Pathway To Meltdown

Introductory Essay: Your Smart Phone Might Be an Evil Genius Smart phones are but one example of how our social world is becoming more and more shaped by technology. From the pious Puritans of Weber to the one-dimensional men of the Frankfurt School, we explore the pitfalls and promises of a rationalized, modern society.

Max Weber

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Max Weber (1864–1920) was born in Erfurt, Germany. The eldest of seven children, Max was a precocious but sickly child, suffering from meningitis at an early age, a disease with long-lasting side effects such as insomnia and anxiety that bothered Weber throughout his life. His father, Max Sr., was a free-wheeling, controlling public servant who would eventually become estranged from Max. His mother was a devout Calvinist, a fact that would become influential in Weber’s theoretical work on capitalism and religion. Young Max was as bookish as they come, writing two essays on German and Roman history as Christmas gifts to his parents when he was just 13 years old.

Weber’s studious pursuits took him to the University of Heidelberg as a law student in 1882, though he stayed only a short while before joining the military for a year. After his service, he attended the University of Berlin, where he developed a thirst for economics, fencing, and beer. He would complete his doctorate at Berlin in 1889 and join the faculty there shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, his relationship with his father became more distant.

Max married Marianne Schnitger in 1893. Marianne would later become a brilliant theorist in her own right, penning influential works on feminism and marriage reform as well as a biography of her husband. Weber later took faculty positions at Freiburg and the University of Heidelberg. However, his teaching came to a halt in 1897. His father had died, and the two had by all accounts an explosive argument just 2 months prior. Weber did not take his father’s death well and fell into a depression, spending some time in a sanitarium with bouts of nervousness and insomnia. Weber would not resume teaching in earnest until 1919.

He was able to produce his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, during this hiatus, and he also became more involved in politics. He volunteered for the German military at the onset of World War I, a war he would later criticize. He also advised the German government as they drafted the Weimar Constitution and eventually campaigned unsuccessfully for a parliamentary seat as a member of the liberal German Democratic Party. He resumed teaching in 1919 at the University of Vienna and then the University of Munich. Weber died of pneumonia complications in 1920, not yet finished with his grandest work, Economy and Society.

How Weber Matters Today

Everywhere we turn, what Weber termed the rationalization of society seems apparent. We go to school to get a credential and the requisite training for a job, where we will work and hopefully get promoted until retirement, assuming we calculated our retirement funds correctly. We count calories at dinner and scribble down our appointments in our pocket calendars. We book our vacations through online travel agents, and the photos on the website ensure that there will be no surprises when we get to the beach. Our highways, parks, and suburbs all look the same, providing security and predictability, to be sure, but usually at the cost of spontaneity and creativity. In these and many other ways, our modern forms of life embody many of the benefits and costs of living in an ever more rationalized social world.

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Ideal-Types and Verstehen

Weber’s interests ranged widely, but each cut to the core of sociology and the social sciences more broadly. Among these were his thoughts on methodology. Weber was heavily influenced by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and historical economists like Wilhelm Dithey, each of whom thought that universal laws could not be used to explain something as complex as the human mind or historical events. However, unlike Kant and Dithey, Weber thought that abstract concepts could be used to explain social events; that is, he argued for an interpretive sociology that uses concepts to understand the meaning people attach to their actions. According to Weber, social scientists could use concepts called ideal-types, a sort of measuring stick that captures the most rational and most essential components of any social thing. These ideal-types can be based on historical events, like the spirit of capitalism, or they can be more classificatory and constructed from more logical grounds. However, ideal-types are rarely found in their pure form in real life. Too many things can cause the actual event or thing to deviate from its most essential characteristics.

Ideal-types also allow for the use of verstehen, or the interpretive understanding of the subjective motivations individuals attach to their actions. In his essay, “Basic Sociological Terms,” Weber uses verstehen to understand different types of social action. As you read the essay, notice how he is able to distill the most essential components of each type of action, whether it is action based on tradition, values, or instrumental calculations.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

It is helpful to note that Weber was in a sort of posthumous battle of ideas with Karl Marx. Recall that Marx argued that ideas stemmed from our material relations and, in particular, the ruling class. Weber thought this conclusion was naïve and that ideas could indeed spur new forms of economic relations. Thus, he argues in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that certain features of Western culture, in particular its religious underpinnings, created cultural conditions for the rise of modern capitalism.

For Weber, the ethos or “spirit” of capitalism was a particular orientation toward economic life that incorporates a sense of duty or responsibility. The “spirit” urged social actors to work hard, remain frugal, and to make money for its own sake. Weber argued that the “spirit” was related to the spread of Protestantism in Western Europe. In particular, Weber highlighted the importance Martin Luther’s idea of the calling and John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in developing the Protestant work ethic that eventually transformed itself into the animating spirit of capitalism.

Legitimacy and Domination

Weber was curious as to why we so often comply with the rules of society with minimal coercion or the constant use or threat of force. His answer: legitimacy. Sometimes we follow orders because we deem the rules to be meaningful and correct, even if we don’t know why they were written in the first place. As you can see from the definition below, domination, according to Weber, is based on the voluntary compliance of subordinates. Because it is voluntary, domination does not include the use of physical force. Rather, we comply because we see the rules as the right thing to do in that situation.

Weber used ideal-types to derive three forms of domination. The first type is charismatic domination, or power based on the exceptional qualities of an individual, such as his or her heroism or sanctity. The second type of legitimate domination is traditional domination, or power that is justified by a belief in long-standing customs. Most areas of modern social life exhibit the third form of domination—rational–legal domination, or authority based on rules. Rational–legal domination is based on the legality or acceptability of rules and laws that outline appropriate courses of action. Put simply, it is when we follow rules because we believe in the process, regardless of who is giving us the order.


Weber argued that modern people confronted the rational–legal form of domination everyday through bureaucracies. According to Weber, bureaucracy is the most rationalized form of organization because it fits the growing needs of a modern society to organize and classify its progress. As populations grew, markets expanded, and a rationalized culture spread, a new form of organization was required. Thus, in their ideal–typical form, bureaucracies are a rather efficient form of organization. For example, bureaucracies have fixed jurisdictional areas, meaning that officials within a bureaucracy have specific jobs and responsibilities. In an office, some people are in charge of sales, others are in charge of human resources, and so on. Moreover, these jobs fall within a clear hierarchy and are assigned based on training and expertise. Bureaucracies have many intended and unintended consequences. On the one hand, lines of communication are clear and officials are appointed based on experience. On the other hand, sometimes the red tape associated with bureaucracies can be dehumanizing and may cause us to lose sight of valued ends in favor of just following the rules.

Class and Status

Much like Marx, Weber had a lot to say about how societies were stratified along class lines. However, whereas Marx argued that class and status were both derivative of who owns the means of production, and classes are therefore lumped into two “hostile camps” of workers and owners, Weber suggested that class and status are distinct from one another. According to Weber, a “class situation” develops when there is a high probability that someone can procure a lot of goods in order to improve their “life chances,” whether it be buying things they need in order to live longer or using their economic power to improve their placement in the labor market.

Whereas class is an objective position based on economic power and life chances, social status is more subjective. According to Weber, a “status situation” is based on the honor or respect paid by others, oftentimes regardless of money. Status can be based on things like lifestyle, prestige, or education. In our society, physicians carry a lot of status in part because they make more money than average, but also because their profession requires a lot of education and a commitment to protecting the health of everyone else. Similarly, clergy have a lot of status due to their role in the church, yet they have little economic power. In this sense, status groups can act together in order to protect their shared interests.

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To read more about Weber’s life and thought, go to your library and check out historian John Patrick Diggins’s well-written and thoughtful Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy:

Sociologist George Ritzer has probably done the most to bring Weber’s ideas on rationalization to a new generation of students with his theory ofMcDonaldization. To learn more about how Weber helps us make sense of our fast food world, go to:

Wheatland, Thomas. 2009. The Frankfurt School in Exile. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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In this book, Wheatland re-examines the role that the Frankfurt School, most notably Horkheimer and Marcuse, played in American intellectual life and German postwar sociology. You can listen to an interview with Wheatland here.

Foucault, Michel. 2001. “The Great Confinement.” Pp. 35–60 in Madness and Civilization. New York: Routledge.

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Another excerpt from Foucault’s study of the construction of “madness” in Europe. This chapter explores how “madness” was handled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Weber, Max. 1919. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Routledge.

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This collection includes “Science as a Vocation,” Weber’s famous lecture on what modern science can and cannot guarantee those who seek it out as their profession.

Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books.

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For a good example of the rationalization of food itself, see Chapter 5 on “Why the Fries Taste Good.”

Mann, Michael. 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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This provocative book by the UCLA sociologist argues that ethnic cleansing is part of modernity and, in particular, democracy. It is a different take than Bauman’s book on the Holocaust but is just as important in its implications.

Lyon, David. 1994. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of the Surveillance Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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A sociologist updates Foucault for the digital age, exploring how electronic surveillance technologies affect our everyday lives as well as the broader social order.

Lanier, Jaron. 2010. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf.

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Lanier, the computer scientist who created virtual reality technology, takes a critical but balanced view of the disenchanting effects of many contemporary digital technologies.

Giddens, Anthony. 2000. Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives. New York: Routledge.

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This collection of lectures from the British theorist provides a sweeping and mostly optimistic take on globalization.

Foucault, Michel. 2003 [1973]. “The Old Age of the Clinic.” Pp. 54–64 in The Birth of the Clinic. New York: Routledge.

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An excerpt from Foucault’s study of the emergence of modern medical knowledge and perception.

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