Max Weber: The Work
Max Weber conceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action. In his analytical focus on individual human actors he differed from many of his predecessors whose sociology was conceived in social-structural terms. Spencer concentrated on the evolution of the body social as analogous to an organism. Durkheim's central concern was with institutional arrangements that maintain the cohesion of social structures. Marx's vision of society was informed by his preoccupation with the conflicts between social classes within changing social structures and productive relations. In contrast, Weber's primary focus was on the subjective meanings that human actors attach to their actions in their mutual orientations within specific social-historical contexts. Behavior devoid of such meaning, Weber argued, falls outside the purview of sociology.
Four major types of social action are distinguished in Weber's sociology. Men may engage in purposeful or goal-oriented rational action (zweckrational); their rational action may be value-oriented (wertrational); they may acto from emotional or affective motivations; or, finally, they may engage in traditional action. Purposeful rationality, in which both goal and means are rationally chosen, is exemplified by the engineer who builds a bridge by the most efficient technique of relating means to ends. Value-oriented rationality is characterized by striving for a substantive goal, which in itself may not be ration--say, the attainment of salvation--but which is nonetheless pursued with rational means--for example, ascetic self-denial in the pursuit of holiness. Affective action is anchored in the emotional state of the actor rather than in the rational weighing of means and ends, as in the case of participants in the religious services of a fundamentalist sect. Finally, traditional action is guided by customary habits of thought, by reliance on "the eternal yesterday;" the behavior of members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation might serve as an example of such action.
This classification of types of action serves Weber in two ways. It permits him to make systematic typological distinctions, as for example between types of authority, and also provides a basis for his investigation of the course of Western historical development. Raymond Aron rightly sees Weber's work as "The paradigm of a sociology which is both historical and systematic."
Weber was primarily concerned with modern Western society, in which, as he saw it, behavior had come to be dominated increasingly by goal-oriented rationality, whereas in earlier periods it tended to be motivated by tradition, affect, or value-oriented rationality. His studies of non-Western societies were primarily designed to highlight this distinctive Western development. Karl Mannheim puts the matter well when he writes, "Max Weber's whole work is in the last analysis directed toward the question 'Which social factors have brought about the rationalization of Western civilization?' " In modern society, Weber argued, whether in the sphere of politics or economics, in the realm of the law and even in interpersonal relationships, the efficient application of means to ends has become predominant and has replaced other springs of social action.
Earlier theorists had attempted to conceive of major historical or evolutionary tendencies of Western society in structural terms: for example, Toennies' conception involved a drift from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (purposive association); Maine's, a shift from status to contract; and Durkheim's, a move from mechanical to organic solidarity. Weber responded to similar concerns by proposing that the basic distinguishing marks of modern Western man were best viewed in terms of characteristic shifts in human action that are associated with characteristic shifts in the social and historical situation. Unwilling to commit himself either to a "materialistic" or an "idealistic" interpretation of history, Weber's ultimate unit of analysis remained the concrete acting person.
Interpretative sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit, as its "atom." . . . The individual is . . . the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct. . . . 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.
Weber's focus on the mutual orientation of social actors and on the "understandable" motives of their actions was anchored in methodological considerations, which account for much of the distinctiveness of his approach.
From Coser, 1977:217-219.