YOUTH VOICE: Analysing Max Weber — History, Culture and Capitalism

Posted on May 4, 2011 by


We are all products of our social and historical context. Max Weber, the German sociologist is no exception. Weber, who was born in 1864 and died in 1920, was placed in a unique historical location to be able to discern the major attributes of emerging modernity and capitalism in western society. In many ways, Max Weber’s theories are, to a large extent reflective of the historical processes which were taking place prior to and during his life. Weber lived during a period in which societies were greatly and rapidly transformed by the emergence of industrialism, and at a time when “the great European powers struggled for world mastery” (Albrow, 1990, Forward, P. xiii).  According to Martin Albrow “it was also a period of value crisis”. The religious perception of the world was being challenged by the natural sciences, and a rise in the scientific world view which came to dominate the 19th and 20th centuries (Albrow, 1990, Forward, P. xiii). Whilst the economic context (the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism), was an invaluable influence on Max Weber’s work, this essay will firstly, focus specifically on the  socio- political movements of the time that are reflected in many of Weber’s sociological theories and, secondly, look briefly at how Weber was influenced by prominent intellectuals.

Despite the fact that “we prefer to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from” (Crabtree, 1993), Weber himself recognised the importance of examining the social and historical context of people and events in order to understand them. Until the end of the 19th century, Germany was a collection of small states and mostly controlled by foreign powers. Germany was only unified as a monarchy following the success of Prussia in the Franco – Prussian War of 1871. Following its unification, the Germany of Weber’s context adopted what can be described as a “relatively fragile liberal political system” (Lewis, P. 2007, p. 16).  The concept of liberalism is one of numerous ideologies born out of the enlightenment.

The Enlightenment can be seen as one of the major social political movements which influenced Weber, among many other social thinkers, philosophers and political theorists. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, was a period when man began to use reason to discover the world, thus casting of religion and superstition (Hackett, 1992). During the enlightenment, in what was Prussia at the time, Frederick the Great expanded the military and economic functions and increased the bureaucratic organisation of the state (Hooker, 1996). It is evident that many of the ideas generated during the period of enlightenment are reflected greatly in Weber’s study of religion, bureaucracy and the rationalisation of the state and economy.

The rise of idealism in Germany and the scientific world view are another two very significant historical processes which influenced Weber and the context in which he was writing. German idealism was characterized by the belief in the mind dependence of reality, the dominance of thought over sensation and universalised ethics (Keller, 1998, p. 190). The role of idealism in Weber’s work is evident when examining the ethical world view prominent in many of his theories. The rise of the scientific world view was a similarly important historical process taking place prior to and during Weber’s life. The rise of science meant that there was a decrease in morality and religion as ways of understanding the world, and people therefore recognised the need to validate and justify their findings. Weber thought the birth of science to be linked to the “…principle of rationalization which he saw as having increasingly pervaded the western world” (Lewis, J.1975, Preface).  Weber defined ‘rationalisation’ as the process in which “…explicit, abstract, intellectually calculable rules and procedures are increasingly substituted for sentiment, tradition and rule of thumb” in all spheres of life (Wrong, 1970, p. 26).

Although religious and moral thought was slowly declining due to the rise of science, the role of religion in Germany (and indeed the whole world) during the 19th century was still momentous (Albrow, 1990, p. 13). Religion was an incredibly powerful institution which played a part in defining people and their place in the world. This was realised by Weber and he therefore devoted much of his time to the study of religion and culture. Most significantly, the times that Weber lived in saw a rise of Protestantism which was associated with the values of self – discipline, frugality and hard work (Albrow, 1990, pp. 16 – 25). Weber’s theories reflected this movement in one of his most well known texts The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which examined the correlation between what he deemed to be the protestant work ethic and the rise of western capitalism (Weber, 1930, xii). It is also important to note the amount of Jewish persecution and anti Semitism in Germany at the time to which Weber was vehemently opposed. Whilst religion and socio – political ideology played a significant role during the time, it is also important to mention that there were many prominent intellectuals who influenced Weber and the ideas that he generated.

Whilst there is an extensive list of influential people of the times that shaped Weber’s work and ideas, of particular importance are the works of Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. The intellectual milieu of Weber was largely dominated by the German philosopher, sociologist, political theorist, and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx who lived from 1818 – 1883 (Lewis, J. 1975, p. 129). Marx’s focus was on class and the capitalist economy and he produced many great and influential works surrounding this topic. Weber was very similar to and deeply influenced by Marx in many ways, however he took a more sophisticated approach to capitalism believing that understanding the interconnectivity between religion, culture and the capitalist economy to be of high importance (Weber, 1930, x).

Another immensely influential figure of the time was Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) who was the father of German idealism. Kant published important works on religion, law, aesthetics, and history and was thus, a great influence in the development of Weber’s theories (Keller, 1998, p. 5). Lastly, we have Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), the German philosopher and psychologist. Nietzsche’s philosophy was widely studied and he is probably “best known as the prophet of great wars and power politics” (Kaufmann, 1974, p. 412).  Weber’s theories reflect many similarities to those of Nietzsche’s in their studies on the effects of power and the state.

As one can clearly see, the development of Max Weber’s theories is largely a product of historical processes and a reflection of the social – political context of the time. As acknowledged by Weber himself, the study of history is integral in understanding the lived experiences of other people and how their social, political and economic contexts came to influence their ideas. As highlighted in this essay, Weber lived in a period that was significantly influenced by the ideas of the enlightenment, German idealism, and the rise of science and the role of religion. All of these movements, along with the influence of thinkers such as Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, played an enormous part in shaping Weber’s theories regarding bureaucracy, rationalisation, social organisation, power and religion.


Albrow, Martin. 1990, Max Weber’s Construction of Social Theory, Macmillan, London, England.

Crabtree, David. 1993, The Importance of History, viewed on 18March 2011,

Hackett, Lewis. 1992, The Age of Enlightenment: The European Dream of Progress and Enlightenment, viewed on 16March 2011,

Hooker, Richard. 1996, The European Enlightenment, viewed on 20March 2011,

Kaufmann, Walter. 1974, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Princeton University Press, America.

Keller, Pierre. 1998, Kant and the Demands of Self Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Lewis, John. 1975, Max Weber and Value- Free Sociology, Camelot Press Ltd, United Kingdom.

Lewis, Pericles. 2007, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Cambridge University Press, New York, America.

Weber, Max. 1930, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Harper Collins Academic, London.

Wrong, Denis. 1970, Max Weber, Prentice Hall, The United States of America.


Lisa Tuck is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Humanities and Social Sciences) student who is concerned about international relations as well as local political issues. She is currently the Vice President of the Political Awareness Club and is a contributor to Our Voice Albury Wodonga. Lisa is passionate about Climate Change Politics and holds a particular interest in policy matters in the field of education.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.