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Max Weber and the Multidimensional Theory of Stratification

Weber's sociology is often seen as antagonistic to the Marxian approach. Actually Weber is more of a continuer of it, a later generation of the historical conflict tradition in the German intellectual world. Weber was born in 1864 and grew up intellectually in the 1880s and 1890s, which is precisely the period in which Engels and his followers were making an impact on German intellectual life. Marx had been generally unknown during his own life, except in the' revolutionary underground. But in the :1880s the German socialist party, based on trade unions and following the Marxist theory as their official doctrine, had become a large force in German parliamentary politics. The party itself was participating in elections and becoming gradually less revolutionary, but it was big enough to be able to support its own newspapers and party schools as well as full-time political representatives. It had acquired the material base to support its own intellectuals. Thus it was in Germany that Marxism (maybe really Engelsism) moved above ground and broke into the attention of the academic and intellectual world.

Weber was very much aware of these developments. His father was a member of another political party in the Reichstag at Berlin, a bourgeois party representing the large manufacturers. Prominent politicians, lawyers, and academics met at their home, and Max Weber early became privy to the maneuvers of backstage power politics. Another influence came from his mother, who was devoutly religious in a Protestant denomination. She urged him to take part in a Christian social welfare


movement, which was something of a religious response to workers' socialism: instead of the workers gaining reforms for themselves by class warfare, the charitable upper classes proposed to give it to them out of religious duty. Weber, thus, was politically involved from an early age and in contact with two different political forces, each of which was in its own way concerned with the growing power of socialism. Weber himself was no socialist, though he was rather opposed to existing policies of the conservative government. As already mentioned, he married a young woman, Marianne Schnitger ( Weber), who became one of the leaders of the feminist movement in Germany. He opposed the persecution of the supporters of socialism, especially in the academic-freedom fights that arose in the universities of the time; Weber even considered joining the socialist party to show his solidarity. But he concluded that it would be dishonest of him to do so because he truly did believe that capitalism was a superior social system for enhancing human freedom and economic productivity. For all his opposition to socialism as a political program, Weber nevertheless learned a great deal of substantive sociology from Marx and Engels. He took up their questions, even if he gave them different and more complicated answers.

Of course there were other intellectual strands in his makeup. Weber was an economist in the German style. That is, he did not use the abstract general theory of the market, either in the marginal utility form recently developed by Carl Menger in Austria, Léon Walras in France, Vilfredo Pareto in Italy, and William Jevons and Alfred Marshall in England; nor the classical form that Marx had used for his economic system. The German school of economics was what might be called "institutional" and "historical." It did not accept any universal laws of economic processes (such as supply and demand, the movement of prices, etc.), but, instead, attempted to show the various historical periods of development of different types of economies. Such theories focused on such possible stages as the household or manor economy, the putting-out system, local markets, the world market, and so forth. Weber in a sense was simply the latest of a series of historical economists who attempted to show what kinds of economic systems had pre-


ceded capitalism and by what processes the rise of capitalism had come about. Weber also had studied and practiced law; he knew a great deal of the history of all parts of the world -indeed far more than Marx and Engels could have known because the discipline of history was only getting underway in their lifetimes. Although Weber was not personally religious, he was extremely aware of the religious motivations of people around him and of religion as a force in past history.

One might sum up Weber's main theme as the problem of capitalism, the same as Marx's central concern. But where Marx was primarily concerned with the economic laws of capitalism and with its crises and future breakdown, Weber was concerned with the background of capitalism, the puzzle of how it came into existence in the first place. Weber approached this not by looking for a sequence of stages, but by a world comparison: Why did modern capitalism emerge in Western Europe rather than in one of the other great civilizations -China, India, Rome, the Islamic world? Weber's sociology was an offshoot of this question. His sociological theories were an attempt to create the tools with which to analyze the institutional underpinnings of the economy, to show what forces fostered or hindered it in various societies. One might say that economics was what Weber wanted to explain, but his explanations took him into the world of sociology, especially into an appreciation of the role of political and religious factors.

This is not the only possible interpretation of Weber. Some commentators (such as Talcott Parsons), set him up as a kind of idealist in opposition to the materialism of Marx. Weber was seen as the defender of the role of ideas in history. This school of thought focuses on Weber's earliest important work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ( 1904), which seems to turn Marx on his head. Whereas Marx regarded religion as an ideology reflecting economic classes, Weber seemed to be showing that capitalism itself was produced not by economic forces but by the influence of religious ideas: the drive of Puritans to work out their anxiety over their salvation or damnation, which was left in doubt by the theological doctrine of predestination. At about the same time Weber also wrote an essay in which he argued that the basic method of the "human


sciences" should be verstehen (understanding). One could not explain social processes by abstract laws, but must get inside the subjective viewpoint of the actor, and see the world as he or she sees it, in order to capture their motivation.

These are two pieces of evidence that Weber was really an idealist, or at least tried to give ideas as much influence as possible even in the material world. For Weber never let go of the hard material realities surrounding people. There is another type of "idealistic" theme that can be found in Weber, however. He was often concerned with the rationalization of various institutions: the development of an abstract, means-end calculation. He described modern capitalism as the rationalized economy, bureaucracy as the rationalized organization, the modern state as based on the formal procedures and rules of rational-legal authority. He even argued that what is distinctive about European music since about the time of Bach is that it rationalized the musical scale, turning music into a kind of abstract mathematics. Thus, some commentators, especially recent German ones such as Friedrich Tenbruck, Jurgen Habermas, and Wolfgang Schluchter have claimed that the trend towards rationalization is Weber's master theme of world history. If Weber's verstehen method and his emphasis on religious ideas is a version of the idealism of Kant or the "human science" of Wilhelm Dilthey, this world history of rationalization makes Weber sound like a modern heir to Hegel.

The central reality of Weber, though, was that above all he saw the world as multidimensional. He gave all factors their due, striving hard to be neither a one-sided idealist nor a materialist. Rationalization, which he certainly saw as a major trend in recent centuries in the West, he nevertheless did not worship in the manner of Parsons and some of Weber's recent German interpreters. Rationalization for Weber was a two-sided sword, simultaneously an increase in formal procedures and an undermining of substantive human capability for consciously achieving one's goals.

Weber above all was detached, aware of the distorting possibility of value judgments and biased interests coming from many different directions. His multidimensional perspective made him fundamentally a conflict theorist. For conflict is not


merely just one more factor among others, it is an expression of the very multidimensionality of things, the plurality 'of different groups, interests, and perspectives that make up the world. Ultimately the world does not hold together as one great social or metaphysical unity. Though there is consensus and solidarity inside some components of society, the whole thing is a mixture of contending parts. This is one important reason, besides the specific things that Weber learned from the Marxians/ Engelsians, why Weber had such a fundamental effect in shaping the entire subsequent conflict tradition in sociology. Weber not only saw that there are multiple spheres, but also that there is a struggle for domination going on inside each one. Economics for Weber is a class struggle, though of a more complicated sort than Marx and Engels had seen. Politics is yet another realm of struggle, both among contending political interests and between the politicians and the economic classes. Even the world of ideas is divided among its own interest groups. Religions, for example, have their own internal struggles -- based on the social organization of the church itself -- that divide professional theologians from the "church politicians" and these in turn from the pious followers. Even where Weber seems to be defending the autonomous influence of ideas, he contributes what may be seen as a sophisticated development of the theory of ideology.

Weber consequently saw history as a messy, multiplesided process of conflict on many fronts. He was an enemy of simplified notions of evolutionary stages or other neat patterns that theorists tried to. impose on the complexities of historical reality. For this reason alone, one has to doubt whether he really thought rationalization was the "master trend" of history. Was Weber, then, an historicist, a believer in the doctrine that there are no general laws, only the endless unfolding of historical particulars, with the principles of each era differing from the next? Often Weber sounded like this, especially early in his career when he was writing methodological pronouncements. This would seem to make sociology impossible, at least as generalizing science. But Weber actually left a way out. He subordinated sociology to the task of showing the elements out of which history is made. For this purpose he created ideal


types, abstract models of bureaucracy, class, markets, and so forth, that could capture an aspect of the complex historical reality, always keeping in mind that several different ideal types would have to be applied at once to capture the various sides of things.

These ideal types have become the germs of postWeberian sociology. Each one is a kind of encapsulated theory, much in the same way that the chemical table of elements is a theory of how molecules are put together. Weber denied that there were laws for the overall pattern of history. How that went depended on just which combinations of "molecules" were put together in each case. But these social "molecules" have turned out to be quite structured and lawful on their own level, and they have given rise to theories of classes, organizations, and the. like, to give a real content to Weberian conflict theory.

Weber's famous three-dimensional model of stratification is as close as one can find to a key for his complicated system. His American translators, Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, introduced this under the terms: class, status, and party. All of these are kinds of interest groups that can fight both among themselves and against each other. They are also connected to each other, and each describes a particular realm about which Weber had a theory.

Class, for Weber, was the same realm Marx and Engels were talking about. One might say then that Weber incorporated Marx and Engels's sociology as one element in his system. In doing so he changed their model. Class conflict for Weber is more complicated than it was in Marx and Engels. They dealt mainly (in their theoretical writings at any rate) with the conflict of capitalist and worker, the owner of the means of production versus the producer of labor. Weber elaborated this to add conflict of finance capitalists (whom Marx described in the 1848 revolution in France) against borrowers of capital, and also the battle of sellers versus consumers. This scheme was pointed up more recently by Norbert Wiley to show that American politics has indeed been full of class conflict; although the capitalist/worker battle has been less apparent, the debtor/creditor battle dominated the farm-based politics of the


1800s, and the racial uprising of the 1960s involved consumers attacking ghetto merchants. For Weber class conflict is a threering circus.

Weber's class conflict differs from Marx's in a further and more crucial way. Marx's classes are defined by ownership or nonownership of the means of production. Weber's classes are defined by their position on a market. Recent Marxian theorists, reacting against Weber, have criticized his scheme as putting stratification on the superficial level of economic circulation rather than the basic level of economic production. Nevertheless I would say that this is a strength of Weber rather than a weakness. For Marx's scheme attaches classes to his theory of economics -- which is the part of the Marx Engels system that has proven least realistic as a guide to historical change. Changes in the means of production or in the ownership of them do not follow the path that Marx had set forth, neither since his day nor even in the history that went before. Moreover I think that Marx and Engels tacitly acknowledged this whenever they wrote the actual history of some political event such as the French Revolution of 1848. In those cases they always dealt with many more classes than the owners of production versus the workers. In fact the action always centered on the intermediate classes and on various complicated splits in the upper classes: the financiers and landowners (whom Weber would point out were likely to be a class of debtors) as well as the large and small industrialists.

Weber built his class theory on economic conflicts where they are most real: a struggle to control a place on some market. For Weber, monopoly is not simply something that emerges at a late stage of capitalism. It is a fundamental process found throughout its history. Social classes are based on different ways of trying to gain control over particular markets: money and credit, land, various manufacturing industries, various labor skills. This both gives a more realistic picture of class conflict as it actually happens, and also provides a general theoretical conception of the process of stratification. The dominant classes are those who manage to achieve a tight monopoly on some lucrative market; less dominant classes get only partial monopolies or monopolies in less desirable kinds


of markets. Classes who achieve no monopoly at all and are forced to compete on the open market are subject to its leveling forces.

We come now to Weber's second stratification category, status groups. These are usually understood as the opposite of economic class stratification. Whereas classes are based on cold economic considerations -- the grouping of similar interests by virtue of similar market positions -- status groups are supposed to be in the realm of culture. They are not mere statistical categories but real communities, people with a common lifestyle and viewpoint of the world, people who identify with one another as belonging to a group. This makes us think of ethnic groups, races, religious groups, small-town communities, urban neighborhoods: groups that tend to deny social class or to cut across class boundaries. But in fact there is a deeper connection between class and status group. Remember: classes are groups that share a particular degree of monopolization on some market. They do this by becoming organized, by forming a community, acquiring a consciousness through some legal or cultural barriers around themselves -- in short by becoming status groups.

Any successful, dominant class must become organized as a status group. In fact historically this has always been the case. Marx and Engels' historical ruling classes were organized legally and culturally to keep control of property within their own ranks. The Medieval landowners did not just hold land and exploit serfs; they did this by becoming the noble Estate, with their requirements of hereditary pedigrees, their chivalrous manners, their knightly style of life, which prevented them from getting their hands dirty with anything other than blood. In India, occupational groups went even further and turned into castes, avoiding each other as ritually polluting -- justifying their avoidance by a religious doctrine of past karma and future reincarnation. From the Marxian viewpoint, these classes were simply cloaking themselves in ideologies. Weber's theory agrees with this but with the added proviso: the ideological or cultural side is absolutely necessary for a group to become more than merely a set of persons with the same economic position, a real social com-


munity. Moreover the status group reacts back upon the economic situation: it is the way the group becomes powerful enough to monopolize the desirable part of a market, instead of merely competing on equal terms within it. Status-group organization is an economic weapon.

For this reason, status groups are not noneconomic. Their very lifestyle and outlook depend on their economic resources and their position in society. The nobles' castles, along with their horses and costumes, were only possible because of their wealth. In the modern equivalent, the upper class puts on debutante balls and contributes to symphony concerts and art museums as a process of turning economic capital into cultural capital, as Bourdieu calls it. Even their religious propensities are affected by their class position. Weber pointed out in a comparative analysis that the higher social classes always prefer a dignified religion, full of stately ceremonial but not calling for too much personal commitment; the striving middle classes prefer an ascetic, moralistic religion that bolsters their respectability and motivates them to work hard; and the lower classes treat religion as a form of magic, supernatural interventions to bring good fortune and strike down one's enemies. These different cultural outlooks can make higher and lower status groups seem like alien beings to each other. They also help to cloak the economic basis underneath. This is especially true because a dominant group that has become organized as a status group always idealizes itself and claims that it is different not because of its wealth or power, but because of its greater nobility, its honor, its politeness and artistic taste, its technical skills, or whatever the prevailing status ideology happens to be.

Possessing this kind of status ideology in turn makes it easier for the group members to monopolize economic positions. Outsiders can be excluded and competition limited automatically because only persons who seem like "the right kind" are allowed into the preferred positions. The type of status ideology can shift from time to time, but there is always some process of this sort operating. Although the proliferation of educational credentials was not yet very great in Weber's day, he saw that they were creating modern status groups that


served to monopolize the more lucrative occupational positions. The growth of the modern "professions" shows how much our work force has become permeated by these kinds of monopolies. Doctors, after all, are really just engaged in a form of specialized labor, but they have cut themselves off from the rest of the working class by building an elaborate occupational culture buttressed by educational degrees and state-licensing requirements to monopolize medical knowledge. In effect they have built a lucrative monopoly on the dispensing of drugs by maneuvering politically to be sure that medical drugs are not sold on the open market. The same type of analysis may be made in many other modern occupational spheres.

One key development Weber evolved from the Marxian theory of classes, then, is that economic struggle is much more multisided than Marx had shown. Classes become subdivided into status groups and gain control of particular sectors of economic markets. A secondary market for status attributes arises, and this tends to blur over the primary economic lines. But the economic struggles go on underneath nevertheless. They are less easy to see, but they remain the skeleton inside the system.

Finally parties or power groups: here Weber points to yet another realm of struggle, among political factions. He asserts that politicians and their maneuvers are not simply reducible to the struggles of economic classes or even of status groups because they have interests of their own. This sounds antiMarxian, a claim that class struggle isn't everything. But in fact Marx and Engels were not so far away in their actual sociology. Recall that in addition to the various classes fighting it out in their revolutionary scenarios, they also pointed to political groups per se: the army and the bureaucrats in 1848 France, the Emperor versus the princes versus the knights in Reformation Germany. These were real interest-group struggles, and although these groups allied with different class factions, they were not reducible to them.

But political factions are not an inexplicable epiphenomenon, a "superstructure" spun free into the realm of indeterminacy. They are organized groups, in a different sphere than classes but nevertheless on the same footing with them. As Weber put it, parties live "in the house of power": in other


words they inhabit the state. Now the state is an organization; indeed Weber's analysis of the state gave rise to his theory of bureaucracy and, hence, to the modern sociology of organizations. But an organization is a real material thing -- at least if it is to have any permanence, it must acquire property, land, buildings, weapons, claims of sources of income to feed its own members, and so on. Every state has its economy. (Incidentally, Weber said the same thing about every church: as soon as it stops being merely a charismatic sect and starts taking on some permanent leaders, it acquires property and becomes transformed into an economic entity.) Hence, political factions have their own economic interests: the power and wealth of their own organization, the state itself. The same thing can also apply within smaller political organizations such as a political party: its official staff acquires an interest in the prosperity of the organization itself because it is where they make their careers.

It follows that political factions, living in "the house of power," are living in a real house, alongside other organizations of business, finance, and the rest of the class realm. What is distinctive about the state is not the ultimate interests of its members, but its unique weapons. The state is armed and, hence, can dominate all other organizations. Marx and Engels already saw this, in the implication that the force of the state upholds the system of economic property. The state needs to invest in arms and in troops and in police to wield them; the extensive state apparatus of bureaucrats, tax collectors, law courts, and the like, arose to maintain and supply these forces. But this creates a distinctive economic problem for the state: its own fiscal problems. States also have their distinctive enemies: namely, each other. States and their leaders vie over power in the international arena and in its offshoot, national prestige. It is these conflicts above all that increase the power of some states while threatening the power of others. But even militarily successful states risk economic troubles owing to the costs of their armies. The modern conflict analysis of revolutions, as we will see, places considerable emphasis on this kind of economic-and-military strain in the state.

The state also has another crucial weapon: legitimacy. This


is an aspect of the cultural and emotional realm. In Marx and Engels's terms, the state is the great engine for generating ideology; in Weber's terminology, the successful state makes most people within its borders feel they are members of a single status group, the nation. There are various ways in which legitimacy can be generated: Weber enumerated the charisma of forceful leaders, the tradition of hereditary arrangements, and the rational-legal authority of constitutional law. Each of these rests upon a certain material and organizational base. Legitimacy does not just come out of nowhere; it is produced, and the various kinds of organization that produce it might well be called another aspect of means of mental production (or what I have more recently called the "means of emotional production.") Later neo-Marxian analysis has picked this up. For example, the German theorist Jurgen Habermas has claimed that the revolutionary struggle of the modern state occurs not because of economic crisis, but because of a "legitimacy crisis." A more economic analysis was given by the American James O'Connor, who argues that the modern "fiscal crisis of the state" -- the galloping situation of government debt, escalating taxes, inflation -- is due to the way the state tries to buy legitimacy by providing welfare services at the same time that it is being milked by the monopoly sector of the economy. Both Habermas and O'Connor illustrate the way modern Marxian theories of the state have drifted in a Weberian direction.

Date: 2015-04-20; view: 3698

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