Max Weber and the Interpretative Tradition

Robert Holton. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

As a first approximation, historical sociology may be thought of as the study of social change. While sociology itself emerged as a critical commentary on the Industrial and French Revolutions (Nisbet, 1967), the concern to analyse patterns of social relations through time has not been intrinsic to all versions of the sociological enterprise. In this sense historical sociology has been seen by many as a subset rather than a core feature of the discipline, on a par with industrial, political and other such specialisms. For the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), like most of his contemporaries, sociology was, by contrast, inherently historical in the questions it set out to address.

Understanding the present, and the direction in which social change was leading, required a profound grasp of long-run processes of social change. The distinctiveness, the dynamics and the inertias of the present could only fully be grasped in historical perspective, which for Weber stretched over 2,500 years. And the same was true of the criteria of relevance by which social scientists selected intellectual questions for attention, thereby bringing certain types of evidence into the foreground for analysis. In Weber’s case the key question underlying his sociology was the idea, shared with his contemporaries, of the historical distinctiveness of the West (Weber, 1930b [1920]). This was to be seen within its characteristic institutions and attitudes and social practices, as they had emerged over time, and in comparison with other non-Western forms of social life. This view of the West encompassed the application of distinctive forms of rationality to economy, government and cultural practice, manifest in what Weber took to be particularly Western forms of capitalism, rulership, administration, religion, science, architecture and music. The counterpoints to Western distinctiveness centred on the major civilizations of China, India and the Middle East, associated in large measure with the world religions of Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.

This historical perspective was, in the broadest sense, common ground between writers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, nineteenth-century thinkers like Alexis de Toqueville and Karl Marx, and a whole host of Weber’s contemporaries from Werner Som bart and Otto Hintze in Germany, Joseph Schumpeter in Austria and Frederic Maitland in England, to ‘mile Durkheim in France.’ Weber’s work can none the less be differentiated from this broad historically sensitive common ground in three main senses. First, he attempted to construct a less conjectural and philosophical approach than did his forebears, in favour of a more analytically grounded and empirically plausible framework for the analysis of social change. Second, he set himself against prevailing evolutionary approaches, and indeed against any attempt to produce a general philosophy or theory of history. His intention was rather to produce a more open-ended comparative account of social organization and social change. Third, he developed a multicausal approach to analysis, designed to transcend previous debates between materialist and idealist accounts of history.

A crucial feature of this endeavour was to bring back ‘idealist’ elements into the picture, if only to correct for the one-sidedness of many ‘materialist’ approaches to social change. This ‘interpretative’ approach to historical sociology attends to the meanings which individuals give to their actions, and to questions of what might be called social psychology, expressed above all in religious experience. Questions to do with the meaning of human suffering and of uncertainties about salvation are at the forefront here. However, Weber’s interest is in what people do in the practical everyday world in the light of their beliefs, and in the tensions between beliefs and activities, rather than theology in the abstract.

The classification of Weber’s historical sociology as interpretative stems, then, from this corrective focus, and not from any desire to replace materialism with idealism. In the much-cited, much-criticized but much-misunderstood ‘Protestant ethic thesis’ (Weber, 1930a [1904-5]), it is made quite clear that the interpretative emphasis is only one dimension to the causal analysis. It is therefore a gross misreading of Weber to see his interpretative approach as mutually exclusive of characteristically materialist concerns for themes like the economic organization of land, capital and labour, technology, demography, geography or military aspects of realpolitik.

Locating Weber’s Historical Sociology: From Conjecture to Analysis

It has become customary to locate Weber’s sociology in terms of the twin reference points he himself identified, namely Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. One disadvantage of this approach is that it forecloses on broader historical and interdisciplinary considerations that help put Marx and Nietzsche, as much as Weber, into perspective.

There is a tendency within the history of social thought to regard historical sociology as a product of Western modernity associated above all with the Enlightenment. This assumption is often tied to what might be called a ‘Great Transformation’ view of social change. Before the French and Industrial Revolutions, so the story goes, social life was mostly static and spatially bounded. Tradition and religious faith enveloped social thinking, such that awareness of the social causes of social change was dim or non-existent. After the Transformation, the modernization of humankind led to a greater appreciation of the sense in which social institutions could be shaped and reshaped by human action.

Marx’s analysis of the dynamics, crises and class struggles of the capitalist Industrial Revolution and Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God and hence of transcendent moral standards have been forced into the service of the Great Transformation argument. Yet both thinkers were, in their different ways, more subtle than this in so far as they understood continuities as well as contrasts between ancient and modern worlds and world-views. Weber’s historical sociology may be seen as a more explicit and thoroughgoing rejection of the Great Transformation argument. Reason in the most general sense is not a product of the Enlightenment, nor is tradition absent in the present

Weber’s position, like that of the twentieth-century world historian William McNeill (1986), is to think of human history over several millennia as being characterized by significant elements of social change and diverse orientations to the world. Weber recognized a range of changes in areas such as the economic ethics of religion, or the construction of rationally codified law, while for McNeill change is evident in the construction of empires through conquest, long-distance trade and population mobility. Such developments encouraged not only a sense of human agency in practical life, but also an awareness of ‘others’ different in certain respects from one’s own social group. It is not therefore surprising to find speculation about social change and the reasons for and implications of cultural difference among ancient classical authors such as Aristotle or medieval Islamic scholars such as Ibn Khaldun (Issawi, 1998).

The historically informed eighteenth-century Enlightenment writings of Montesquieu, Adam Smith or Millar, ranging over matters such as the determination of differences in political institutions, the extent of the division of labour or the origins of social ranks and distinctions, do not announce an entirely new epoch in social thought. While some of these themes are given a clearer formulation and new centrality, much Enlightenment history, like that of its forebears, is contained within a highly speculative or conjectural framework. This is typically short on evidence and long on rhetoric. Montesquieu’s perception that the Italians were more excitable and less reserved than the English, for example, drew upon his observations of their behaviour at the opera rather than any more systematic evidence. Yet from flimsy data such as these he went on to develop an elaborate theory of the influence of climate on behaviour (Hawthorn, 1976: 16).

One reason for the prevalence of rhetorical presentation was that the historical imagination was still largely undifferentiated from two central discursive genres. One was a literary essayistic idiom in which aesthetic style and conjectural argument were deemed sufficient criteria for intellectual endeavour. The other was the intimate immersion of historical thought within moral and political philosophy. Enlightenment history recognized that prevailing standards of justice or liberty might be connected with certain kinds of institutions and social practices, and that social patterns had non-divine causes, whether climatic or social. None the less the treatment of these connections was generally speculative, lacking the logical or empirical rigour and scientific methodology that had come by the end of the nineteenth-century to characterize the academic profession of history.

This methodological change was evident in biblical, philological, classical and legal scholarship, as well as in economic history. Weber became a protégé of the legal historian Gold-schmidt and of Mommsen, the classical historian, while studying at the University of Berlin (Kalberg, 2000: 145). His early research into the legal history of trading companies and later work on religion bear the hallmark of advances in scientific method developed within these circles, including the systematic scrutiny of historical documents in their original language. When Weber investigated the relationship between Protestantism, Catholicism and business activity, over 150 years after Montesquieu had noted the distinctive Protestant contribution to economic endeavour, he did so equipped both with statistical material and with documentary evidence on the economic ethics of Protestantism, including cultural variations in the idea of the calling in a variety of social settings. Conjectural history was now no longer the dominant discourse.

But Weber brought one further dimension to his scholarship that was not typical of historians of his day, and which helps us to identify what was distinctively sociological and interpretative about his work. This dimension is concerned both with the problematic epistemological foundations of social science, and with the characteristic methods of conceptual analysis which Weber developed for use in historical analysis.

For unlike protagonists of positivist historiography and sociology, Weber upheld the Kantian objection to empiricism. Facts were never spontaneously or naturally available to knowledge, but were necessarily grasped through categories such as space, time and causality which were prior (that is, a priori) to the experience of the senses. Whereas Ranke, the celebrated German political historian, assembled documentary evidence to tell it how it was, Weber saw this enterprise as misguided. Even the most empirically minded historian must necessarily rely on abstraction and on organizing concepts (such as the medieval economy, Christianity or the Prussian state) in order to conduct his or her historical narrative. Weber, in this respect, sided with the neo-classical economists (see Holton, 1986b) in their methodological debate (Methoden-streit) with the historical economists. Whereas the latter eschewed abstraction and general pattern for rich empirical narrative, the former upheld a key role for abstraction and concept construction in the social sciences. Yet for Weber, the deductive axioms of mainstream neo-classicism represented an insufficient basis for concept formation. Those who chided economists for their abstract Robinson-Crusoe-like postulates of individual sovereignty should really come up with an alternative conceptual framework, he wrote, if the theoretical edifice was to be challenged (Weber, 1949 [1904]). Such an alternative should be less deductive and deterministic, and amenable to greater multi-dimensionality in substantive interpretations of social life.

Weber developed the notion of the ideal-type as an alternative way of identifying the critical heuristic importance of conceptual abstraction in social analysis. Ideal-types were ideal in the sense that they were designed by the analyst as the pure expression of the abstract logic underlying ideas about social institutions and relationships. The economists’ notion of perfect competition in the marketplace was one such ideal-type. It was not primarily to be seen as a description of reality, but designed as a conceptual standard against which more complex empirical evidence could be analysed. Ideal-types assisted analysis by helping to identify how far evidence deviated from the pure type. This stimulated the construction of researchable hypotheses to guide research, and, where necessary, the construction of further alternative ideal-types where systematic deviations from the original were found. Ideal-types should also be discarded where they proved inadequate. Weber warned that to prolong the use of concepts beyond their usefulness in research was merely to perpetuate a conceptual game (Weber, 1949 [1904]), but this advice has often gone unheeded.

Weber came in the final decade of his life, between 1910 and 1920, to devote more time to the development of ideal-types suited to sociological rather than economic analysis. The use of multiple ideal-types reflected a shift away from the axiomatic certainties of orthodox neo-classicism and all theories of strong causal determination, towards a more complex and uncertain form of analysis. This broadening endeavour led in his unfinished work Economy and Society (1968 [1921]) to the construction of multiple ideal-types of social action (value-rational, instrumentally rational, habitual and affectual), and wide-ranging forms of legitimate rulership (traditional, rational-legal and charismatic). These were interpretative in character, in that for social action or legitimate rulership to take place, action must be meaningful to the actor, and oriented to other actors. Rulership, in this way, depended on an element of compliance amongst those subject to rule, whether it be compliance with the habitual ties of tradition, the legitimacy of the rule of law or the charismatic appeal of individuals believed to possess exceptional personal qualities.

Causal analysis of particular processes or developments should include an account of how social actions were regarded as meaningful by those involved, but should also utilize the normal logical procedures of causal analysis. While Weber never explicitly laid out what these were, his methodological practice was quite clearly based on the logic of comparisons, where the presence or absence of a particular feature from a broadly similar set of cases might be deemed relevant in explaining other variations between the cases in question.

Weber’s development of an array of general ideal-type concepts represents what has been identified as the sociological dimension to his work. Some have even argued that this preoccupation led him to retreat from history to sociology, in the sense of retreating from the analysis of particulars to the construction of a generalized conceptual framework for social analysis. While there is some merit in this view, there is equally clear evidence that Weber intended his conceptual framework to serve historical analysis, rather than transcend it.

Returning to questions of epistemology, it must be emphasized that Weber’s conceptual framework, and the evidence analysed within it, was dependent on criteria of value relevance. This does not render facts as any less fact-like, but it does, according to Weber, mean that the social-scientific gaze is inevitably partial rather than comprehensive in scope. Different value-relevant interests bring different facts into view. More than this, even science itself only has meaning for those who believe that the fruits of the search for truth are worth knowing. In arguing that science could not be used to prove or disprove particular values, Weber drew on Nietzsche’s arguments against any transcendental grounding of ethics in God, science, reason or any other metaphysical entity. This led Weber to the position that individuals must be in a position to articulate their own value commitments and to act upon them. It also underlay his ontological assumption of the heterogeneity of human purposes. In other words, the social being of humankind was and would continue to be constituted through conflicts over the meaning of life, human conflicts that resembled the mythical contests of the Gods over mastery of human fate.

Value relevance for Weber, as a member of the nineteenth-century German liberal Protestant Bürgertum, centred on several interrelated issues. One was the circumstances under which Europe had become the contemporary cock-pit of world history (at least as members of his class liked to believe). Another was the extent to which modern rationality could remain a way of life which individuals would want to live. While Weber’s discussion of rationality is complex and not always consistent, in this context it refers to the development of an increasingly calculative and intellectualized mode of social action, geared to the choice of means appropriate to reaching a given end, rather than ends in themselves. Did rationality have its limits, creating perhaps the spectre of a disenchanted world dominated by routine, bureaucratic administration and machine politics, encapsulated for Weber in the metaphor of the iron cage? If so, then questions arose of the possibility of living an ethically responsible life. Issues of uncertainty and the ironies of living out a fate unintended by the protagonists of modernity are paramount within Weber’s value-relevant sociology.

Weber’s combination of methodological rigour in the name of scientific objectivity with a neo-Kantian awareness of the value relevance and in-built uncertainty of social knowledge is somewhat unusual in the English-speaking world. This has led to significant misunderstanding on two sides. The first trap is to assume that scientific rigour means that scholarship can be free from values, the mistake made by a number of postwar American scholars seeking an objective sociological antidote to the perceived partisanship of Marx. Yet for Weber, scholarship is never value-free. The second trap is to believe that value-relevance means epistemological relativism, in which any interpretation is as good as any other. Yet Weber, by contrast with much contemporary postmodernism, held that knowledge could be objective even though it derived from a particular viewpoint arising from value relevance. In this sense parallel scientific knowledges could coexist dependent on the perspective of the observer.

Comparative Historical Sociology: Putting Interpretative Approaches in Context

For much of the nineteenth century, and indeed for a good deal of the twentieth century, evolutionism dominated much thinking about social change. The nature of history was to be resolved through the discovery of endogenous laws of development which would explain the unfolding of changing modes of social life and organization. Evolutionism of this kind is usually to be found in periods of optimism both about the possibility of social progress in general, and about the capacity of reason and science to unlock the puzzles of how human society has progressed from past to present, and where the future will lead. This was the mid-nineteenth-century context within which Marx’s historical materialism set out to do for human history what Charles Darwin had done for natural history. For Weber, and a number of his German contemporaries, by contrast, the meaning of history could not be laid bare according to laws (or at least law-like regularities) which indicated stages through which human societies might pass under the causal influence of a prime mover. Historical understanding, for Weber, could be resolved not by laws, but only, if at all, by will, as Hawthorn (1976) puts it.

For Weber, there was no intrinsic meaning or purpose to history. Philosophies of history which posited the emergence of some overarching and transcendent teleology, such as progress towards universal reason (Hegel) or communism (Marx), were rejected. Although Marx’s critique of Hegel sought to link human evolution with the revolutionary potential of real-world entities, such as social classes, for Weber any attempt to provide a unitary meaning to history – idealist or materialist – was untenable. The grounds for Weber’s critique were epistemological, in the sense that history had no knowable mission, and methodological, in that social life was constituted through a multiplicity of individuals with a multiplicity of interests, both material and symbolic. Weber’s ‘methodological individualism,’ derived in large measure from neo-classical economics, rejected any kind or organic thinking, whether about the nature or evolution of human society. The conventional sociological notion of societies as (nationally) bounded and internally integrated wholes was for him a misleading fiction. It presumed levels of organic unity which were at variance with the multiple conflicts of interests that characterized social organization, and which were played out through the exercise of power.

The corollary of this position, which draws on the legacy of both Kant and Nietzsche, was that individuals, through their actions and the institutions created through action, must be in a position to create meaning for themselves. The ways in which meaning has been created and become institutionally embodied, and the dilemmas that arise from these endeavours, form the centre-point of Weber’s historical sociology. In this sense Hawthorn’s reference to Weber resolving history through human will should be understood as an empirical project amenable to research as much as a philosophical injunction for strong individual virtuosi to assert their moral wills.

But if evolutionism was to be rejected as the appropriate mode of historical analysis, what was to be put in its place?

Weber’s reply was that historical sociology should take a comparative form. Using the general organizing framework of ideal-type concepts already discussed, his commitment was to the analysis of common and contrasting features of an array of individual cases of the phenomena in question. Such phenomena might comprise different forms of economic organization, different world religions or different constellations of power within a given social setting. The point of this comparative framework was not to rule out any reference to the developmental significance of the processes in question, but rather to conduct the analysis without reference to any kind of underlying evolutionary purpose. The net effect was to render history more amenable to an open-ended appreciation of the developmental significance of many different but intersecting forms of social life. Unlike Parsons, who saw Weber as an evolutionist, Roth (1979) and Kalberg (1994) see him as a protagonist of a non-teleological developmental history (Entwicklungsgeschichte).

The objection has none the less been raised that Weber was not entirely true to his intentions. While formally rejecting evolutionary philosophies of history, it has been noted that the thrust of much of his work centres on notions like ‘rationalization’ or ‘bureaucratization’ that appear to come very close to an evolutionary argument. Rationalization, for example, which Weber sees as the basis for a greater administrative and technical mastery over social life, and something very difficult to dismantle once erected, appears to contain clear evolutionary advantages for all those interests able to harness this mastery to their purposes. The discussion may be fateful, and is certainly ironic, in that Weber sees in such mastery a form of enslavement to routine, but is it not, for all this, still evolutionary? The Weberian reply is that rationalization, for all its centrality, is neither a necessary feature of evolution, nor an unchallenged feature of history. Against the formal rationality of impersonal rule-bound organization is set a counter-tendency toward substantive rationality, whereby commitment to ultimate values erupts to disrupt or transgress compliance with the existing order. This is often articulated through the personal charisma of individuals, and carried within the intimate networks of social movements or sects. While charisma can itself become routinised, it is not possible to deduce if and when it will arise, whether its routinization will be successful, or to rule out the emergence of new charismatic forms. If this counter-movement is taken into account, Weber cannot be regarded, in any meaningful sense, as an evolutionist.

Multi-Causality in Historical Sociology

Weber’s rejection of evolutionism is also closely connected with his use of a multi-causal approach to historical sociology. In contrast with monist approaches to history that reduce change to a single causal prime mover, Weber, as we have pointed out, upholds a radically multi-causal position. This has sometimes been obscured when particular works are taken out of context. While The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930a [1904-5]) has often been taken as an anti-Marxist assertion of idealist causation focusing on the determining role of meaningful human agency, Economy and Society (1968 [1921]) has been seen in more materialist and structuralist terms, as an account of the way in which the institutions of the market, kinship, law, power and religion structure the life-chances of individuals.

The attempt to force Weber’s sociology into mutually exclusive categories, emphasizing structure or agency, or idealism as against materialism, is, however, profoundly mistaken. His intention, reflected throughout his writings, was to transcend these dichotomies. There was no sustainable general causal theory able to undergird historical sociology. What was required instead was analysis open to the interplay of different elements in the constitution of the particular problem in question. The precise nature of this interplay needed to be arrived at in each case through empirical research guided by hypotheses stimulated through the construction of ideal-types.

In his careful exegesis of Economy and Society, Stephen Kalberg has laid bare the multi-causal architecture of Weber’s approach. While meaningful social action is carried out by individuals rather than societies, such action tends to be patterned in form and to cohere around particular domains. These include ‘the economy, rulership, religion, law, status groups, and universal organisations (family, clan and traditional neighbourhoods)’ (Kalberg, 1994: 167). Each of these domains had an internal logic, structural forms and characteristic themes of its own. These are embodied in social meanings, articulated through values, traditions and norms, and borne by ‘carrier groups,’ such as class or religious organizations. Each domain may also be analysed as causally effective in its own right as well as being influenced by others. Neither the economy nor religion is causally preeminent in principle, even though there may be particular circumstances in which certain kinds of causal influences may be stronger than others. In situations of economic dynamism, for example, market inequalities may engender power conflict between social classes, whereas in periods of stationary or declining economic development, conflicts over social status may predominate.

In his important essay ‘The Social Psychology of the World Religions’ (1946c [1922-3]), Weber clarifies, in a most explicit way, the thorough going character of his multi-causality Here he returns to themes raised in the Protestant ethic debate, notably the relationship between the practical ethics encouraged by different religions and different types of economic activity. In examining the relationships between economic structures and economic ethics, and between religious ethics and economic ethics, he argues:

An economic ethic is not simply a function of a form of economic organisation; and just as little does the reverse hold true, namely that economic ethics unambiguously stamp the form of the economic organisation. No economic ethic has ever been determined solely by religion… the religious determination of life-conduct… is only one – note this only one of the determinants of the economic ethic. (Weber, 1946c [1922-3]: 268). Multi-causality also extends to the possible causal influences of the social location or interests (for example class position and interest) of the carrier groups. These neither determine religious ethics, nor are determined by them.

The consequences of Weber’s multi-dimensionality are profound. Methodologically, his approach is at variance with the practice of enumerative induction that is so widespread in sociological inquiry. This is based on the collection of empirical cases that support a particular version of causal primacy. If material or class determination is found, as in instances of the class basis of religious or ethnic conflict, this is often taken as a rebuttal of Weber, while if symbolic or religious determination is found, as in connections between Confucianism and the Asian Tiger economies, this is taken as confirmation. Neither approach engages with Weber’s multi-causality

Substantively Weber’s multi-dimensionality enabled him to develop the rich and complex, but ultimately unfinished, research programme, encompassed in Economy and Society. Multi-causality did not, then, lead to a facile interactionism in which everything was causally related to everything else. Weber’s comparative historical method led rather to exploration of the reasons for commonalities and differences in a wide range of economies, legal systems, religions and civilizations, and to a richer account of the uniqueness of the West. Meanwhile, in the completed sections of the historical sociology of religion, his interpretative inquiries generated extraordinary advances in comparative understanding of the determinants and consequences of patterns of religious ethics. Weber’s range spanned analysis of Puritan this-wordly asceticism and Buddhist contemplative other-worldliness, to Confucian adaptation to this world, and Hindu absorption in devotional ritual and caste-based exclusion.

The common element here was the demonstration of the meaningfulness of social action within the religious domain. In contrast to notions of oriental otherness and exoticism, Weber strove to connect the pursuit of different religious values with his universal historical array of ideal-types. In this way Eastern religions were not irrational contrasts to occidental rationalism, but exhibited an internal rationality that connected means and ends. Once again we find historical sociology aiming beyond the speculative and conjectural play of cultural difference and anthropological unity inherited from the Enlightenment.

Weber’s Impact on Historical Sociology

Weber left no enduring school of historical sociology in any direct or straightforward sense. There is certainly no subset of Weberian historical sociologists working to the unfinished research agenda of interpretative sociology outlined in his writings. For several decades after his death his work was little used in Germany, and, with a few exceptions, such as the early work by Talcott Parsons (1937), little known outside. From the 1950s, Weberian influences and reference points became more prominent, but usually in a more diffuse or indirect sense. Early postwar American scholars tended to mine Weber, as one source among many, for ‘variables’ or ‘factors’ relevant to the transition from traditional to modern society and to variations in the capacity of national societies to produce ‘modern’ institutions such as democracy. These might include ideology (for example, Protestantism), institutional arrangements within markets (for example, double-entry book-keeping), law and government (for example, the rule of law), and bearer classes and groupings (for example, lords and bureaucrats as well as emergent bourgeois).

Much of the use made of Weber was, moreover, mistaken or inaccurate, as in the grossly misconceived arguments about the idealism of the Protestant ethic thesis, and the presumption that he could be read simply as a theorist of modernization. Meanwhile the more subtle and historically informed contributions to historical sociology often looked more to the Marxist tradition than to Weber (for example, Skocpol, 1979; Wallerstein, 1974, 1979), pursued implicitly Weberian themes without any significant awareness of similarities with Weber’s scholarship (for example, Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam [1974]). And while Bendix’s Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (1962) established Weber’s intellectual richness as a historical sociologist, it tended to downplay the theoretical and conceptual dimensions of his work (Kalberg, 1994: 16).

In more recent years, however, Weber’s distinctive contributions to an interpretative version of comparative historical sociology have received closer attention. This has stemmed in part from a collapse of confidence in the evolutionary project of American modernization theory, underpinned more by structural-functional argument (Eisenstadt, 1963; Parsons, 1964; Smelser, 1959) than Weberianism. This approach is not as ahistorical as sometimes supposed, a larger problem being its tendency to underestimate the significance of social conflict and competing forms of ‘societal community’ within social change. With the industrial, student and counter-cultural conflicts of the 1960s, and subsequent challenges to an ever onward and upward future based on limitless economic growth, evolutionary optimism has become contested once more within society and scholarship. Weber’s appreciation of the dark or fateful side of occidentalism, ‘rationalism,’ alongside its enabling contributions to mastery of the material world, struck a more resonant chord among many who, like him, sought to tread the difficult path that lies behind discredited evolutionary optimism, on the one side, and cultural pessimism, on the other.

Work by Turner (1974) on Islam, Marshall (1982) and Poggi (1983) on the Protestant ethic, Holton (1986a) on cities, Collins (1986) on the historical geopolitics of state formation, Mann (1986, 1993) on social power and Gellner (1988) on the structuring of human societies represents, in different ways, a closer engagement with Weber’s historical sociology, within the terrain of history as much as theory. This work is founded on comparisons between historical cases across time and/or space. It is also profoundly anti-teleological in temper. In no case, however, can it be regarded as representing a new school of neo-Weberian scholarship. There are several reasons for this. Some relate to the characteristics of Weber’s work. Others are connected with the subsequent development of scholarship.

Weber’s work is difficult to translate into a school of interpretation because it is not codified into an explicit set of general rules and propositions. Unlike Marx’s historical materialism, or the axiomatic core of neo-classical economics, Weber’s general legacy to scholarship is more complex, more alive to paradox and dilemma, and more ironic. While he is clear enough about the ideal-type methodology and left behind an array of general concepts and arguments about historical particulars, Weber’s epistemological and existential temper is anti-systemic. All scholarship is value-relevant, and any given focus or relevance, with its attendant concepts, hypotheses, bodies of empirical research and findings, is subject to both challenge and change over time. This does not make scholarship transitory. Key questions persist, and what counts for scientific method in the social sciences does allow sounder explanations to be differentiated from the less sound, that is, for those who think scientific argument worthwhile. Beyond this, however, the dynamic flux and conflict between heterogenous world-views is all-pervasive. To be a Weberian is to believe that individuals must ultimately construct meaning and value relevance for themselves. Weber himself was personally attracted to the life-world of liberal anarchism. Although he did not go as far as Feyerabend, the twentieth-century philosopher of science, in proclaiming himself ‘against method,’ the decentring thrust of his work is clear. These characteristics are not propitious for the construction of a unified school of Weberian interpretation.

It is also the case, as Ernest Gellner points out, (1988) that the substantive Weberian legacy is almost impossible to verify or falsify. Analysis of any particular issue or question is necessarily composed of a range of causal influences, and necessarily incomplete due to the infinite complexity of possible interactions. This applies to Weber’s analyses as to any other. These ‘open’ generic features again make it hard to turn Weberianism into a relatively closed school of interpretation. If Weber really were simply an idealist, all would be different, but he was not.

Second, contemporary scholarship has proven more syncretic in character than a world of competing schools might imply. Marxist traditions in historical sociology, for example, are scarcely self-subsisistent. Waller-stein and world-system theory, for example, has drawn on the economic anthropology of Polanyi, on the Braudelian historiography of the longue durée, as well as on a late twentieth-century Marxism, itself influenced by feminism. Intellectual history is characterized by a succession of canonical and iconoclastic phases, and we currently live more in the latter than the former.

As far as the Weberian legacy is concerned, it therefore may be more useful to think of the various syntheses that have been made between Weber’s thinking and other lines of thinking which he failed to develop or take very far. These move us more explicitly into issues of evaluation.

Some Evaluative Problems

There are several ways in which Weber’s historical sociology may be evaluated. One is to consider his substantive contribution to particular questions of historical interpretation. Before embarking on this, it is important to clarify some more general theoretical problems with and limits to his work, and the extent to which syntheses between Weber’s and other positions have proven possible and useful.

Interpretative sociology of the kind that Weber practised is only one of a number of possible versions of interpretative sociology that can be applied in historical sociology. Weber’s approach to establishing the meaning of action was pursued, so many of his critics argue, in a direction that neglected or foreclosed on a number of alternative meaning-related perspectives. Subjectivity, as understood by Weber, was typically pursued in a monologic rather than dialogic fashion (Habermas, 1984). This focus, evident throughout his sociology of religion, his discussions of charisma and in his influential essays on the vocations of science (Weber, 1946b [1919]) and politics (Weber, 1946a [1919]), emphasized the driving personal force of the individual virtuoso performing leadership roles, rather than the inter-subjective negotiation of meaning between individuals. To be sure, this monologic focus did not exclude discussion of the social milieux, including ‘bearer’ groupings and institutions within which action took place. Yet its paradigmatic model of social action was skewed to individual assertions of moral or political will, and to the clash of heterogeneous wills and purposes. While Weber was keenly aware that individual agency of this kind might become rationalized into impersonal routines, this spectre was treated as fateful precisely because it challenged his privileged model of autonomous actors.

For Weber, as Hennis (1988) points out, there was great moral concern to establish the kinds of individual people or personality-types to which particular social and political arrangements gave rise. This focus, like so much of his work, had strong origins in classical thought, especially Stoicism, with its emphasis on self-command, and the virtuoso ethic of personal responsibility for the living of one’s life according to self-directed principles. This legacy, as mediated through Puritanism, and the work of Kant and Nietszche, gave Weber’s work its strong monologic quality. There are several profound consequences of this. One is to draw attention away from interest in inter-subjective moral and political milieux as might be found in collective organizations and social movements. The social history of E.P. Thompson (1963), in which inter-subjective experiences of communities is at variance with quantitative data on improving living standards, while largely Marxist in inspiration, is none the less indicative of directions that Weber might have followed had his sociology encouraged a greater interest in democratic self-determination.

Another consequence of Weber’s monologic sociology is to underplay alternative forms or modalities of subjectivity. These include mentalities as studied by Georges Lefebvre in The Great Fear of 1789(1973) and by the Annales school, or work on historical narrative, language and memory. Another form of social action, the emotions, figures briefly in Weber’s typology, only to be neglected in his theoretical and substantive historical work (Barbalet, 1999). It is certainly true that Weber’s personal anchorage in Stoic liberal Protestantism was shaken by involvement with anarchist culture, extra-legal politics and adventures in eroticism, leading to a certain distancing from the ascetic ethics of self-command (Mitzman, 1971). Barbalet is not at all clear, however, that these did much to loosen the grip of his conventional ethical standpoint, or to encourage a greater awareness of emotions as autonomous elements in social action (1999: 343-4).

For all these limitations, it is equally clear that Weber’s interpretative sociology does provide a key reference point in a number of broader syntheses of a multi-causal kind. Both the Frankfurt School of critical theory and Talcott Parsons, for example, sought to integrate Weber with Freud (Kaye, 1992). There are limits to this endeavour, however, especially where Weber’s radical scepticism about the possibility of social integration is pressed by Parsons into the service of the development of a binding normative order, akin to Freud’s super-ego principle. The Frankfurt school’s use of Weber to answer Marxist-inspired questions about the failure of revolutionary protest against capitalism utilizes his ‘iron cage’ argument about compliance through rationalization, alongside a Freudian emphasis on sublimation. These two examples indicate, amongst other things, the availability of Weber for very different purposes, and draw attention to the ambivalence of his work for subsequent theorists.

A rather different synthesis, offered by Michael Mann (1986), picks up Weber’s opposition to teleological constructions of evolutionary change, his methodological resistance to the idea of society as an organic entity, and his emphasis on multiple sources of power. These are integrated by Mann into a somewhat different conceptualization of power into four types, the ideological, economic, political and military. This list, as can be seen, combines what might be termed structural and interpretative elements. The particular emphasis on military power (in its technological and organizational features and consequences) as a distinct element in social analysis takes Weber’s emphasis on realpolitik much further than Weber himself was to do. But it also, like Parsons, returns to the issue of normative order and to Durkheim. While citing the importance of the ‘rational restlessness’ of occidental psychology, Mann also sees normative pacification, whether religious or class-based, as a crucial element in explaining the history of power and the rise of rational capitalism.

Mann’s synthesis of the structural and interpretative, and of Weber with Durkheim, is striking not simply for its radically multi-causal orientation, but also for its sympathy with Weber’s open-ended and agnostic approach to macro-historical patterning. It is, however, one thing to reject causal prime movers and another to reject ‘partial patterns.’ These are effectively explanations of particular historical questions or developmental sequences. What is remarkable, when we come to do this, is not the many limitations, silences and misconceptions in Weber’s grand historical sweep, but the sense that his sociology was able to ask so many of the key questions.

To take a broad sweep, his sociology of religion, while incomplete, is certainly weak on Catholicism, underplays the rationalist emphasis in Islam (Turner, 1974, 1992), overemphasizes the other-wordliness of Buddhism (Gellner, 1982; Tambiah, 1973), and is superficial in its treatment of the syncretism of Japanese religion (Robertson, 1992: 92). Mabbett (1999) points to a tendency in Weber to essentialize the world religions around contingent historically specific features, thereby downplaying the internal variations in religious traditions. None the less his work remains of crucial importance for its analysis of the tensions and dilemmas as well as the consequences connecting religious practices with different kinds of social action. Similarly in political sociology, the tensions between rationalization and both charisma and the politics of conviction continue to be a major analytical theme. Weaker aspects, by contrast, include a discussion of democracy which fundamentally downplays the creativity of civil society from below in favour of plebiscitary leadership-democracy from above (Baehr, 1999), and Weber’s highly simplistic assumptions about the impersonal characteristics of bureaucratic organization (Coleman, 1990).

In areas of historical sociology where key contributors such as Foucault or the Annales school make few explicit references to the Weberian legacy, there are none the less clear parallels with a number of aspects of his work. In Foucault’s case these parallels are evident, as Turner (1992) points out, in discussions of the construction of and (especially in technologies for the) cultivation of self, arising in Weber’s case from issues of spirituality and suffering. These are evident in spite of a very different approach to epistemology and the validity of science. In the case of Annales, Roth (1979) has argued that many Annales school emphases were foreshadowed within the circle of social and economic historians like Gothein and Sombart, with whom Weber mixed, and for whom the integration of cultural history with structural processes in geography and the economy was crucial. While Weber broke with the historians on issues of conceptualization, he shared both the multi-causality and interest in the long run that is evident in Braudel, and in what might be conjunctural ‘middle-range’ interactions, positioned, as it were, between the long term and everyday life.

The overall evaluation of Weber’s historical sociology is, then, a paradoxical and ironic one. While he left no school of interpretation behind, he remains profoundly influential both in relation to issues of general approach and methodology and in matters of substance. While his work was unfinished, his substantive legacy is in many respects so ambivalent and open to further multi-causal development that it is difficult for later writers to be clear (assuming they are interested) whether they are following or departing from the Weberian approach. What is clear is that the project of interpretative sociology is far broader than Weber’s vision of it, even though many who seek to broaden the approach are sometimes rather unwitting Weberians in their commitment to meaning and the irreducible nature of culture. What is even clearer is that Weber’s vision is ultimately focused on the problems and dilemmas of social actors and the answers they identify and act upon, rather than on the search for emancipatory solutions to social problems.

Weber may be the doyen of historical sociology, but many suspect the further paradox that this relentless analyst of social change has a strong commitment to the status quo. A fitting Weberian riposte to this charge would be that all references to the status quo depend on a particular evaluative viewpoint. The continuing existence of social injustice is one amongst many value-relevant viewpoints and thus many viewpoints from which to conceive the status quo. Weber, in his lifetime, was critical of the rhetorical posturing of both conservative and radical perpectives on the future of Germany. This was reflected in broader scepticism both towards pious special-pleading connecting specific institutions with emancipatory change and towards the spurious orderliness of the status quo.