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Max Weber is an influential theorist of society. Like Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, Weber developed a way of thinking about society as a system, which made it possible for people to examine social patterns and behaviors and find new kinds of explanations. Unlike these other key social theorists, Weber's theory of society is based on action. This means that a society comes into being through the individual and collective actions of its members. Social action has meaning and purpose. It accomplishes something valuable for society and its members in some way. Social forms, groups, identities and institutions are, in that sense, embodiments of the meaningful social actions of individuals and groups.
In Weber's theory, social actions can be classified according to what kind of meaning they possess, and following from this, what kind of motivation actors have in pursuing them. There are four types of social action:
Whole societies can be defined by the types of social actions one sees in them. Here Weber is particularly controversial for several reasons. Weber sees societies as falling on a scale of progress. With the passage of time, societies move from a traditional orientation and a traditional social organization to a modern orientation and organization. In a traditional society, the main basis for action is tradition, meaning specifically, a rule upheld by the group and never questioned. Observing tradition is an end in itself, and maintaining the past is the main orientation of all members of this society; people do not seek to do things differently for any reason. In more recent years, people have begun to question this view of rural and kinship-based societies as too simple.
Weber's negative view of traditional society highlights one of his key concepts: rationalization. As mentioned earlier, Weber concluded that all societies develop from a traditional orientation toward a more modern one. This process involves allowing people to pursue different kinds of goals. The range of different kinds of social actions expands, and more specialized domains develop, each fulfilling a different motivation. People move away from a traditional motivation for action and start to develop new ways of being in which they evaluate the purpose of their actions in a different light. Most importantly, people start to work toward collective goals, and individuals make choices by weighing the costs versus the benefits. In other words people increasingly look at their own lives in terms of the means and the ends. This is what Weber means by rationalization.
For Weber, a modern society is a highly rationalized society in which all actions are evaluated in terms of means and ends, and very few actions have affect and tradition as the primary motivation. A modern society has many specialized institutions. Forms of behavior and action which express emotion and tradition are not allowed to interfere with the rational rules and systems in the business sphere and the smooth functioning of bureaucracy. People in modern society are expected to behave rationally and evaluate every action in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, at least in the spheres of commerce.
Weber's theory of society is also, in this sense, a theory of modernity. Increasingly, social scientists have questioned the idea that all societies change in this way. Societies do not progress from tradition to modernity, at least not a single path. In so-called modern societies, people have a variety of orientations, and are not exclusively rational, even in their economic decisions. Also, people in so-called traditional societies behave in dynamic, individualistic ways, and these societies can both embrace change and adapt traditions to new situations. In other words, there is a degree of rationality in traditions which Weber did not recognize.
It seems more like there are multiple modernities, and modern institutions are not purely rational. Instead the same kinds of social actions can be found in all societies.
Bellah, Robert N. 1957. Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press.
Elwell, Frank. 1996. “Verstehen: The Sociology of Max Weber.” Rogers State University Faculty Pages. http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/felwell/www/Theorists/Weber/SocOfWeber.htm.
Weber, Max. 1905. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Allen and Unwin. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/weber/protestant-ethic/index.htm.
———. 1946. “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by C. Wright Mills and H. H. Gerth, 323–59. New York: Oxford University Press.