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Max Weber

German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) was the oldest of seven children. He grew up with many intellectual influences. Politicians and academics were frequent houseguests (Coser 1977, 235). He was an avid reader. Even as a youngster, he studied a variety of areas on his own, especially the classics, history, religion, economics, and philosophy. The teenage Weber was already writing essays on such topics as the family tree of Constantine and the history of civilized nations and “the laws covering their development” (Weber 1975, 45–46).

Weber studied law. He published articles on many current events and was active in politics. He taught briefly at the universities of Freiburg and then Heidelberg. However, because of his health, he never held a permanent academic position (Bendix 1968, 494). Weber wore himself down with chronic overwork. In 1898, after the death of his father, Weber suffered a mental breakdown and was unable to work for several years. He and his wife traveled widely during this time, eventually touring America at the behest of a former colleague who invited him to present a paper on the social structure of Germany. The Webers’ travels included a visit to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Weber eventually returned to Heidelberg to write, but he did not teach again until much later in his life (Coser 1977, 240–41).

Weber also served in the German military as a young man. He voluntarily returned to the military as a reservist during World War I, where he was commissioned to establish and run several military hospitals. Several articles he wrote during that period that were critical of Germany’s execution of the war led the government to consider criminal prosecution (Coser 1977, 240–41). After the war, Weber returned to politics and published prolifically on current events.

The topics of Weber’s sociological works were wide-ranging. They included political development in Russia, the social psychology of industrial work and factory workers, and economics. He cofounded the German Sociological Society with Ferdinand Toennies and Georg Simmel. He was also keenly interested in religion, studying and writing about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Arguably his most famous work was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–5), which, among other emphases, tied capitalism to the tenets of Calvinist religious doctrine. Even during his war service, he found time for his studies in the sociology of religion.

As a research methodologist, Weber was concerned with the potential influences and biases that could impact research findings. He advocated verstehen, or value-free, objective research. As Marianne Weber says, he warned against “an unconscious interweaving of factual perception with value judgements” (1975, 317).

Weber’s wife, Marianne, would become a well-known sociologist in her own right and an active feminist in the women’s movement. Together, the Webers entertained young scholars at their home on Sunday afternoons. Their guests included Russian, Polish, and Jewish students shunned by other professors, as well as pacifists and political radicals. “Wherever he perceived an injustice, Weber entered the arena like a wrathful prophet castigating his fellows for their moral sloth, their lack of conviction, their sluggish sense of justice” (Coser 1977, 242). Max Weber died of pneumonia in 1920.

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(The Basics of Sociology) - ISBN 0-313-32387-9 Copyright 2010 - 2012 © All Rights Reserved
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