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Summary Article: Weber, Max
from Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia

Born: April 21, 1864, in Erfurt, Prussia; Died: June 14, 1920, in Munich, Germany; German; political economy, social sciences, sociology, economic systems; Major Works: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), Economy and Society (1921–22).

Max Weber was an influential German political economist and sociologist. His work traced the roots of capitalism from within the Protestant religion. He also examines the connections between religion, culture, and economic systems of Chinese Confucianism and Taoism, Indian Hinduism and Buddhism, and ancient Judaism. Many would consider Weber, as well as Karl Marx and Emil Durkheim, a founder of modern social science. Weber died in 1920.

Maximilian Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfurt, Prussia, as the oldest of six children. His father, Max Sr., a lawyer and politician, and his mother, Helene Fallenstein, well educated with strong Calvinistic convictions, created a prosperous and intellectually engaging household. Weber's brother Alfred would eventually become a noted economist and sociologist as well. Weber studied law, economics, and history at the University of Heidelberg in 1882 and then at the University of Berlin in 1884. In 1886, he passed his “Referendar” examination (similar to the American Bar examination) and earned his doctorate in law magna cum laude in 1889. His dissertation focused on South European trading companies of the Middle Ages. Weber earned notoriety after conducting research into the conditions of rural laborers in the East Elbian provinces of Prussia recommending the breaking of large estates for the use and incentive to keep workers in the area. In 1894, he accepted a position as a professor of political economy at Freiburg University. He then moved to the University of Heidelberg in 1896.

In the summer of 1897, Weber and his father had a notable confrontation regarding Weber Sr.'s treatment of his mother. Weber's father died shortly thereafter without resolution between the two. Weber then began to suffer symptoms of a nervous breakdown and spent the summer and fall of 1900 in a sanatorium, forcing him to give up his professorship in 1903. Weber slowly returned to academia as a private scholar, writing many influential works. He later helped to shape the well-known social science journal Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaften und Sozialpolitik with Edgar Jaffe and Werner Sombart.

At the beginning of World War I, Weber founded and managed nine military hospitals as part of the Reserve Military Hospitals Commission. Weber's political views slowly became more public through the wake of World War I until 1917 when he campaigned for constitutional reform of postwar Germany with universal suffrage and the empowerment of Parliament. At the end of the war, Weber was asked to join the German Armistice Commission at the Treaty of Versailles as well as to help draft the Weimar Constitution. In 1919, he taught at the universities of Vienna and Munich and continued to write.

Throughout his life, Weber did not shy from either controversy or political debate. He ran unsuccessfully as a liberal Democrat for a parliamentary seat. His wife, Marianne Weber, became a leader of women's rights and Weber also publically supported universal suffrage. Their home in Heidelberg became a gathering place for intellectuals and writers.

Weber was a founder of modern sociology. Weber believed that a social scientist's work should be value free; he advocated a rigorous separation of fact and value. In his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber began a comparative study of world religions and economic systems. He argued that the morality of Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, was the catalyst for entrepreneurship and capitalism. The Protestant work ethic, he thought, encourages people to accumulate wealth. Protestantism also encourages thoughtful, rational stewardship, which meant that Protestants were likely to reinvest their wealth rather than spend it. Weber's analysis of Protestantism was accompanied by various explanations of why capitalism did not develop in places with different religions.

In another influential work, Economy and Society, Weber describes rationalization as a shift from value-oriented social organization and action to one of goal-oriented organization and action. He darkly describes this change as a “polar night of icy darkness” that ultimately traps human life in the control of bureaucratic organizations.

Weber's methodology and his systems of classification are also noteworthy. Weber introduced the distinction between social class (one's relationship to the market), status class (religion and reputation), and party class (political affiliations), as the three classes that work together to determine one's potential future.

Weber felt that the study of economics should also include economically relevant and conditioned phenomena, or as he described it, social economics. He advocated for interdisciplinary work between economics and sociologists.

Max Weber died in Munich on June 14, 1920, from pneumonia.

See also: Bauer, Otto; Engels, Friedrich; Hilferding, Rudolf; Marx, Karl

Selected Works by Max Weber
  • Weber, Maximillian. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 4th ed. Edited by Guenther Roth; Claus Wittich. University of California Press Berkeley, 1978.
  • Weber, Maximilian. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Allen & Unwin London, 1930.
  • Selected Works about Max Weber
  • Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. University of California Press Berkeley, 1978.
  • Rourke, Brian R. Max Weber. April 4, 2008. (accessed August 2012).
  • Weber, Marianne. Max Weber: A Biography. Transaction New Brunswick NJ, 1988.
  • Kathryn Lloyd Gustafson
    Copyright 2013 David A. Dieterle

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