Weber 's Method of Sociology Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Sociology Q’s

1. How is action different from mere behavior, according to Weber? Give examples.

For Weber, action and behavior are different in the sense that behavior is a purely mechanistic or mechanical movement of the body. It does not take into consideration an “other”. Action on the other hand is more deliberate in that it takes into consideration the behaviors of others and anticipates their responses or is predicated upon their initial expressions of behavior. Action is social, whereas behavior is essentially individualized and performed without any connectivity to or consideration for one’s society.

A behavior could become an action—i.e., a social action. Weber determined an action to be social whenever a person applied a subjective meaning to a particular behavior. For example, a person who washes his car because it is dirty is simply engaging in a behavior. A person who washes his car because he wants to look presentable to his colleagues at work when he arrives in the morning is engaging in an action—that is, a social action—because he has applied a subjective meaning to the behavior. The car is not simply being cleaned because it is dirty—it is being cleaned because a clean car reflects something positive about the driver and the driver wants to communicate that positivity outwardly to his colleagues so as to leave them with a favorable impression of him.

Weber went on to classify action in four ways: traditional action, affectual action, value-rational action, and instrumentally rational action. Traditional action described habitual action—action performed out of habit that, while still possessed of a subjective meaning, was performed mainly without conscientious thought. Affectual action referred to emotional action that had meaning but was typically performed without deliberation. Value-rational action referred to self-conscious awareness of the action’s value. Instrumentally rational action referred to deliberate action performed to achieve a specific goal.

2. Does Weber’s emphasis on understanding and interpretation mean that the method of sociology is purely subjective and can never strive at objectivity? Why?

Weber was an interpretivist and thus believed that the best one could do was to interpret social actions rather than view them as objective “facts” the way Durkheim did. However, once the interpretation was communicated, it became a social action as well, and would then be interpreted by others. Weber’s sociological method, in this sense, followed in the tradition of the Hegelian dialectic. Instead of focusing on objectivity, the aim was to contribute to the synthesis of new ideas. Weber’s own method was such that is insisted that all underlying meaning attributed to social actions was subjective and could never realistically be objectively defined or determined as true. Everyone was interpreting everyone and everything else, filtering all information through their own lens of experience, knowledge, understanding, and so on.

However, Weber’s sense of the bureaucracy—or, rather, the perfect bureaucracy—was that it could only be achieved once it was completely impersonalized—i.e., completely mechanistic, consisting of regimented and regulated behaviors rather than actions. The bureaucracy could be objectified because it was like a machine—a system, like a car engine or a factory. The mechanization of human behavior could be applied to government through the process of bureaucratization. The problem was whether such a form of control was really appropriate or not. It is likely that his WWI experiences showed him that it was not.

3. What is the difference between value-rational action and instrumentally-rational action? Give an example. Why is this distinction important to Weber?

Value-rational action and instrumentally-rational action are related in the sense that the latter is predicated by the former. Even in value-rational action an end is generally perceived, although it may be vague and unable to be measured. The main difference is that instrumentally-rational actions are more calculated to have a desired effect, whereas value-rational actions are associated with form, aesthetic, and ritualistic behavior.

Value-rational action is action to which some inherent value is attributed by the doer. The end or outcome of the behavior is not important because the action is meaningful in and of itself and has value as such. For example, voting in an election would be a value-rational action. The doer does not know what impact the vote will have but understands that the action has value in a democratic society; thus, the doer is compelled to act by casting his vote. Another example of a value rational action would be any other type of ritual. Voting can be understood as a political ritual in a democracy. Saying the pledge of allegiance every day before school would be another. A religious ritual would also fit this description—i.e., saying one’s morning and evening prayers, fasting, etc.

Instrumentally-rational action is a social action that is performed with a specific end in mind. The doer knows what the action is meant to achieve and does the action deliberately and specifically to achieve that end. An example of instrumentally-rational action would be a worker who performs a task for his manager, who has promised the worker a reward for getting the job done on time and under budget.

4. What are ideal types for Weber? How are they important to interpret social action?

The ideal type for Weber is that which is consistent, thematically speaking, across a specific range of experiences of a particular phenomenon. The ideal type does not refer to a perfect form or pure form but rather to cognitive form—the idea of form. Weber described it thus:  “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 onesidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct” (Shills & Finch, 2002, p. 90). In other words, ideal types are interpretations of social actions, and as with social actions, Weber identified four sorts of ideal types—the goal-rationality type, the value-rationality type, the emotional-rationality type, and the unconscious habit type. Each social action, it can therefore be seen, corresponds to an ideal type.

Ideal types are important for interpreting social action because they represent the accumulation of data—the observations of social action and how themes appear among the data sources—i.e., among the people whose actions are being interpreted. The ideal type proposes that there are common characteristics to every sort of social action and that those characteristics can be distilled and understood via the construction of the ideal type. The ideal type, however, is not to be considered as an objective reality but rather as a construction of the essence of an action. The ideal type highlights the features of the social action that are most likely to be found and thus presents itself as a sort of measure for understanding and interpreting social actions. It can be used, in short, as a kind of baseline.

5. What is “capitalistic economic action,” according to Weber? Give an example of economic action that is not capitalistic. How can capitalistic economic action it be rationalized.

A capitalistic economic action is one that is predicated on profit-driven activities of exchange. A business for example conducts its operations for the sake of profit. It begins with a set amount of capital and assets and aims to end with more capital or assets than it had when it began. In other words, the business in a capitalistic system intends to profit from its labor: it is not a system of bartering or of equal exchanges of goods in and of themselves. The capitalistic economic action factors in to the value of the good, the cost to produce (labor and materials) as well as the utility the good or service can have for the use (a subjective value determined theoretically by the market but not necessarily). Once labor and materials have been paid for by the business, the profit is that which the business nets after costs are factored out. The business owner thus earns a living by managing the operation and profiting from the exchange.

An example of economic action that is not capitalistic would be the barter exchange, which occurs through sites like Craigslist, where an owner of one good might swap it with an owner of another good for one of perceived equal value but that satisfies a need for each of the participants. There is no profit obtained by either in the exchange: it is an even exchange.

Capitalistic economic action can be rationalized by pointing out that it enables profit to be realized in the sphere of production rather than in the sphere…

Sources Used in Document:


Shils, E. A. & Finch, H. (2002). Classical Sociological Theory. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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