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Max Weber – Part 1

Max Weber’s writing are mostly based on society,  its institutions and ethics . Hence can be helpful for GS paper I and GS paper IV.

Max Weber’s contributions to the social sciences remain at the heart of how we speak about ethics, status, ethnicity, class, bureaucracy, and politics. His definition of the state as being “the Legitimated monopoly over the use of coercive force in a given territory” is a staple of journalists and social scientists alike.

Weber is also credited with highlighting concepts such as “iron cage,” bureaucracy,” “bureaucratization,” “rationalization,” “charisma,” and the role of the “work ethic” in ordering modern labor markets. Indeed, such concepts are so well known that they are often even cliché.

Other terms that can be added to this list include Weber’s description of modern courts as a “judging machine” as well as the conditioned “discipline” that underlies modern factories, bureaucracies, and institutions.

In Weber’s writings about politics, we would like to add terms of similar value: the “true human” who is meant for politics, and the “demon of politics” that grips humans heeding the call of political power.

We also believe that Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, words well known in American sociology of the 1960s and 1970s, should reenter the sociological lexicon.   Max Weber’s writing is relevant in the twenty-first century because the issues of social stratification, power, politics, and modernity resonate just as loudly today as they did during the early twentieth century when he wrote, or for that matter the feudalism that Weber so aptly analyzed.

Weber’s writing echoes in the way the civil servants organize, campus politicians maneuver, information is guarded, and administrative units persist despite turnover in university leadership or even during the turbulence of the Great Recession of 2008.

We see this at the national and international level too where the political institutions Weber so artfully described during 1918–1919 continue to shape humans in the same fashion they did then. And floating above this are the private and public bureaucracies that Weber said characterized modernity, even though they are deeply rooted in feudalism.

How powerful and dominant are bureaucracies?

Weber’s ironic observation that the power of the modern German bureaucracy, which exceeded even that of its own creator, the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, should bring a smile to the face of anyone who has ever filled out a meaningless form or marveled at the inability of a powerful president to fulfill even the most basic campaign promise.

Indeed, from such a context, Mao Zedong would be rolling over in his Beijing mausoleum if he were to know how persistent China’s bureaucratic Mandarins are today despite war, invasion, revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Mao Zedong, as well as his predecessors (and successors), destroyed much of imperial China—but not the imperial bureaucratic form and procedure, which persist as Weber wrote “in spite of it all!”

In these introductory remarks, there are summary descriptions of the key concepts found in Weber’s writing. This is followed by a brief discussion of how Weber’s writings fit in with Marx and Nietzsche, both of whom Weber occasionally referred to in his writings, and which, we agree, provide a context for understanding Weber.

Next, we examine the influences of three sources we think are underestimated with regard to Weber’s writings about politics and ethics: Ferdinand Tönnies, Martin Luther, and the Hindu Upanishads. Each wrestled with tensions within society in ways that are not found in either Marx’s materialism or Nietzsche’s nihilism.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: The Heart to Weber’s Sociology.

Much of Weber’s description of society is derived through the definition of terms, concepts, and descriptions. He uses specific historically grounded examples to f lesh out the description. At the heart of Weber’s sociology are definitions of Gemeinschaft, which he describes as the most basic and enduring social structure that is “society.”


Gemeinschaft is rooted in beliefs about the persistence of honor and prestige and reflects a social identity about who is “us” and who is “them.”

Weber wrote that such Gemeinschaft concepts are historically grounded and persistent. They include associations such as those of the peasantry, aristocracy, nation, professions, ethnic groups, clans, tribes, and even the marital pair or any range of other groups whose basic membership is rooted in beliefs about birth, ritual, and/or education, rather than a pure naked position in the marketplace.

People sharing a status recognize each other as “us” and are recognized as an “us” by those outside the group, and they respect the rights, responsibilities, and privileges visà- vis each other that are independent of naked market conditions.

As Weber wrote, although they assign an individual to a group in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, such status-based Stand relationships are made visible through group-based beliefs such as language use, food likes and dislikes, skills, uniforms, badges, and physical characteristics.

In his essay “Gemeinschaft,” Franz Kafka described how five friends become a Gemeinschaft because they associate with each other, are recognized as a group by others, and arbitrarily exclude from membership a sixth person. Parkin noted “almost any characteristic may be to this end” used to exclude.

This is why Gemeinschaft-based distinctions are important for understanding the nature of prestige, status, honor (e.g., Stand) and the distribution of power via politics.

But Weber does not define Gemeinschaft in a vacuum; he defines it relative to Gesellschaft.

For Weber’s description of the modern world, including that of the twenty-first century, he wrote that the basic logic of the Gesellschaft is different from the logic of Gemeinschaft because it emerges out of the impersonal nature of the anonymous marketplace and not in the honor-based associations like those of Kafka’s five friends.

Nor in the Gesellschaft is there an assumption of a past or future relationship.


The Gesellschaft is rooted in calculation and rationalization, not the visible symbols of honor distributed in the Gemeinschaft.

Impersonal calculation without reference to personal identity is the hallmark of the Gesellschaft.

Modern anonymous markets, be they in labor, land, capital, or commodity, are of the Gesellschaft. Modern concepts like the job market, meritocracy, boards of trade, and stock markets all emerge, at least in theory, from the Gesellschaft and its anonymous marketplaces.

Weber’s classic example of a Gesellschaft relationship is one between a person who hires a killer and the killer. They work intensively together until the transaction is completed (i.e., the victim is murdered and the payment is received). After that, they no longer acknowledge each other. The transaction is strictly “cash and carry”; the task undertaken is separate from any honor-bound human relationship.

It is in the Gesellschaft that the modernity for which Weber’s descriptions of rationality and bureaucracy are well known; Gesellschaft-based relationships always have a relationship to market activity. Unlike Gemeinschaft relations, Gesellschaft relations emerge from the impersonal transactions of the marketplace.

Notably though in Weber’s formulation, the Gesellschaft emerges out of the Gemeinschaft, and not the other way around. Especially in the impersonal Gesellschaft world of business, most social relationships are in the impersonal market-mediated Gesellschaft.

In fact, the Gesellschaft creates modern society, giving birth to what Weber calls the rationalized world, and its most powerful child, the bureaucracy.

But in the end, for Weber, the Gemeinschaft is still the central concept of society ; it is from the values and morality of the Gemeinschaft that the laws governing market activity ultimately emerge, not the other way around, in contrast to the historical materialism of Marx.

And it is in the Gemeinschaft that the loyalties and moral assumptions about what is right and good are created and from which the legitimated use of force in a given territory emerges.But before focusing on the children of the Gesellschaft (e.g., rationalization and bureaucracy), it is important to describe how Weber contrasts Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft; it is this relationship that is at the heart early twentieth-century writings of  social philosophers, especially Ferdinand Tönnies.

Tönnies popularized the use of the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in his 1888 book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society). This book was well known in Weber’s world, a fact acknowledged by Weber.

Indeed, Weber explicitly puts the distinction at the heart of his sociology, while pointing out that Tönnies used the terms differently. In participating in this discussion, Weber sought to understand better how the traditional world had, during the nineteenth century, become the modernity of industrial Europe.

In seeking to understand and define this change, Weber investigated the problems many others addressed in the same decades, including Marx, Spencer, Nietzsche, and Durkheim. Weber follows most explicitly in Tönnies footsteps when using the terms Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, though he does so in a fashion that is a cleaner mechanistic version of Tönnies with its “overtones of harmony and warmth,” and instead described “the unruliness of historical reality”.

Tönnies saw traditional premodern community as being of a Gemeinschaft sort that was inexorably moving toward a more modern rationalized Gesellschaft society and its modernity.

In Tönnies’s formulation, there logically was a time when the affectual, emotional, and traditional bases of the Gemeinschaft would be overwhelmed by the more modern rational bases of the Gesellschaft.

In other words, the newer life would naturally replace the older traditional forms of life; in this respect, Tönnies’s logic is more like that of his contemporaries who celebrated the evolutionary “survival of the fittest” understandings of both biological and socioeconomic lives.

In Tönnies’s formulation, the new Gesellschaft society was superior and would eventually overwhelm the older forms of Gemeinschaft with all its sentimentality, family-based favoritism, tribal organization, and economic inefficiencies.

Tönnies saw this as a form of progress in which the better society, that of Gesellschaft, would eventually emerge dominant. Weber agreed with Tönnies that Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft were effective analytical categories.

However, Weber implicitly disagreed with the assertion that that development was inherently good, or that the Gesellschaft society was inevitable. Weber viewed modern life as banal, and the relationship between the two he saw as dialectical in which there was a tension between the two that is never quite resolved.

To emphasize this, he introduced two German gerunds (e.g., “verbal nouns”), Vergemeinschaftung and Vergesellschaftung, to emphasize the fluidity and the ever-changing, interactive relationship.

Roughly put, they could be translated as “Gesellschaft-ing,” and “Gemeinschaft-ing,” in which Gemeinschaft-ing is about an increasing attention to emotion and sentiment, while Gesellschaft-ing is about an increasing attention to rational market forces.

For Weber, the two qualities coexist like oil and water. In contrast, Tönnies views the emergences of Gesellschaft as being a more unidirectional historical process. Thus, Weber, while accepting Tönnies’s basic distinctions, also emphasized that both would always coexist, albeit uncomfortably and in a dialectical tension.

Weber saw this coexistence in both premodern mechanical societies where the Gesellschaft was small and the Gemeinschaft all-encompassing, but especially more in a modern society where the Gesellschaft seemingly overwhelms underlying Gemeinschaft values, even though it never actually does.

Labor unions that emerge to protect the market position of labor in the marketplace are a good example of how this tension can play out. Labor unions emerge to address economic issues of the marketplace, but often develop into club-like “brotherhoods” where members develop emotional commitments. The result is alienation, disenchantment, and objectification—concerns Weber shared with Marx, Nietzsche, and many others.

Note:- Before you read the simplification, do read the above paras.

Here are few examples that will clear your doubts on what is Gemeinschaft and what is Gesellschaft ?

Examples of Gemeinschaft:-

  1. Voting based on caste-line, religious-line etc. In modern day they are called “Herd-Voting”. People are voting their candidate not because s/he is meritorious or good but because s/he belongs to certain caste/religion/region etc.
  2. Regionalism, Communalism, Casteism etc are also cited as example to understand Gemeinschaft.
  3. Meritocracy does not matter here. People identify and form groups because they exhibit similar trait – Same race, caste, place of birth etc

Examples of Gesellschaft:-

  1. Meritocracy based and association are formed not on the basis of brotherhood. For example – an association/group to fight against corruption etc.
  2. You hire someone to do some work because s/he is good at it not because the person belongs to certain caste,race,religion etc. All modern day institutions are based on this principle.
  3. Secularism can be cited as an example of it.

Then Weber goes on to explain that how a society, mostly traditional society based on the principles of Gemeinschaft moves to a modern society based on the principle of Gesellschaft. The majority “WHITE” America electing a “Black President” (Obama) can be thought of as an example where the society is transitioning. Or for that matter, The people of India rejecting “identity based politics” and voting for “good governance” can be seen in this light.

The above examples are inferences made by UPSCTREE and subject to change if needed or in light of any new evidence. The idea behind the above examples is to give you an idea and help you understand better.


July 22, 2017

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