12 julio, 2024

What is Max Weber’s comprehensive theory? Origin and characteristics

The comprehensive theory It is a sociological current that explains society as a series of subjective relationships and interactions. It was developed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).

Weber’s studies were always argued within the interpretation (beyond mere empiricism) of social action, understood as the purpose and meaning of the action of one subject towards another or others.

By the time Weber lived, sociology already existed as an autonomous science within the human sciences, but he gave it a particular approach to interpret it in a different way.

Weber’s great contribution was the construction of intellectual mechanisms that allowed seeing reality in a more complex way and the invention of methodological tools to study the attitude of individuals within society.

All this brought as a consequence the denomination of comprehensive sociology (also called interpretative sociology by some) as a branch of general sociology.

Sociology, as a social science that it is, cannot establish absolute truths but is based on interpretation, which is nothing more than a probabilistic approximation of reality. This methodology contrasts with the methodological positivist current that prevailed at the time when Weber wrote his theory.


Comprehensive theory: social action according to Weber

For Weber, social action is the meaning that a subject gives to his behavior in relation to the behavior of other people. This means that individual behavior is somehow determined by the behavior of other people, a concept that clearly explains the phenomenon of social imitation.

This social action is given by antecedents of an ethnic, climatic, temperamental type, etc. and generates empirically measurable consequences; but neither antecedents nor consequences are part of the meaning, since this is merely subjective.

By having subjective meanings, social action differs from reactive behavior, reserved for automatic behavior that involves unthought processes.

outline of comprehensive sociology

Economy and society. Outline of Comprehensive Sociology (1922) was the work where Weber expressed his theory. In his time it was considered the most important sociological work of the 20th century.

However, its content was written by Weber only in a quarter, since death surprised him before finishing it (1920). The work was initially completed (1922) by his widow, Marianne Schnitger, and in later editions (1956) by Johannes Winclermann, a controversial publisher.

This has resulted in multiple interpretations of the meaning and content of the book, which was actually initially conceived as a manual or reference text for teaching economic and sociological topics.

This is the reason why this work does not have a common thread but rather many partial and unconnected theses.

Weber’s methodology

Weber designed a conceptual instrument or methodological tool that was novel for his time, which he called the «ideal type», which is formed from certain characteristics, but which does not fully correspond to each particular case.

The «ideal type» tries to simplify reality in order to be interpretable. There is no single ideal type, but several that can be combined with each other and, therefore, generate different social actions.

Basically there are 4 ideal types tending to interpret social action:

Action according to ends: the goals or ends and the means to achieve them are measured.
Action according to values: similar to the previous one, but it takes into account the values ​​and ideals.
Traditional action: related to customs.
Affective action: related to emotions.

The first two are rational actions and the last two are irrational.

Concepts of society and State according to Weber

Weber conceives of society as a framework that can be represented as the concentric layers of an onion where, from the inside out, social action is the first instance of this network.

When social actions are reciprocal (round trip), they become social relations, within which the individual develops. A next level would be the association, which implies a social relationship that also regulates the current order, legitimized by others.

There are different types of associations, such as political association, which involves, in addition to all of the above, the legitimate use of physical force as a repressive mechanism to maintain order and control society.

It is here where the Weberian concept of the State appears: an association that has the monopoly of coercion and legitimate physical force to guarantee the social order in a continuous way.

This social order or obedience is due to domination by the State, which it exercises in different ways:

Traditional domination: it is obeyed by a set of already established traditions and values.
Charismatic Dominance: obeyed thanks to the presence of a charismatic leader.
Legal-rational domination: it is obeyed because society has agreed to abide by a set of established and learned norms.

According to Weber, any relationship between society and its rulers can be studied under any or all of these forms of domination.

This conception of the State as an entity that has the monopoly of force and the means to coerce society, is the basic concept that gave rise to Western political science. It is then understood that politics derives from power.

Due to his solid studies in areas as diverse as economics, history and theology, Weber introduced very important terms for the understanding of society as a whole, such as bureaucracy, capitalism and religion, giving his Comprehensive Theory a scope much greater than merely sociological.

About Max Weber

Max Weber was a philosopher, historian, economist, and sociologist who, along with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, is considered the father of sociology, although he differed from the other two in many ways.

He was born in Erfurt (Prussia) in 1864 and in 1893 he began his work as a professor in different faculties of economics. During those years he also suffered from insomnia, depression and other mental illnesses caused by the death of his father, which affected him greatly.

Starting in 1903, he began as editor of a social science journal, which allowed him to travel extensively and investigate different world cultures and religions.

Although his early research in sociology was more focused on the industrial field, it was his work on society and the concept of the «ideal type» that gave him the most notoriety.


Urbano Ferrer. Max Weber: Comprehensive sociology. p.4. Recovered from um.es
Max Weber (2014). Economy and society. Introduction by Francisco Gil Villegas M. Economic Culture Fund. DF Mexico.
Max Weber. Science as a vocation. Reading done in 1918 at the University of Munich. Retrieved from ne.jp.
Rafael Llano (1992). Comprehensive sociology as a theory of culture. An analysis of the fundamental categories of Max Weber’s thought. Superior Council of Scientific Investigations. Institute for Advanced Social Studies. Madrid Spain.

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