Part One – Historical Context




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Max Weber (1864-1920) Price

Part One – Historical Context

An exciting revolution in German education took place at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was marked by the innovative idea that university faculty were expected to do original research and prepare their students to do the same (Ringer, 2000, p. 7). Simultaneously, German historical tradition developed the notion that the “self-cultivating” scholar desiring personal fulfillment can be transformed by the literature he reads by reliving the experiences or values embodied in the texts, intuitively identifying with the author, and being transformed by literature into an “incomparable individual” (Ringer, 2000, p. 8-9). At the time that these concepts were evolving, Max Weber was born, and long before he entered advanced schooling, his imagination soared with avant-garde topics and radical opinions.

Max Weber was a German sociologist, political economist and historian whose theories can be strongly associated with his family background, upbringing, and historical context. While his contributions to history are prominent, the setting in which he developed his ideas was just as notorious. Weber was born in Erfurt, Thuringia (now east Germany), on 21 April 1864 (Mills, 1958, p. 3). His father, Max Weber, Sr., was a trained jurist, municipal counselor and aspiring liberal politician whose family became wealthy from the linen and textile industry of western Germany (Mills, 1958, p. 3). His paternal grandfather, Karl August Weber, was a member of the Bielefield Chamber of Commerce, an early opportunistic entrepreneur, and for years, his grandson’s primary role model (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 1). Max’s uncle, Davis Carl Weber, introduced modern business management to a factory he took over, and also provided his nephew with a model of the modern capitalistic entrepreneur (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 1).

Weber’s mother, Helene Fallenstein Weber, was a cultured and liberal woman of Protestant faith, raised in Calvinist orthodoxy, well-educated and tutored extensively in many humanist subjects (Mills, 1958, p. 3). She came from a family of mostly teachers and minor officials, with the exception of her father who was a well-to-do executive, government advisor and Privy Finance Advisor to the Ministry of Finance in Berlin (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 1).

In 1869, when Weber was still a child, his father took a job as the City Advisor for Berlin, a prosperous political and right wing liberal position (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 2). The family moved to a west-end suburb of Berlin (soon to become the capital of Bismarck’s Reich) called Charlottenburg (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 2). Charlottenburg’s population was rife with academic and political notables, all neighbors, where Weber’s young mind was presented with a variety of political, philosophical and socioeconomic viewpoints (Mills, 1958, p. 3). The political and intellectual discussions that Weber’s father held with his prominent neighbors provided a very stimulating environment for young Weber (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 3). These debates and discussions were given yet another angle in Weber’s mind as he took into consideration the ideals of his mother, who exhibited strong religious and humanitarian concerns impressed by the misery of the industrial classes in Berlin (Mills, 1958, p. 3). In such domestic setting, it is no wonder Weber was able to develop such compelling ideas and opinions on religion, politics and economics.

While Weber’s mind was very well-developed, he had suffered meningitis at the age of four, which made his body very week, and gave him a strong preference to books over sports (Mills, 1958, p. 4). Through his avid reading of historical works, ancient classics and philosophers, Max developed intellectual interest apart from his parents’ at a young age (Mills, 1958, p. 3). In 1877, by the age of 13, he had composed two of his own historical essays over the Christmas break: “Concerning the course of German History, with Special Regard to the positions of Kaiser and Pope” and “On the Era of the Roman Emperors from Constantine to the Volkerwanderung” (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 2). Weber’s family travels and personal interests caused him to be quickly bored with the routine instruction he was offered in school, as well as critical and rebellious toward his classmates, instructors and even notables, such as Cicero, whom Weber claimed was a dilettante, poor politician and irresponsible speaker (Mills, 1958, p. 4). As he grew older, Weber’s powerful and controversial logical approach to all subjects and topics, including religion, drew him “away from both the philistinism of his father as well as from the piety of his mother” (Mills, 1958, p.6).

In 1882, Weber completed his pre-university training and enrolled as a student of law at Heidelberg, where he majored in jurisprudence, but also studied a variety of cultural subjects such as history, economics, philosophy, and some theology (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 3). In law school, he also joined his father’s dueling fraternity, read books such as Strauss’ The Old Man and the New Belief and Lotze’s Microcosm, drank and dueled for sport, and took part in many theological and philosophic controversies of the day (Mills, 1958, p. 7). It was clear that, although a product of his parents and relative’s ideologies, Weber had become a distinctive young man.

At the age of 19, after three semesters at Heidelberg, Weber served his year in the army (National Service), which proved very disagreeable with its “stupidity of barrack drill,” “chicanery of subaltern officers” and what he considered a waste of his intellectual abilities. Before his year of service was complete, Weber developed the physical endurance necessary to complete most military tasks, and when commissioned an officer, was esteemed by his superiors as having command potential. Over the next few years, Weber switched back and forth between furthering his studies in Berlin and Goettingen and participating in military maneuvers, which gave him new and advanced positions on war as well as perspectives on social and historical situations. (Mills, 1958)

As a young man, Weber found another pivotal influence on his developing mind, as he became very close with the family of his mother’s sister, Ida Baumgarten and her husband, the historian Hermann Baumgarten (Szakolczai, 1998, p. 103). Hermann Baumgarten’s influence on Weber’s intellectual development was especially profound, and his uncle became his political and intellectual mentor and confidante (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 4). The two uncles together; Carl Weber, who exhibited creative entrepreneurial energies, and Baumgarten, who took a very critical position towards the politically organized liberalism of his time; both greatly impressed their nephew and helped him to form a strong model of opposition to his father and better understand his mother’s religious values (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 4-5).

In 1889, Weber graduated magna cum laude with his work on the “Development of the principle of joint liability and the separate fund in the public trading company from the household and trade communities in the Italian cities” (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 6). After his graduation, Weber worked toward his German lecturing degree, finished a term as a Rferendar at the Royal District Court of Charlottenburg in Berlin, made friends in the Evangelical Social Congress, was called to the bar in Berlin, and was commissioned to work on the planned Agricultural-worker Enquiry (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p. 6). It is this last activity that had a significant impact on his future activities, studies, and writings.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, agrarian problems of eastern Germany were a major concern of agricultural interest groups and leading politicians and scholars. Issues such as a free trade policy in grain (1865 to 1879) combined with protectionist sentiments (early 1970s), an increase in American and Russian grain exports, and falling prices on the world market all had an adverse effect on the sale of German grain. Tariffs were imposed for the first time and then successively increased (1885 and 1887), and this coupled with protection, brought “intensified cultivation and a shift to better-paying cash crops” that changed the entire German farming industry and caused significant unrest. The situation was further aggravated by the landowners (Junkers) themselves, their outspoken nature and nationalist ideas. (Bendix, 1978)

Next, experts related the agrarian problem to controversy over the stock exchange (Turner, 1992, p. 217). Prominent conservatives doubted the honesty of others (Bendix, 1978, p.14). Anti-Semitic agitation was blamed for the problems, and political agitation continued (Bendix, 1978, p.14). The anti-capitalist sentiment of the landowners seemed merging with the less powerful but equally vociferous anti-capitalistic orientation of the socialists of the period (Bendix, 1978, p.14). The result was that from 1896 until 1908 trading in grain futures on the commodity exchange in Berlin was prohibited (Bendix, 1978, p.14).

In many agrarian circles, it was also widely believed that trading in grain futures facilitated the importation of foreign grains and tended to depress farm prices. Due to this controversy, in 1893 the German Chancellor appointed a commission of inquiry to which Weber was assigned, to issue a report containing a series of proposals for the reform of the stock and commodity exchanges. (Bendix, 1978)

The problem of farm labor was made the object of this large-scale inquiry by an association of scholars, government officials and other specialists interested in investigating current social problems and promoting reforms through legislation. In 1890, the association decided to send out a lengthy questionnaire to more than three thousand landowners in southwest, western, northern and eastern Germany. Weber assumed responsibility for evaluating the returns from the German provinces east of the Elbe River. The existence of this economic condition created an opportunity for Weber to be involved with the survey as well as draw conclusions and develop further ideas about the German and international economy. (Bendix, 1978)

In the west, the study found that labor relations de-emphasized the status distinction between different classes or peasants and farm laborers to such an extent that the laborers had little sense of their legal dependence. In Lower Saxony, on the other hand, the rural population lived in settled villages next to medium-sized estates that depended upon the village population for seasonal labor. Social differentiation in these villages was considerable, but all workers were considered residents, possessed rights, and could participate fully in the social life of the village community. These two areas showed that labor problems did not arise where the rural labor force was derived from long-settled tenant farmers or from a stratified but settled village population. (Bendix, 1978)

The principle emphasis of Weber’s analysis was to indicate the process by which day laborers were gradually replacing the half-servile peasantry on the large landed estates of the east. This led him step by step from the study of agrarian society to an interpretation of the social structure of imperial Germany. He found that on the large estates in the east where serfdom and patriarchal rule dominated, there were work contracts, wage contracts, obligations and privileges. In analyzing the several provinces east of the Elbe, Weber showed in detail that these quasi-servile, quasi-contractual labor relations had been increasingly superceded by free labor. The shift resulted from the more intensive utilization of the land, together with the greater emphasis on better paying jobs. (Bendix, 1978)

At the completion of the study, Weber took a temporary position teaching jurisprudence, specifically state law and agrarian history, at the University of Berlin (Kasler and Hurd, 1989, p.5). This finally got him out of his parent’s house, and he married Marianne Schnitger, a second cousin (Collins, 1986, p.12). After marrying, Weber continued to overwork himself. He felt that was the only way to avoid self-indulgence, laziness and eventual spiritual crisis (NEB, 1985, 12:546). His great capacity for disciplined intellect and his unquestionable brilliance earned him a full professor position in political economy after only a year of apprenticeship (NEB, 1985, 12:546). Following his doctorial and post-doctorial theses on the agrarian history of ancient Rome and the evolution of medieval trading societies, Weber wrote a comprehensive analysis of the agrarian problems of the German east for one of Germany’s most important academic societies, the Union for Social Policy (1890). He also wrote important essays on the German stock exchange and the social basis of the decline of Latin antiquity (NEB, 1985, 12:546).

The Agricultural-worker Enquiry had been a high point of Weber’s scholarly career, as it culminated in his inaugural address at Frieburg in 1895, in which he pulled together the five years of study on the agrarian problems of Germany east of the Elbe into a devastating indictment of the ruling Junker aristocracy as historically obsolete. In Weber’s view, the existing liberal parties were in no position to challenge and replace the Junkers. Nor was the working class ready to accept the responsibilities of power. Only the nation as a whole, educated to by a conscious policy of overseas imperial expansion, could bring Germany to a desirable level of political maturity. (NEB, 1985, 12:546)

After his father’s death in 1897, Weber was plagued by nervousness and illness, eventually leading to his institutionalization for five years, where his work came to a brief standstill (NEB, 1985, 12:546). In 1903, Weber resumed scholarly work and in 1907 he received an inheritance making him financially independent (NEB, 1985, 12:546). His works after his institutionalization indicate that the illness led him to develop brilliant insights into the relationship of Calvinist morality and compulsive labor, into the relationship between various religious ethics and social and economic processes, and into many other questions of lasting importance (Collins, 1986, p.13). Weber’s most important works were produced in the 17 years between his illness and his death (NEB, 1985, 12:546).

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/5) is Weber’s best known and most controversial work, as well as a good indicator of the general trend of his thinking at the time (NEB, 1985, 12:546). In this work, Weber studies the Protestant, Calvinist and Puritan beliefs, notes the statistical correlation in Germany between interest and success in capitalistic ventures and Protestant background, and draws many economic, political and psychological conclusions (Collins, 1986, p.50).

During this time, as he was living in Heidelberg when he was not on one of his numerous journeys through Europe, the middle-class German culture in which he had been raised experienced its first spasms of disintegration. The protestant morality that he had come to accept as an inescapable destiny came under attack from the youth movement, avant-garde literary circles such as the one centered on the poet Stefan George, Neoromantics influenced by Nietzsche and Freud, and from Slavic cultural ideals exemplified by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. (NEB, 1985, 12:546)

Weber’s political sociology is concerned with the distinction between charismatic, traditional, and legal forms of authority. Weber often touched, sometimes explicitly, on themes that had fist been broached by Nietzsche (NEB, 1985, 12:546). His acute interest in social phenomena such as mysticism, which are antithetical to the modern world and its underlying process of rationalization, paralleled a late awakening of Weber’s aesthetic and erotic senses (Collins, 1986, p.71-76).

In 1910, amid the crumbing social order of European middle-class society, Weber began a series of important discussions with poet Stefan George and his close disciple, Friedrich Gundolf. At roughly the same time, he embarked on an extramarital affair, probably his first experience of sexual intimacy. One of his most brilliant later essays contains a penetrating analysis of the conflicting relationships between eroticism, ascetic and mystical modes of religiosity, and the general process of rationalization (Religious Rejections for the World and their Directions, 1916). (NEB, 1985, 12:546)

During this same period Weber was engaged in efforts to gain respect for sociology as a discipline by defining a value-free methodology for it. These studies fit well into the paradigm of sociology, as most sociological ideas of the 19th century were major themes resulting in democratic and industrial change. There was a huge population increase worldwide. Europe almost doubled from 140 million to 266 million in the century between 1750 and 1850. Poor labor conditions were an issue also addressed by David Ricardo and Karl Marx. There was a rapid transformation of property as more industrial factories and homes as well as more money to the elite population emerged. The concept of urbanization, the significant increase in numbers of towns and cities in western Europe as well as an increase in the numbers of people living in historic towns and cities were the focus of Weber, Durkheim, Cooley and Park. Technology, the spread of mechanization, the introduction of the factory system, and the development of political masses offered Weber fertile ground for new ideas (American democracy 1830s). This period in the development of society is what gave rise to the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and subsequently provided Weber the opportunity to be the first to undertake critical revisions to Marxist theory. In this realm, he questioned the importance attributed to social classes in the political development of modern societies and in the causation of major social changes. These sociological factors gave even more critical importance to Weber’s “stoical examination of the conditions and consequences of the rationalization of political and economic life in Economy and Society articles and journal articles.” (NEB, 1985)

Weber’s most powerful impact on his contemporaries came in the last years of his life. From 1916 to 1918, he argued powerfully against Germany’s annexationist war goals and in favor of a strengthened parliament (NEB, 1985, 12:546). Politics had always been Weber’s “secret love,” and the Freiburg address in 1917 marked the inception of ideas that would lead to his erratic political career near the end of his life (Mommsen, 1992, p.7). Politics and scholarship were Weber’s main obsessions, and his passion caused him to react forcefully, especially to political events (Mommsen, 1992, p.3). However, while his political reactions were strong, they never lost their scientific character (Mommsen, 1992, p.3).

After the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918), Weber did all he could to find some opening for himself in politics so he could still serve the nation despite his medical disqualification for armed service. However, the right position never presented itself. This was fortunate, as many of the opportunities for service were in controversial positions that would have scarred his reputation. Unable to serve his country, Weber then turned back to scholarship for a short time before he was sucked back into politics in late 1918 by the appointment of Max von Baden as imperial chancellor. This proved to be an empty opportunity, but did lead to Weber’s involvement in drafting the imperial constitution for the Council of People’s Delegates held in the imperial department of the Interior. He was then elected a party executive for the German Democratic Party, and worked extensively on the campaigns for the National Assembly elections. However, this political position was terminated too, as many delegates thought Weber was suspect due to his extremely open support of cooperation with the Social Democrats and his stance on partial nationalization of the economy during the initial stages of the electoral campaign. (Mommsen, 1992)

Weber also stood bravely for sobriety in politics and scholarship against the apocalyptic mood of the right-winged students in the months following Germany’s defeat (NEB, 1985, 12:546). One of his final political roles was as an expert advisor during both the review of the Versailles Peace Treaty and negotiations of the German delegation at the Versailles conference in May of 1919 (Mommsen, 1992, p.6). However, in the summer of 1919, Weber, deeply disturbed by the outcome of that year’s events, withdrew from politics permanently (probably only because of his death), even withdrawing his executive seat in the German Democratic Party (Mommsen, 1992, p.6).

After assisting in the drafting of the new constitution and in the founding of the German Democratic Party, Weber died in June 1920. Weber’s significance during his lifetime was considerable among German social scientists, many of whom were his personal friends in Heidelberg or Berlin. Unfortunately, because little of his work was published in book form during his lifetime, and because most of the journals in which he was published had restricted audiences of scholarly specialists, his major impact was felt only after his death. (NEB, 1985).

Weber always felt as if values and scientific deductions should be examined for validity on a separate basis: the former on the basis of personal preference, the latter on the grounds of rational criteria (Mommsen, 1992, p.8). His greatest merit as a thinker was that he brought the social sciences in Germany, previously preoccupied largely with national problems, into direct critical confrontation with the international giants of the 19th century European thought – Marx and Nietzsche – and through this confrontation, he helped create a methodology and a body of literature dealing with the sociology of religion, the sociology of political parties, small group behavior, and the philosophy of history (Collins, 1986, p.36).

Weber was intimately involved with the major events in German history during his time. Each experience he had caused him to develop further insight and more conclusions about his areas of study. He significantly influenced the development of modern social science through his attempts to develop a systematic methodology for cross-cultural studies. He published numerous comparative studies of authority and domination, emphasized the importance of bureaucracy in modern Western societies, and continues to stimulate scholars today. Weber is truly a legend and genius who was a product of his times as well as a contributor to his era, whose contributions during his time were only limited by their distribution. Although trained in law, Weber did nearly all of his teaching in economics, but his agenda was clearly sociological (especially in hindsight) (Swedburg, 1998; Hinings and Greenwood, 2002). It is these sociological theories that this paper will examine, and their application to present day criminology.

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