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Max Weber’s Sociology of Civilizations: The Five Major Themes

DOI https://doi.org/10.15543/MWS/2014/2/5

Stephen Kalberg


As is well-known, Max Weber’s three-volume Economic Ethics of the World Religions on China, India and ancient Israel yield ‘contrast case’ analyses that isolate the uniqueness of ‘Western’ and ‘modern Western’ rationalism. Less well-known is the sociology of civilizations contained in these volumes and in Economy and Society. This study identifies five themes that, taken in combination, are central to this project. Uniquely, Weber’s approach to the study of civilizations stresses (a) the researcher’s capacity to understand the subjective meaning of action by persons in groups quite different from those familiar in the modern West, (b) the constitution of the distinct ‘rationalisms’ of varying civilizations past and present, and (c) the capacity of values, under certain circumstances, to ‘rationalize’ action beyond utilitarian calculations. Comprehension of each civilization on its own terms comes here to the forefront, as does the unusually broad—civilizational—range of Weber’s sociology.

Stephen Kalberg teaches sociological theory and comparative-historical sociology at Boston University. He is the author of Searching for the Spirit of American Democracy: Max Weber’s Analysis of a Unique Political Culture, Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm, 2014), and Max Weber’s Comparative-Historical Sociology Today (Ashgate, 2012). He is the translator of Max Weber: the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Oxford, 2011) and Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other Writings on the Rise of the West (Oxford, 2009), and editor of Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005). He has published many articles on Weber and on German and American political cultures.

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