Weber’s Theory of Social Action

Weber’s theory of social action is important because it sets out, I believe, more clearly than any other theorist the idea behind social action, and the foundations for explanation in the social sciences.

Andrew Roberts, at the University of Middlesex, has written a critical commentary on Weber’s concept of social action:

Weber and Types of Action: Disagreements with Adam Smith (¶45) German economists, from the 1840s, opposed themselves to Adam Smith‘s free-market and international economics. In his The National System of Political Economy (1841) Friedrich List complained that Smith had called his book on economics

The Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations (i.e. of all nations of the whole human race)…He seeks to prove that `political’ or national economy must be replaced by `cosmopolitical or world-wide economy’.”

List and his followers sought to create an economics that was political in the specific sense that it was concerned with the nation. Alfred Marshall, the leading English economist contemporary with Weber, made this summary of the German approach:

“The Germans are fond of saying that…the school of Adam Smith underrated the importance of national life; that they tended to sacrifice it on the one hand to a selfish individualism and on the other to a limp philanthropic cosmopolitanism. They urge that List did great service in stimulating a feeling of patriotism, which is more generous than that of individualism, and more sturdy and definite than that of cosmopolitanism…. There is no question that the recent political history of Germany has influenced the tone of her economists in the direction of nationalism…. Surrounded by powerful and aggressive armies Germany can exist only by the aid of an ardent national feeling; and German writers have insisted eagerly…that altruistic feelings have a more limited scope in the economic relations between countries than in those between individuals.” (Marshall 1890/1920. 1966: p.634)

Altruism is unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Marshall means that German economists promoted welfare state policies within Germany, to strengthen the nation, and an aggressive foreign policy for the same reason. This was the intellectual discipline to which Weber was introduced as a university student in 1882. (¶46) As a student there was at least one lecturer that Weber could not understand. The lecturer talked too fast. But Weber eventually understood him by doing some vacation reading. He wrote to his father

“Now that I have gained a few economic concepts through studying Adam Smith and others, Knies makes a quite different impression on me.” (Hennis 1987 p.40)

This lecturer, Karl Knies, had written a book called Political Economy from the Historical Point of View (1853). In this he said

“The economic life of a people is so closely interwoven with other areas of its life that any particular observation can only be made if one keeps in view its relation with the whole. If you want to make economic predictions, you can only do so on the basis of the entire development of the life of a people. Economics should not limit itself to the elaborations of laws in a world of material goods. It should treat the life of people and state as members of a living body.” Knies, K. 1853 quoted Hennis 1987 p.34)

(¶47) Weber did not use the language that would represent society as a body. He wanted to explain everything in terms of individual action. The way he represented the idea that Knies was putting forward was to say that all economic actions had a “heteronomy of ends” (See Hennis 1987 pp 34 and 55). Heteronomy is a biological term that refers to the different parts of an organism having different purposes. Weber was saying that the economic policy of a nation has more than just economic objectives. It was this broad approach to economics that led him to analyze the different kinds of social actions that human beings take, and to demonstrate how many of them are not rational in the way that English economic theory understood rational.

(¶48) Weber says that social action can be classified into four types, but that it would be very unusual to find actions in the real world that contained only one of these ideal types (Weber, M. 1947 p.116). Nevertheless, I have tried to give real world examples of each type: