
be peopled with professors (laughter)–we would retire on to a desert island if
such a thing were to happen (laughter)–it is still more horrible to think that
the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men
(sic) clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones–a state of affairs
which is to be seen once more, as in the Egyptian records, playing an everincreasing part in the spirit of our present administrative system, and specially
in its offspring, the students. It is…as if we were deliberately to become men
who need “order” and nothing but order, who become nervous and cowardly if
for one moment this order wavers and helpless if they are torn away from their
total incorporation in it. That the world should know no men but these: it is in
such an evolution that are already caught up, and the great question is
therefore not how we can keep a portion of mankind free from this parcelingout of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life. The
answer to this question today clearly does not lie here.”
Max Weber, from Gesammelte Aufsaetze zur Soziologie and Sozialpolitik.
What did Weber mean by rationalization? He was mainly referring to the process of
rational calculation: trying to gain the greatest efficiencies in service of producing
some desired end. He argued that rational calculation had become the central
cultural ethic driving the development of industrialized (primarily capitalist)
countries. [Note: Whatever you do, though, don’t confuse Weber’s meaning of
rationalization (seeking economic efficiencies), with the psychological
rationalization—which is the process of finding justifications (excuses) for things one
does or is considering doing (e.g. Xavi rationalized that it was OK that he ate the
entire cake alone by telling himself that his roommates probably wouldn’t be hungry
when they came home anyway).]
Weber’s views on the power of economic rationalization to shape society isn’t that far
from Marx’ notion that the capitalist profit motive was the key determinant of the
structure of society and individuals’ thoughts and actions. The key difference
between the two theorists is that where Marx saw material conditions (especially
class conflict) as having produced capitalism (as well as all prior exploitive economic
arrangements), Weber emphasized the primacy of ideas. Part of Weber’s contribution
to sociological theory was the recognition that ideas could emerge, somewhat
independently, from material conditions that could shape the future development of
material living conditions.
Weber’s most important insights about the role that ideas play in social evolution can
be found in his work: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this book,
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
he takes on Marx’s ideas (somewhat indirectly) by arguing that one could explain the
emergence of capitalism as a consequence of the emergence of particular religious
ideas (rather than as a consequence of class conflict between the landed aristocracy
and peasants). His basic argument was that a particular idea in Calvinism led people
to become much more interested in producing wealth than they had been in earlier
times. The idea Weber identified was the belief that one’s eternal fate (whether
going to heaven or not) was pre-determined before birth. This belief, in Weber’s
thinking, led to incredible anxiety among Calvinists, who would be obsessed with
discovering any signs of their eternal status while they were on earth. To make a long
story short, Calvinists came to believe that one’s successes (especially economic) were
signs from God that one was “elect” (going to heaven). So, this led people to value
things like thrift, productivity, and efficiency. Weber argues that the emphasis on
these values pervaded Western cultures and promoted the development of
But capitalism was only one manifestation of the “protestant ethic.” The more
pervasive legacy, according to Weber, was the ethic of rationalization (increasing
efficiency). Certainly one can think of the profit motive as one manifestation of
rationalization–the more efficient an organization becomes, the greater the potential
profit. But rationalization is more encompassing according to Weber. It becomes
part of our thoughts and actions. We think of our lives as problems of minimizing
inefficiencies. We become obsessed with time management, productivity, maximizing
rewards, etc. The notion of “free time” becomes obsolete as we try to cram as many
activities as possible into smaller and smaller units of time. We think only of getting
through our daily activities in the most efficient manner possible. And on and on goes
the Weberian nightmare.
One of the key innovations of rationalizations is the bureaucracy. This is a way to
structure the relations between people in the most efficient way possible. Each “cog”
in the bureaucratic gears is designed to interlock with other cogs in ways that
maximize output and minimize “waste.” Each cog is defined by a set of specific tasks
and responsibilities that the “cog-holder” must perform. Each of these task then
dovetail with other tasks performed by other people. Weber was concerned that this
form of relations was pervading society, and as a consequence, the human psyche.
George Ritzer has produced a very interesting application of Weber’s ideas in his book:
The MacDonaldization of Society. In this book, Ritzer argues that rationalization has
reached its pinnacle in organizations like MacDonald’s that produce incredible
efficiencies through reproducing the same set of human relationships, tasks, and
experiences in each of its millions of restaurants throughout the world. This
rationalization produces a kind of “sameness” and predictability that allows
innovations to spread throughout the organization quickly (imagine that someone at
the MacDonald’s University discovers a way to shave 1/10 second off the time it takes
to cook one of their burgers…that innovation can be spread quickly to every
restaurant, resulting in a time savings of millions of seconds per day…and greater
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
I think this is a useful and powerful image. Weber saw rationalization as something
that would continue to move forward, reshaping society and individual consciousness
in more destructive ways, unless the ideas could be supplanted with more humanistic
notions. Other theorists we’ll read later (like Habermas) take his idea a bit further.
I’d like you to just take some time to think about Weber’s vision, read Seidman, and
then join the discussion forum.
Discussion Questions:
(1) In what ways do you use the method of verstehen in your own life? In other
words, how do you engage the process of figuring out what is going on in other
people’s heads? Think about it. It might not be as foreign a concept as it appears on
the surface. Give examples.
(2) Weber’s conceptualizes rationalization as an historical force that is shaping
society. Rationalization is present in all efforts to produce efficiencies through
reproducing the same set of human relationships, tasks, and experiences across time
and place. What are two or three examples of “rationalization” that affect your dayto-day experiences?
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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