Discuss the Characteristics of Modern Society According to Weber
What is known as classical sociology is found in the work of Comte, Durkheim, Marx and Weber. Weber and the other classicists attempted to explain the origins of modern industrial society and the elements that worked both for and against it. Like Comte and Durkheim Weber believed that scientific and technological advances would do away with humanity’s need of religion. Old ideas of magic would disappear and the world would become ‘disenchanted’ and society would become increasingly rational. Beginning with the distinction between rationality and rationalisation, his paper will discuss the characteristics of modern society according to Weber.
Rationality and Rationalisation
Rationality, in Weber’s thought refers to social actions being the result of a rational process of the calculation of the means and ends of actions. Rationalisation on the other hand refers to an overall historical process whereby scientific knowledge and rational action come to dominate social reality (Morrison, 1995).
Modern Society and Conflict
Weber is noted for his historical grasp of the political, legal, economic, and religious development of modern western societies (Morrison, 1995). He was concerned interested in issues of power and conflict in society, the different interest groups in society implied that state institutions were necessary if order was to be maintained. As legislation increased, however, the administration would be less effective. He rejected Marx’s materialist view of history and did not agree with Marx on the importance of class conflict. In Weber’s view class was just one type of inequality among many others (Giddens, 2001). Sociology, Weber believed, should concentrate more on social action and less on social structure. It was his contention that Marx had laid too much stress on economics. Capitalism was only one factor in the shaping of modern societies, Weber held that culture and politics deserved equal consideration. The inter-connectedness of social spheres, Weber believed, was a key factor for understanding the development of modern society (Marsh, 2000). According to Turner (1999) humanity’s place in modern society was problematic for Weber because he believed that human beings were alienated from themselves and the world in which they lived.
Weber did not believe, as did Durkheim and Marx, that structures had an independent existence from individuals. Rather he maintained that structures were a result of a complex interplay of human action. Thus Weber argued that social change came about as the result of human motivation and ideas, and that these were powerful agents of the transformation of societies (Giddens, 2001).Although Weber was an atheist he believed that religion influenced people’s ideas and practices and that this had an effect in the world. Weber did not believe, as did Marx, that capitalism came about as a result of greed. Nor did he agree with Marx that it was the result of class conflict, rather it was due to an emphasis on science and the bureaucracy of large organisations. Weber argued that Protestants regarded earning a living as a sacred duty and financial success as a sign of God’s grace. It was this belief, Weber said that led to self-control and regulation, thus Protestantism contributed to the rationalisation of everyday life (Hughes, Martin and Sharrock, 1995). For Weber, a major facet of the development of modern societies was the rationalisation of production.
The concept of rationalisation, according to Weber (1967) was endemic to modern society, and it was to be found in all large organisations. Such organisations are tightly regulated and predictability and impersonality are their defining characteristics. The members of large organisations can become dehumanised, because with in it, social relations are defined purely in functional terms. Bureaucracy grew out of the increasing rationalisation, which, in modern society, affected all areas of life. As society continued in its rational progression then this would become evident in its social institutions which would, in turn, become more formal. This process would also lead to a decrease in people’s reliance on traditional beliefs, and an increase in the making of rational decisions that had a direct purpose.(Hughes, Martin and Sharrock, 1995). Weber believed that religion predisposed people to order their lives in terms of rational action and this meant that they earned more than they needed. Turner (1999) maintains that:
This striving for world mastery did not lead however to a satisfaction with the meaningfulness of everyday life, but rather resulted in a continuing disenchantment with reality which drove out moral significance from everyday life (Turner, 1999:9).
Religious and moral disenchantment, Weber contended, would be the end result of increasing bureaucratisation and the rationalisation of social relations. He termed the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of western society as an ‘iron cage’ (Turner, 1999). The impact of western society on the rest of the world was due to its command of industrial resources and its superior military power (Giddens, 2001). Modern societies, in Weber’s view, were especially characterised by what he termed the development of rational/legal authority.
Authority in Modern Society
Weber believed that authority was invested in the state, the source of the nation state, he maintained was the pre-capitalist conflicts between absolutist rulers. Weber favoured capitalist democracies rather than socialism and believed that in order to maintain a balance in the amount of authority the state had, it was necessary to have a strong private sector. He also believed that increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation would have a deleterious effect on democracy. Authority, he maintained was in the hands of certain types of individuals and thus he developed a theory of ideal types as a means of understanding the world. These should be seen as a reference point rather than having an existence in the real world (Giddens, 2001). Thus the type of society identified by Weber as modern society is identified most especially by the development of rationalisation and bureaucratisation. The ideal type is used to form an ideal picture of a shift occurring in society by reason of certain historical factors (Weber, quoted in Brown, 1995 p. 271). Weber used the notion of ideal types to develop an understanding of the kinds of activities that can be assigned as features of empirical reality.
Weber’s work has been influential in sociology’s understanding of the defining features of modern society. Weber’s thinking on rationalisation and bureaucratisation have been a useful analytic tool for those attempting to understand modern societies. However, he has been criticised for being too determininistic. The rise of science, for example, has not completely taken over from religious belief as Weber predicted it would and his notion of bureaucratic organisations as iron cages neglects the fact the very often people will use bureaucracies to stem the tide of certain rules and regulations rather than be totally constricted within the organisation. Nevertheless Weber’s analysis continues to be a useful and fascinating analysis of the development of modern industrial societies. In addition to this his work on human choice and action were pivotal to the development symbolic interactionism and interpretative social research.
Brown, K 1995. Marx, Durkheim, Weber Formations of Modern Social Thought London, Sage.
Giddens, A. 2001. Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Hamilton, M 1995 Sociology of Religion London, Routledge
Hughes, J. Martin, P. and Sharrock, W. 1995 Understanding Classical Sociology: Marx, Weber, Durkheim. Sage, London
Turner, B. 1999. Classical Sociology. Sage.London
Walsh, I ed. 2000 Sociology: Making Sense of Society. Edinburgh, Prentice Hall.
Weber, M 1967 “The Social Psychology of World Religions” in Gerth, H and Wright-Mills , C. 1967 eds From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology New York, Oxford University Press pp.267-301
 See Morrison page 220
 See Morrison page 213
 See Giddens page 673