Max Weber & Modernity: Crash Course Sociology #9


Take a second and imagine life just over five
hundred years ago. Say you’re in Europe, at the tail end of
the Middle Ages. If you had to name the biggest change between
then and now, what would you choose? Maybe the internet, or industrialization,
or the incredible advances in health and medicine. Maybe you’d think back to Marx or Durkheim
and say that it was the shift from feudalism
to capitalism. These are all good answers. But Max Weber had a different one. The most important change wasn’t technical,
or economic, or political. The biggest change, he said – the one that best
distinguishes the modern world from the traditional one
– was a difference in the way we think. [Theme Music] Like most of the theorists we’ve studied so far,
Max Weber lived at the end of the 19th century, and the turbulent changes of that
time influenced him as it did all the others. He lived during the formation of the first German
national state, and watching this process first-hand
made him concerned with understanding modern society. So in his work, Weber examined some of the
defining characteristics of the modern world, which sociologists have now spent over a hundred
years studying and arguing about: He focused on ideas like rationalization,
bureaucracy and social stratification. And when he saw where modernity was heading,
he was really worried. But to understand what he was so worried about,
you need to understand how we got to modernity
in the first place. And for Weber, the real defining features
of the transition from traditionalism and
modernity were ways of thinking. Not modes of production or social integration,
but ideas. To think traditionally is to take the basic
set-up of the world as given. In other words, traditionalism sees the
world as having a basic order, and that order is
the way things ought to be. We can see this very clearly in feudalism
and divine-right monarchies: The monarch is understood as having been anointed
by God, and you owe them your allegiance regardless
of whether they’re good or bad at their job. The question of whether or not they deserve
the position never even comes up. But if traditionalism takes things for granted,
modernity doesn’t. In modernity, everything is up for grabs. What Weber saw when he looked at history was that societies, and people, were becoming more rational. They were undergoing a process of rationalization. And Weber’s definition of rationality included
three specific things: calculability, methodical
behavior, and reflexivity. Calculability means that, if we know the inputs,
we can know the outputs. Just think of a bowl made in a factory
versus one you make yourself: Every single bowl comes out of the factory
exactly the same, whereas no two bowls you make
by hand are gonna quite match. Now, the reason that we know the outputs,
if we know the inputs, is because there’s methodical
behavior involved – a procedure to follow. In the factory, the method is in the machines. So the results are going to be the same, no
matter who’s pulling the levers. Finally, thinking rationally for Weber meant
thinking about what you’re doing, in other
words, thinking reflexively. You’re constantly looking for new ways to
improve the process, for new and better and
more efficient ways to make bowls. So, traditional society is the society of
individual artisans, each with their own process,
which is how it’s always been done. But modern society is the society of explicit instructions and standardized, methodical, procedures which are always being reflected on and improved. So what caused this massive shift in how people
think? What kicked off this process of rationalization? Weber gave here what might seem like an unlikely
answer: religion. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argued that the transition from traditionalism to modernity began with the Protestant Reformation. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church dominated Medieval Europe until, in 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther denounced corruption in the church. This set off a series of new religious movements
that radically opposed Catholic dogma. This was the Protestant Reformation. And it’s in these new movements that Weber
saw the origin of modern rationality. Catholicism, after all, was the basis for
the traditional worldview. Everything in medieval life – from the
structure of the social order to the way you farmed
– was the way it was, because God willed it. By contrast, in Lutheranism, you still have
a divinely sanctioned place in the world, but for the first time, the question of how
well you are performing your role became important. This idea – of personal responsibility – opened
the way for another important figure in Weber’s
view of history: John Calvin. Calvin didn’t believe that God could possibly
be concerned with anything that one measly
little human might do. Instead, Calvin believed in predestination, the idea that your fate, whether you’re saved or damned, has already been set by God, from the beginning of the universe. And there’s nothing you can do to change it:
you’re either one of the “elect” or you’re not. So, how do you know? Through what Calvinists called a “proof of
election.” And here’s where personal responsibility
really comes in: The proof that you were saved
was to be found in how you lived your life. So the point of your life was no longer that it
was divinely appointed – it became a matter
of how well, or how much, you work. And, by extension of this logic, success
itself became proof of election: If you’re financially successful, then that
was a sign that you were blessed by God! Suddenly you didn’t just work until your needs
were met, as you did in traditional society. Now the work was an end in itself, and you
worked to accumulate as much wealth as possible,
because wealth proved you were saved. This is the sociological consequence of the
Protestant Reformation that Weber studied
and understood: It transformed a communal, traditional
society into an individualistic, capitalist society –
one that was focused on economic success. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but
modern capitalism is nothing if not rational. Think about it: You must work methodically
in your calling. You must constantly be reflecting on your
work, in order to work more efficiently and
productively. And you use profit as a calculable measure
of your success. So rationalization gets its start in religion,
around questions of how we work. But Weber spent his career showing how all
of society came to be organized rationally. In fact, if you’ve ever been to the DMV, you’ve seen what Weber argued was one of the biggest impacts of rationalization in society: the rise of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a key part of the transition
from the traditional to the modern state, and Weber identified six traits that make
it both extremely rational and very efficient: It’s composed of a hierarchy of positions
with an extremely clear chain of command. This hierarchy is made up of a variety of
very specialized roles and is held together
by formal, written communications. The people in the bureaucracy
accomplish their work with technical competence,
according to detailed rules and regulations, and they do it without regard to the particular people
they’re serving – in other words, they do it impersonally. And I can’t think of a better example of
all these traits than the bureaucracy you
see at the DMV. The workers do their jobs competently and according to the rules, and they treat you just like they would treat anyone else, without regard for your personal characteristics, that is, impersonally. But there isn’t only this change in the way
the state works, there’s also a change in
the way the state is obeyed. In a traditional society, Weber believed that
the state ruled through traditional legitimacy: people followed the king because that’s how
it had always been done. But the modern state works differently: It
rules through a combination of what we call
legal-rational and charismatic legitimacy. Legal-rational legitimacy is essentially a
belief in the system itself. You follow the rules because they are the
rules. So, the DMV employee doesn’t ask for a
certain piece of paperwork because that’s how
it’s always been done. He does it because that’s how the procedure
instructs him to do it. If the manual were rewritten tomorrow, he’d
do it that way instead. But there’s a problem with legal-rational
legitimacy, and with bureaucracy in general: If it’s all about following the rules, well,
somebody needs to make the rules. That’s where charismatic legitimacy comes
in. You follow the commands of a charismatic leader
because of the extraordinary characteristics
of that person. So the modern state is an apparatus of
rules which are ultimately directed by a group of
charismatic leaders. In the US, for instance, when we go to the polls
every four years, we’re making a choice about
who’s going to direct the bureaucracy, and we make that choice based on the
characteristics of the people running. And here’s another one of Weber’s major
contributions to sociology: The idea that the people who run to be
leaders of our bureaucracies, do so with
the support of political parties. For Weber, political parties were a key example of
social stratification, or the way that people in society
are divided according to the power they hold. Weber didn’t think that society was divided purely
based on economic classes, or your relationship to
the means of production, like Marx did. He argued that the system was more complicated,
and consisted of three elements. Like Marx, he included class, but he didn’t
think that classes had unifying interests. Weber also included political parties, defined
broadly as groups that seek social power. And finally, he included status groups, defined
by social honor, which includes things like
respect and prestige. All three of these things, Class, Power, and
Status, affected a person’s place in society. More importantly, each of these elements of
Social Stratification could vary independently. So there could be a poor priest, say, who
is high in social prestige, but of a low class. Or a lottery winner, who is of a high class
but low in status. Or a bureaucrat in a political party, who
has some measure of political power, but not
necessarily money or status. And then there are those who can turn their
fame, or status, into political power. Unlike Marx, Weber didn’t take a particularly
critical stand on stratification in society. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t see its
problems. For Weber, rationalization was the defining
feature of the modern age, and he was deeply
worried about it. Remember, rationalization is about three things:
calculability, methodical behavior, and reflexivity. But it’s really easy to lose reflexivity – to
stop reflecting on your work or your role – and instead become locked in a calculated
routine that becomes meaningless and unthinking. Weber worried that the systems that rationalization
built will leave behind the ideas that built them, and that they’ll simply roll on forever,
meaninglessly, under their own momentum. He worried that we’ll become locked in what
he called an “iron cage” of bureaucratic capitalism, from which we can’t escape; our lives will become nothing but a series of interactions based on rationalized rules with no personal meaning behind them. This worry about meaning, and the concern
for ideas and how they shape our reality, is one of the big influences that Weber handed
down to future sociologists. On the micro level, these ideas were picked
up by what’s known as the symbolic interactionist
paradigm and theorists like Erving Goffman. Meanwhile, theorists like Talcott Parsons and Jürgen Habermas took on the more macro version of these questions, looking at processes like rationalization and bureaucratization and culture more generally. We’ll talk more about culture, and what
it is, next time. But for now, you learned about Max Weber and
his understanding of the modern world. We talked about rationalization and the transition
from traditional to modern society. We discussed bureaucracy, legitimacy, and
social stratification in the modern state. And we saw why Weber was so worried about
the modern world. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl
C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s made
with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for
everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows
you to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we’d like to thank all of our
patrons in general, and we’d like to specifically thank
our Headmaster of Learning David Cichowski. Thank you for your support.