Sunday 8 March 2009

Teaching Max Weber

Of the 'big three' founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber (pictured) was definitely the most miserable. If he thought to preface his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with a few gags then perhaps more of my Thursday students would have persevered with their reading. Does this explain why Slavoj Žižek appears so sexy to so many?

I digress. The purpose of the week's seminar was to bring out the basics of Weber's method and then examine the thesis that protestantism, and
Calvinism in particular played a key role in the formation of capitalism. These were my batch of questions for the students:

1) What is Weber's 'Ideal Type' method? Can you think of any examples?

2) What are the main features of a) The Protestant Ethic, and b) The Spirit of Capitalism?

3) For Weber, what differentiated capitalism from preceding modes of production? Why did it develop in Western Europe after the Reformation? Why not in other well developed societies such as China?

4) Do you think there are any problems with Weber's thesis?

5) Despite criticisms do you think Weber's arguments could be useful for understanding contemporary capitalism?

6) What criticisms could Marxists make of Weber's account? Do Marx and Weber offer incompatible views? Whose analysis of capitalism is superior?

Except for committed Weberians and Marxists the subject matter was never going to ignite the passions, and so it proved with this session. But nevertheless Weber's thesis did come in for a bit of a kicking over his value judgements concerning what did and what didn't count as rational action (was it really irrational for Catholic aristocrats to invest in piracy, slavery and wars?); whether you can read off actors' actions from religious prescriptions; and if the documents Weber used to underwrote or undermined his argument. His disjointed "tick box" schema of capitalism's emergence was compared with Marx's emphasis on class struggle to explain the breakdown of West European feudalism.

The next session will be looking at the emergence of nationalism and democratisation - whether the nation is an invention of capitalism or has roots in pre-capitalist times, what social forces have historically driven the struggle for democracy, and the relevance of both today. With a nice cross section of political views in all my classes - from
UKIP to anarchism - I hope on this occasion the fur will fly ...


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you're teaching pretty much what I'm studying at the moment, just at different universties and structured differently.

I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the chapter on Weber in Callinicos' Social Theory book, if you have any criticisms or thinks he misses out important things, etc. especially would be interesting (and useful to see if I've missed much for my essay!).

Looking forward to the report of the nationalism one. Many of the books on it, even Hobsbawm's, tend to avoid a direct discussion of the question and rather talk, often abstractly, about cultural changes. I found, although obviously couldn't cite in my essay, the old LRCI thesis on Nations, Nationalism and National Liberation a much better introduction than any of these texts.

Anonymous said...

"Looking forward to the report of the nationalism one. Many of the books on it, even Hobsbawm's, tend to avoid a direct discussion of the question and rather talk, often abstractly, about cultural changes."

Is that true?

Surely the discussion in both Anderson's "IMagined Communities" and Gellner's "Nations and Nationalism" are pretty much straight to the point.

I also seriously recommend Otto bauer's book, only relatively recently translated into English, and very mush direct to the point about how national character arises out of a material concept of history.

Phil said...

Sadly I haven't read Callinicos's social theory book - isn't this the one that manages to namecheck every sociological perspective except for the contributions feminism has made to social theory? Big oops!

The best book I've read on Weber is For Weber by Bryan S Turner. He applies an Althusserian symptomatic reading to Weber and shows how closely he approaches historical materialism. It's quite a hefty one though! But it does bring out the complexity and subtleties of Weber, so it comes highly recommended.