Max Weber and Conflict Theory: Tracing the Origin Conflict Theory

Max Weber and Conflict Theory

Max Weber was born into a prominent bourgeois German family. His father was an important member of the National Liberal Party, with a seat in the Reichstag (Parliament); his mother came from a wealthy but also intensely religious and cultured background. There was considerable tension in his parents’ marriage. As a youth, Weber tended to identify with his father. However, during his post-student years, when he was still financially dependent and living at home, he came to resent the older man and his authoritarian behavior. These conflicts played an important part in the complete breakdown Weber suffered in his early thirties.

Before and after this period, Weber was enormously productive, both in his intellectual work and in political activities. He held chairs at the universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg and produced a range of works on topics that included economic policy, political development, the social psychology of industrial work, the sociology of religion, economic history, and the methodology of social science. At the same time, he played an important role in Christian-Social political circles, producing papers on current issues. During this period his home was the center of German intellectual life.

The last years of Weber’s life were also those of the First World War, of German defeat, of revolution and virtual civil war at home, and of the establishment of a German Republic. During this period Weber was intensely involved in politics. After initially supporting the war, he later urged peace overtures and called for widespread changes in the German political structure. He was a founding member of the Deutsche Demokratische Partei and was involved in writing the new constitution. But he also called the abortive 1918 revolution a “bloody carnival,” something the left wing never forgave and which doomed proposals to have him join the government or become a candidate for president of the Republic. For all his lifelong concern with the relationship between politics and intellectual thought, Weber had none of the utopian prophet about him.

Like Marx, Weber wanted to identify the origins of essential characteristics of “modem” society, but he did not see modernization as the road to perfection. On the contrary: modem rationality could be an “iron cage,” creating a narrow “disenchanted” world of bureaucratic officialdom. Weber’s analyses are complex and difficult to categorize, and they have had none of Marx’s impact on the world. Nonetheless, a very large proportion of non-Marxist intellectuals would nominate him as the greatest of sociologists, and his ideas are the single most important influence on “analytic” conflict theory. He is also of great importance to some of the younger sociologists in the “critical” tradition, most especially Jurgen Habermas. As we discuss below, much of Habermas’ work on modernity and rationalization needs to be read as an ongoing debate with Max Weber.

Like Marx, Weber saw people’s activities as largely self-interested. However, he believed that a historian or sociologist must recognize, in addition to such universal interests as the acquisition of wealth, the importance of goals and values specific to a society. For example, he suggested that the Calvinists’ desire to save their souls found expression in the unique goal of simply accumulating wealth. This was seen as evidence of God’s favor, whereas actually enjoying its fruits would be a sinful indulgence. Weber analyzed the way people maneuver in pursuit of an advantage in terms of both particular values and circumstances and more general sociological categories. He formulated ideal types by abstracting from different historical contexts the essential elements of a general concept. Real-life examples need not correspond exactly to the stylized ideal type: for example, it may be impossible to find any examples of bureaucracy that correspond in every particular to Weber’s model of it. However, an ideal type is very important in making historical and contemporary events intelligible. For example, Weber argues that an essential element of modern bureaucracies is that they are organized around written documents (“the files”) and around fixed rules which define precisely what officials can and cannot do. American and Chinese bureaucracies may differ in certain ways because of general differences between the two countries. But insofar as both are examples of the ideal bureaucratic type, we can see that they will also be alike in crucial ways, including how they deal with the public. Weber was very concerned with power and with the ways in which some people secure domination over others. He distinguished between unlegitimated domination and legitimated domination, which has authority, and involves claims that certain people have the right to be obeyed. He suggested that there are three main foundations for successful claims to authority or three “ideal types.”

Charismatic authority rests on a leader’s personal qualities, so that “the governed submit because of their belief in the extraordinary quality of the specific person . . . The legitimacy of charismatic rule thus rests upon the belief in magical powers, revelations, and hero worship.” Thus, Jesus’ disciples followed him because of what he was, not because of some position that he held.

Traditional authority is also personal, but it is enjoyed because it has been handed down from the past. A king or a tribal chief may not personally be very capable or effective, but he enjoys authority legitimated by custom. Weber argues that in general “patriarchalism is by far the most important type of domination the legitimacy of which rests upon tradition.

Patriarchalism means the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the house; . . . the rule of the master and patron . . . of the lord over the domestic servants and household officials . . . of the patrimonial lord and sovereign prince. . . .

Finally, rational-legal authority is derived from formal rules. Thus, modem bureaucrats are obeyed because and insofar as statutes empower them to do certain things and because our societies accept statutory laws as the ultimate source of authority. According to Weber, the anchoring of legitimacy in particular sorts of rules is central to modern society’s ongoing “rationalization” of everything.

Weber did not disagree with Marx’s view that economic interests often underlie people’s behavior, even when not acknowledged. However, he believed Marx to be wrong in identifying economic characteristics as the sole crucial determinant of both social structure and people’s chances in life. Someone’s religion, education, or political faction may, he argued, be as important a source of power and success. Instead of relying on Marx’s category of class, Weber distinguished among classes, status groups, and parties, all of which could be more or less important for people’s lives and serve as foci of group organization and conflict. By class, he meant people who shared the same position in economic life, whether this involved property, as in Marx’s definition or marketable skills. A party he defined as an association that exists to “secure power within a corporate group for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members.” Examples include political parties seeking power in the modern state but also the factions that fought for control of Rome or the Italian city-states. Finally, status groups, as Weber’s term Stiinde is generally translated, are groups whose distinctiveness lies not in their shared economic position but either in their shared mode of life-often founded on a common education-or in the prestige attached to their birth and family, as in the case of a hereditary aristocracy.

Weber’s argument has had a great influence on modern “analytic” theorists who, like him, believe that economic factors are not always the major determinants of people’s lives and power. His influence is also apparent in these theorists’ discussion of the relationship between ideas and power. It is important to emphasize that, unlike Marx, Weber believed ideas and values to have an important, independent effect on history (as in the case of Calvinism and Confucianism) and did not consider them to be simply reflections of underlying interests. At the same time, he was aware of the role they could play in strengthening the position of a social group or a given social order. He emphasized, in particular, the importance of “legitimacy,” the belief that someone’s position and the system incorporating it are right and proper. This concept recurs in and influences much of modern conflict analysis.


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