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Classic Texts: Max Weber "The Theory of Economic and Social Organisations" 1947


Last updated 23 Apr 2019

Seen as one of the founding fathers of sociology, Weber's ideas about stratification provide an interesting contrast to those of Marx.

Weber was writing after Marx (although long before the 1947 publication of this English translation - he died in 1920). Weber is sometimes described as holding a debate with Marx's ghost. He agreed with Marx that there was a clear distinction between those who owned the means of production and those who did not, but he saw far more and more complex divisions than Marx did.

He saw divisions based on market situation. That is, some people could get higher salaries because they had skills that were more in demand (e.g. professional qualifications). He also saw social stratification on the basis of status, which he separated from class. Whereas class was based on the economy (e.g. market situation or relationship to the means of production) status was based on social position. He noted that some social systems had rigid status stratification (e.g. the Hindu caste system) while others were more fluid.

He also thought that economic power was only one source of power, again criticising Marx's idea that the bourgeoisie was the ruling class because of its economic position. Weber argued that power came from three main sources:

Charismatic. Some people were powerful because of their charismatic personality. People followed them because of their personal qualities.

Rational legal. This is where people are powerful because they are given authority through an accepted system (e.g. elected officials).

Traditional. This is where people have inherited power or are powerful through long-standing traditions.

Another way in which Weber's view of stratification differs from Marx's is in the role of a middle class. For Marx there were only two important classes: the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and proletariat (working class) and the working class would keep getting bigger and society would be further polarised between these two classes. However, Weber saw one consequence of capitalism to be an ever-increasing middle class, partly because of the need for a large bureaucracy. For this reason, among many, Weber did not think capitalism would create a proletarian revolution that would destroy it and replace it with something else.

A great deal of the sociology of stratification (certainly in relation to social class) has focused on a debate between those who largely agree with Karl Marx and those who largely agree with Max Weber. However, there are many sociologists who disagree with both, either because they disregard other important identities and conflicts in society (e.g. gender) or because they overstate class and status.


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