Max Weber was born in Erfurt, Germany, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber and his wife Helene. He was, along with Karl Marx, Vilfredo Pareto and Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology. Whereas Pareto and Durkheim, following Comte, worked in the positivist tradition, Weber worked in the idealist or hermeneutic tradition. He is best-known methodologically for his development of the "ideal-type," and substantively for his work on the sociology of religion.
Of marked importance, Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This is a seminal essay on the differences between religions and the relative wealth of their followers. Weber bases many of his economic studies on early 20th-century Germany.
Significant, too, is Weber's essay Politics as a Vocation. Therein, Weber posits the definition of the state that has become so pivotal to Western social thought: that the state is that entity which possesses a monopoly upon the legitimate use of force, which it may nonetheless elect to delegate as it sees fit. Politics is to be understood as any activity in which the state might engage itself in order to influence the relative distribution of force. Politics thus comes to obtain to power-based concepts, to be understood as deriving of power. A politician must also not be a man of the "true Christian ethic" (understood by Weber as being the "Ethic of the Sermon of the Mount" -that is to say, the heeding of the injunction to turn the other cheek). An adherent of such an ethic ought be understood to be a saint (for it is only a saint, by Weber, that should find such an ethic a rewarding one). The political realm is no realm for saints. A politician ought marry the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility, and must possess both passion for his avocation and the capacity to distance himself from the subject of his exertions (the governed).
Pivotal in his analysis of the tenets of a faith is the reliance upon "magic" in sermons and faith. Briefly, Protestants become wealthy because they have no "magic wand" to get them into heaven, therefore Protestants have to work constantly and consistently to assure themselves a place in heaven. On the other hand, Catholicism involves much waving of hands, fixed 'magical' rituals, chanted incantations, a bit of water, and an abracadabra-like prayer: believers' souls become purified for their ascent to heaven.
The disparity in wealth between religions is still very prominent, though there are critics who suggest this disparity owes more to historical hangover from colonialism than from a particular creed. Critics also say that one could make a distinction between northern Europe and southern Europe yet, looking at Switzerland, Protestant Cantons tend to be wealthier than Catholic ones. However the continuing corruption and dysfunctional governments and economies of predominatly Catholic societies is of deep concern.
The phrase, work ethic used in contemporary commentary is a derivative of the protestant ethic discussed by Weber. It was adopted when the idea was generalised to apply to Japanese, Jews and other non-Christians.
He is also well-known for his study of bureaucratization of society.
List of works