“Why bother with Max Weber?”
An invitation to classic sociology
Some time during my first weeks at the Stockholm Resilience Centre I was making photocopies of a book called “The pattern of the past. Can we determine it” written in 1949 by Pieter Geyl. The book was a first hard copy edition dug up from the Stockholm University library depository, and looked ancient. While I was busy my colleague Per Olsson came in, saw what I was doing, smiled and remarked: “You social scientists still read the old stuff!”.
It can indeed be remarkable for natural scientists to see that social scientists still read and refer to literature that is 100 or more years old. These ‘classics’, as they are called, typically include the work of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, but also smaller giants like, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Mead or Georg Simmel. To my mind the only really old work that natural scientists occasionally refer to is “The Origins of Species”. Per didn’t ask me then, but must have been thinking – is reading old stuff really worth the effort? I mean these books are obscure, incomprehensible and thick. Not exactly favorite bedtime reading….
Why do social scientists still read the classics? - A question which social scientists also ask themselves from time to time. Here are some of their answers. First, reading the classics can help to familiarize yourself with some of the fundamental (ontological, epistemological and methodological) differences between the huge variety of social scientific theories and conceptual approaches, since these differences most often can be traced back to differences between the classic authors. Second, classics are classics for a reason. People still read them because they contain some of the best answers to complex questions. Perhaps the answers themselves might not be particular useful or relevant nowadays (Tilly 2003), but the way these authors answer them can “stretch the mind” (Stinchcombe 1982, 355) and can teach novel ways of looking at familiar things. They still work as exemplars of excellent scholarship. Third, classic social scientists were often much more all-round scholars than most contemporary social scientists, and consequently had a sharper eye for the complex interrelations between social, psychological and environmental explanations (Elster 2009, 27). Especially this last reason could potentially be a motivation for students and scholars of social-ecological systems to bother themselves with... Max Weber.
In a recently published paper in the American Journal of Sociology, John Bellamy Foster and Hannah Holleman explain why reading Weber can help equip students and scholars to meet the “human-environmental challenges of the 21st century” (Foster and Holleman 2012, 1667). So, what is it that we can learn from Weber? It is important to first highlight that Weber believed that the objective of social science is to provide an “interpretative understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences” (Weber  1978, 4). What is special about this definition is that it ties together two opposing views on how social science should be done, i.e. searching for causal explanations that can be generalized versus accounting descriptively for the subjective motivations of people in particular places and times. This difference still divides natural and social scientists, and often forms an obstacle towards interdisciplinary science. Weber not only wanted to overcome this methodological difference, but also objected to “an absolutely strict and mutually exclusive conceptual distinction between the objects of ‘nature’ and ‘social life’” (Weber 1977, 95-96 cited in Foster and Holleman 2012, 1635).
According to Foster and Holleman Weber’s merits lie in his insistence that the natural environment is always interpreted through human culture. This means that the values that we ascribe to our environment and the relations that we establish with it cannot be objectively deduced from the natural environment itself. In other words, the significance of environmental events or conditions stems not only from e.g. their physiological or chemical characteristics, but also from the meaning that people assign to it. As an example, Weber refers to the frequent flooding of the Dollard, a Dutch-German wetland that is part of the Wadden Sea, which caused massive losses of life and property, and resulted in people migrating. Explanation of these consequences can not only come from an understanding of the environmental event itself, but also have to take account of how the people living in the Dollard culturally interpreted these events and acted on them (Weber  1978, 7). For Weber there was no doubt that an objective environmental reality outside human consciousness existed, but it was also evident for him that this reality can only be known through human intersubjective interpretation. In their article Foster and Holleman show how Weber conceptualized nature’s force in his comparative-historical work such as “Ancient Judaism”, “The religion of China”, “The religion of India” and “The agrarian sociology of ancient civilizations”. Other examples that Foster and Holleman highlight are Weber’s comments upon rabbau (german word for earth robbery) i.e. the depletion and overuse of natural resources, his analysis of American rural development, and his debate with the Noble prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald about technological fixes and the exhaustion of fossil fuels.
Foster and Holleman’s paper is interesting because it was commonly assumed that changes in environmental and material circumstances do not play a significant role in Weber’s theories. Perhaps this misrepresentation of Weber’s insights can be best illustrated with his famous interpretative and causal analysis of the advent of capitalism in Europe. In his classic “The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism” he argues that capitalism came into being through changes in human interpretation. Particular forms of Protestantism fostered what he called a ‘spirit of capitalism’, which evolved around earning money, frugality and reinvesting. This spirit lays the basis for instrumental rationality that characterizes human behaviour under capitalism. According to Weber instrumental rational behaviour is driven by the actor’s own rationally pursued and calculated ends” (Weber  1978, 24). Capitalism thus came about through both a change in mentality (“the spirit of capitalism”) as well as change in the social organization and utilization of material resources (“instrumental rationality”).
Weber’s argument strongly differs from historical-materialist analysis, typical for much of the work inspired by Marx, that considers human consciousness and identities purely as effects of political-economic structures. Instead Weber shows that changes in human interpretation can transform social structures and environmental-material conditions. But Weber’s strong emphasis in “The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism” on the causal role of human interpretation has led later scholars to neglect his analysis of the role of environmental conditions in processes of social change. Foster and Holleman argue that this is a grave misrepresentation. In his “General Economic Theory” Weber argues that capitalism’s mentality and rationality were triggered by the depletion of forest reserves in England. Wood was used to smelt iron with charcoal. Under the pressure of wood shortage the English searched for alternatives and started to excavate coal. The steam engine was initially invented to pump out the water from the coal mine shafts. As the authors remark: “For Weber the shift from charcoal smelting to coke smelting represented a critical historical turning point, without which the emergence of industrial capitalism and the rational-inorganic phase of development would have been blocked” (Foster and Holleman 2012, 1646). Weber knew the change in mentality and interpretation of itself could not explain the advent of European capitalism, it had to be related to changes in the natural environment in order to acquire its causal force.
Elster, J. 2009. Reciprocity in Seneca and Smith. Paper for the conference on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Oslo.
Foster, J.B. and H. Holleman. 2012. Weber and the environment: Classical foundations for a postexemptionalist sociology. American Journal of Sociology 117 (6): 1625-1673.
Stinchcombe, A.L. 1982. Should sociologists forget their mothers and fathers? The American Sociologist 17 (1): 2-11.
Tilly, C. 2003. Why read the classics? Paper presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, 18 August 2003.