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Max Weber sees the large-scale macro comparison as an extremely delicate and complex project. He insists upon a number of precautions. In the end, however, civilizational comparisons[1]are possible, he argues – but only in a specific, modest manner. This investigation first discusses several major features of his sociology that render comparison difficult; his many reservations are emphasized. The delimited manner in which large-scale comparisons can be undertaken on the basis of ideal types, and their modest achievements, is then examined.

1 Macro Comparisons: Weber’s Precautions

Macro comparisons must be understood as intimately intertwined with an entire series of significant and complex issues, Weber contends. Rather than to be undertaken in a straightforward and linear manner, they involve challenges that must be acknowledged at the outset. This section offers a short inventory of the major problems to be confronted. Why do large-scale comparisons present, according to Weber, an extremely daunting task? A glance at several main tenets of his sociology is necessary: Verstehen, the embeddedness of social action, the emphasis upon societal domains, and the rejection of organic holism and evolutionary approaches. They can be discussed here only in a foreshortened manner.[2]

1.1 Verstehen

Weber’s pivotal goal – “to understand interpretively (Verstehen) social action and thereby to provide a causal explanation of its course” (see Weber 1968, p. 4) – places an obstacle against all large-scale comparisons. The notion of Verstehen, which emphasizes a comprehension of the subjective meaning of “the other” on its own terms, liberates sociological investigation from all fixed points of orientation in reference to which comparisons could be made. Indeed, Verstehen assumes that the subjective meaning of persons in the groups under investigation are different from those of the investigator. The sociologist must be open to the subjective meaning of others – regardless how foreign it may seem to him personally. “Chinese rationalism”, “Indian rationalism”, the “rationalism of the medieval West”, and “modern Western rationalism”, for example, must be isolated, defined, and understood as implying constellations of meaningful action. Weber engaged throughout his comparative-historical sociology in a massive empirical effort to understand the subjective meaning of the other, whether, for example, that of the Puritan, the Confucian scholar, the Buddhist monk, the Hindu Brahmin, the prophets of the Old Testament, feudal rulers, or functionaries in modern bureaucracies.

The diverse possible motives behind observable activities are significant to Weber and must be, through Verstehen, unveiled and defined. Why is it subjectively meaningful for the Puritan to work hard, he asks? And does the sheer intensity of work, and its location at the center of life, for this believer have historical consequences? For what subjectively meaningful reasons do people render obedience?

Verstehen tends to support the assumption that cases are unique in a further manner: it asserts that the subjective meaning of the other is valid, legitimate, and worthy of investigation. Moreover, owing to the axiom of “value freedom” (Wertfreiheit), an elevation (as more noble or “superior”) or denigration (as “odd”, “uncivilized”, and “inferior”) of the patterned social action prevalent in groupings cannot occur. And the particular subjective meaning of the other can be unveiled only through an investigation of its embeddedness in configurations of groupings. Again, cases – and their internal substance (Eigengesetzlichkeit) rather than comparisons as such – in Weber’s sociology come to the forefront. A Gesinnung, or “frame of mind”, of the group under investigation must become demarcated (“the Puritan”, “the civil servant”), and not only the technology utilized, the battles fought, or the demographic features of rulers.

An unrestricted examination of the particular subjective meanings at the foundation of social groupings near and far – even in other civilizations – is rendered possible by “the act of Verstehen”. This central component in Weber’s sociology pushes investigation toward identification of, and a causal explanation for, the uniqueness of subjective meanings in varieties of groups, rather than toward cross-cultural comparisons.

1.2 The Embeddedness of Social Action

Weber embeds patterned action in social groupings throughout his empirical investigations, and then embeds these social groupings in larger contexts of groupings. Each group (organization, class, status group), located deeply in configurations of economic, political, rulership (Herrschaft), religious, legal, and status groupings, is viewed as in possession of unique features; indeed, each is endowed with “its own” substance. Larger groupings, such as nations or civilizations (Kulturen), are constituted from the juxtaposition of an entire array of social groupings – each of which, likewise, is characterized by an internal distinctiveness.

In “Science as a Vocation”, for example, Weber locates science in terms of its background legitimating ideas and values in the ancient, medieval, and early modern epochs (Weber 2005, pp. 323-25). Pursuing the same mode of analysis, “The Stock Exchange” locates the stock market in a particular legitimating and sustaining social context in England (Weber 1978). Even great charismatic figures, he tells us in Ancient Judaism, such as the Old Testament prophets, must be understood as embedded within a specific social context defined by the weakening of a centralized monarchy and “a certain minimum of intellectual culture...” (Weber 1968, p. 486; see also Weber 1952; Kalberg 1994a).

Weber sees, however, a further significant way in which patterned social action in embedded in a context, namely, within a past. His understanding of societies as only loosely held together and as constituted from an array of competing, reciprocally interacting domains of action unfolding at varying speeds – the religious, economic, legal, rulership, status groups, family, and clan (Sippe) domains (see Weber 2009, pp. 86-88; Weber 1968; Kalberg 1994b, pp. 149-51) – persuades him that past developments were extremely important for any explanation of the present. It convinces him as well that customs, conventions, laws, relationships of domination, and values originating in the distant past deeply permeate the present in multiple, though often obscure, ways. He rejects as far too global all modes of conceptualization that view societies as either “traditional” or “modern”, as a Gemeinschaft or a Gesellschaft, as does today the structural-functionalist school of modernization and political development (Weber 1949b, pp. 75-76).

Weber also opposes the view that past action, if influential in the present at all, remains circumscribed in its impact and endowed with little long-term, significant consequence. The past may live on for millennia within the interstices of the present, he asserts, and even within its central core. Even the abrupt appearance of “the new” – even the extraordinary power of charismatic leadership – never fully ruptures ties to the past: “That which has been handed down from the past becomes everywhere the immediate precursor of that taken in the present as valid” (Weber 1968, p. 29; transl. altered). Far from being banished, history interacts with the present to such an extent that, unless its influence is acknowledged, any attempt to explain the uniqueness of the present remains a hopeless undertaking (see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 158-67; Kalberg 1997).

Weber calls attention, for example, to the many ways in which the values of ascetic Protestantism, originating in seventeenth-century colonial America, endure in weakened and secularized forms in American daily life to this day: an unambivalent support of capitalism and a self-reliant individualism, a distrust of the state (especially the strong state), a basic orientation to the future and the “opportunities” it offers, an intolerance of perceived evil, a high rate of regular giving to charity organizations, a quick and nimble capacity to form civil associations, and a strong belief in the capacity of individuals to set goals, shape their own destinies, and to be upwardly mobile. Despite vast structural transformation – bureaucratization, urbanization, and the rise of modern capitalism – such legacies from the past endure today, he argues, penetrating into and interweaving with the homogenizing “structural constraints” of industrialism (Weber 2005, pp. 277-89; Weber 2009, pp. 141-59 and 200-04). Rather than being understood as new and radically divorced from the past, modern societies are best conceptualized as mixtures – even dynamic mixtures – of past and present.

This idea – the embeddedness of social action and social groupings on the one hand deeply in contexts of further social groupings and on the other hand in the past – stands at the foundation of his opposition to analogies, purely structuralist arguments, diffusionist schools, and all forms of Ideengeschichte (Kalberg 1994b, pp. 46-50, 98-102, 168-72).

  1. The Opposition to Analogies. Analogies downplay, Weber contends, the individual nature of social groupings and the particular context within which each developed. He never tires of attacking the near-obsessive search by his colleagues for analogies across ancient, medieval, and modern civilizations (e.g., capitalism, slavery, modes of organizing the economy). “Abstract uniformities”, such as parallels, historical constants, and universal stages of development, remain incapable, Weber insists, of offering causal explanations of the unique case, however useful they may be as preliminary heuristic tools to illuminate where similarities between groupings begin and end. The historically-saturated character of Weber’s causal analyses unveil the analogy as a very blunt instrument (see Kalberg 1994b, p. 83).[3]

  2. The Opposition to Social Structures. Although Weber’s types of rulership are familiar, it must be emphasized that the bureaucratic, patrimonial, feudal, and patriarchal forms of rulership are all ideal types – and hence analytic constructs rather than depictions of any particular empirical reality. Once the latter is addressed (as it is whenever Weber undertakes causal analyses), the types of rulership are discussed in terms of the particular context within which they exist. This holds, he insists, even in the case of the bureaucracy, a type of organization frequently viewed as homogeneous across cultures and as capable of eradicating all cultural differences. Weber notes explicitly, for example, the varying prestige of civil servants within bureaucracies and the manner in which “bureaucratization” varies:

    “Usually the social esteem of the officials is especially low where the demand for expert administration and the hold of status conventions are weak. This is often the case in new settlements by virtue of the great economic opportunities and the great instability of their social stratification: witness the United States.”

    Weber 1968, p. 960

    “One must in every individual historical case analyze the special direction in which bureaucratization develops. For this reason, it must remain an open question whether the power of bureaucracy is, without exception, increasing in the modern states in which it is spreading... Thus, whether the power of bureaucracy as such increases cannot be decided a priori.”

    Weber 1968, p. 991; transl. altered

    And, of course, as vividly apparent in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, an “economic form” (a type of capitalism, for example) must be separated strictly from an “economic ethic” (the “traditional” or “rational” frame of mind). The “form”, to Weber, never causes the ethic; modern capitalism did not give birth to the spirit of capitalism. Indeed, ethics and forms may stand empirically in quite heterogeneous relationships (Weber 2009, pp. 74-83; see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 28-29 and 54-55). Even that most rigorous and coercive formal structure – the sect – fails to call forth homogeneous patterned action:

    “Viewed externally, numerous Hinduist religious communities appear to be ‘sects’ indistinguishable from the religious communities of the West. The sacred value, however, and the manner in which salvation was mediated, pointed in radically opposed directions.”

    Weber 2009, p. 250

    An emphasis upon diverse subjective meanings and motives separates Weber’s sociology at its core from all structural approaches (see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 24-39, 58-60).

  3. The Opposition to Diffusionism. This same emphasis upon the individual case and its embeddedness within indigenous constellations of groupings, and hence its uniqueness, places Weber’s sociology in firm opposition to all diffusionist schools. Cultural “transfer” in a linear manner is precluded. The focus of Weber’s entire methodology upon Verstehen and the subjective meaning of persons in demarcated groupings, as well as its orientation to individual cases and their explanation, stands in opposition to diffusionism. Throughout his comparative-historical texts innumerable examples illustrate how expansion and diffusion are blocked by resisting groupings.

  4. The Opposition to Intellectual History. Weber’s embedding of patterned social action in further groupings, and of social groupings in configurations of groupings, sets his sociology in the strictest opposition to all Hegelian views that give precedence in any way to ideas as the “moving forces” of history. Although Weber’s principled multicausality (see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 50-77) places his sociology in strict contrast to all monocausal modes of explanation, his emphasis upon a pluralism of social carriers (soziale Träger) demonstrates equally forcefully his opposition to all forms of Idealism.

    If to have an impact of interest to sociologists, ideas and values (as well as power, rulership, economic interests, and traditions) must acquire a carrier grouping. On this point Weber remains adamant throughout his sociology. He emphasizes also that attention to the particular strength of social carriers, in each case, must occur. Are they firmly anchored indigenously and powerful enough to resist opposing carriers? Might the capacity of sects to carry social action be different than that of churches? Status groups, classes, and organizations serve as the most prominent bearers of patterned social action in Weber’s sociology. The coherent set of values (the “status ethic”) of the civil servant stratum (duty, punctuality, the orderly performance of tasks, disciplined work habits, respect for hierarchy, etc.), for example, can expand broadly if this stratum becomes cohesive and firmly rooted in numerous bureaucracies.

    This orientation to social carriers led Weber to examine, for example, whether a powerful bourgeois class could crystallize in China, as it had in the West, to promote an ethic of formal equality, and the extent to which such a class could crystallize to “serve as a political force and promote a ‘civic’ development in the Western sense” in a pre-Meiji Japan dominated by an antagonistic status group: the samurai (see Weber 1958, p. 273; Weber 1951, pp. 137, 142). A great continuity of social carriers across epochs has been typical in some civilizations; the Chinese literati, for example, served as the central carriers of Confucianism in China for more than one thousand years. As Weber notes: “Unless the concept ‘autonomy’ is to lack all precision, its definition presupposes the existence of a bounded group of persons which, though membership may fluctuate, is determinable” (Weber 1968, p. 699; transl. altered).[4]

    This major orientation of Weber’s comparative-historical sociology toward social carriers requires a further focus upon the situating of social action: its embeddedness in groupings must capture our attention. His insistence upon locating social action and social groupings contextually, however, stands opposed to the notion that patterned action can be “transferred”, as a homologous unity, across social milieu. Unequal entities (or, to follow the above terminology) – unique and particular social groupings – are again placed at the forefront. Large-scale comparisons constitute for this reason, in addition to the centrality of verstehende procedures, Weber insists, a very delicate exercise.

1.3 Societal Domains and the Rejection of Organic Holism

Weber’s sociology opposes all approaches that view societies as quasi-organic, holistic units and their separate “parts” as components fully integrated into a larger “system” of objective structures. All organic schools of thought comprehend the larger collectivity within which the individual acts as a delimited structure, and social action and interaction as particularistic expressions of this “whole”. German romantic and conservative thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as well as Comte and Durkheim in France and structural-functionalism in England and the United States, fall within this tradition.

Organic theories postulate a degree of societal integration questionable to Weber. He never viewed societies as clearly formed and closed entities with delineated boundaries. Seeing in history frequent fragmentation, tension, open conflict, and the use of power, he rejects the notion that societies can be best comprehended as unified. Moreover, if organic theories are utilized other than as a means of facilitating preliminary conceptualization, Weber contends, a high risk of “reification” arises: “society” and the “organic whole” may become viewed as the fundamental unit of analysis rather than the subjective meaning of individuals in groups (Weber 1968, pp. 14-15). This may occur to such an extent that persons are incorrectly understood as simply the “socialized products” of societal forces. Weber argues, to the contrary, that persons must be conceptualized as capable of interpreting their social realities, bestowing subjective meaning upon selected aspects of it, and initiating independent action.

Moreover, the emphasis in his sociology upon societal domains (Lebensphäre, Lebensbereiche, gesellschaftliche Ordnungen) stands diametrically opposed to all societal organicism. Weber argues in Economy and Society (E&S) that social action – significantly though not exclusively – crystallizes in a number of domains: the economy, rulership, religion, law, status groups, and universal organizations (family and clan) arenas.[5] To him, persons are “placed into various life-spheres, each of which is governed by different laws” (Weber 2005, p. 267). E&S undertakes the huge task of delimiting the major realms within which social action significantly congeals. It then identifies the themes, dilemmas, or sets of questions indigenous to each arena. For example, a focus upon explanations for suffering, misfortune, and misery distinguishes the domain of religion, while the sphere of rulership is concerned with the reasons why persons attribute legitimacy to commands and their motives for rendering obedience. The status groups’ realm involves social honor and defined ways of leading a life (Lebensführung). In this manner, analytic boundaries for each arena are established (Kalberg 1994b, pp. 95-116)

Weber conceptualizes the various domains as “interacting” with one another; at times they stand in relationships of elective affinity (Wahlverwandtschaft) and at other times in relationships of antagonism; that is, the “autonomy” of a single sphere in relation to other realms varies. Moreover, they develop at varying speeds (see, e.g., Weber 2009, pp. 87-88).[6] Their relationship to each other remains a question for empirical investigation, as do their degree of autonomy and tempo of development. Hence, an a priori unity of societies or civilizations cannot be assumed if one follows Weber’s foundational premises.[7] Variation reigns and heuristic research tools – such as societal domains – must be formulated to capture this variation; empirical investigation is necessary on a case-by-case basis. Some distinct cases – Weber notes classical China and Egypt, which are often referred to as “ossified” (versteinert) – are more unified than others.[8]

Weber’s forceful rejection of organic holism renders the execution of large-scale comparisons more delicate and complex. Similar to evolutionism (see below), societal holism enables a certain “standardization of units” and implies a roughly similar “location” of each society’s major “parts” within the larger whole. Hence, a certain equalization of units appears plausible – that is, an array of cross-societal equivalencies becomes visible. An overarching framework is offered that facilitates comparisons across parts.

In locating subjective meaning in vast arrays of patterned social action and in demarcated groupings situated contextually in relation to one another, and in utilizing societal domains as its point of reference for large-scale comparisons rather than “society”, Weber’s sociology opposes the organicism framework. His focus upon societal realms, and the variety of ways they crystallize into relationships of alignment or opposition, is well-suited to this emphasis on the uniqueness of cases. However, it appears to banish the minimal common ground indispensable for viable large-scale comparisons.

1.4 The Rejection of Evolution

Weber’s sociology of empirical reality (Wirklichkeits-wissenschaft) breaks decisively from all nineteenth century evolutionary schools, whether those of Hegelian, Marxian, or Darwinian lineage. Indeed, his repudiation of these approaches provided the precondition for the focus of his sociology upon empirical reality and subjective meaning. Having rejected all quasi-theocentric “necessity” – whether in the form of Smith’s guiding hand, Marx’s class conflict and stages of historical development, Hegel’s spirit, or Ranke’s Christian Humanism – as a driving historical force, the social action of persons now rose to the forefront in his sociology as the point of departure for all causal explanation.

Only an empirically-based, radically multicausal methodology can unveil the contours of the past and the present, and the ways in which social change occurs, he insists. Social science research must now be informed by acknowledgment of a flux and flow across a multitude of patterned action-orientations in a variety of societal domains. This continuous movement knew no causal “resting point” where particular social groups prevailed (Weber 1968, p. 341). Whether history assumed a “direction” remained a question for empirical investigation.

However, this position rendered large-scale comparisons all the more complex, for the nineteenth century’s measuring rod – the extent to which evolution along a particular pathway occurred – had vanished. Had other civilizations reached the same degree of “advancement” and “progress” as the modern West? This firm standard, which charted out directions, half-way points, and end-points, had allowed comparisons, “measurements”, and evaluation to take place in a straightforward, unproblematic fashion (once an array of presuppositions had been accepted). Indeed, terminology (“feudalism”, “modernity”) had acquired a foundation, and dichotomies (Gemeinschaft / Gesellschaft, tradition / modernity, etc.) and analogies became viable. An overarching, quasi-theocentric framework – a closed theoretical scaffolding – banished extreme contingency from the research process, thereby facilitating large-scale comparisons and even bestowing a halo upon them.

Fundamental aspects of Weber’s fully secular and anthropocentric methodology,[9] which lacked even a sublimated teleology, prohibited utilization of such generalized measuring rods, let alone an “evolutionary axis” and point of departure. A sociology rooted in Verstehen, empirical reality, open-ended models (ideal types), subjective meaning and a search to define it in varying social contexts, an insistence upon the embeddedness of social action, and a non-parallel unfolding of societal domains could not bestow an aura of legitimacy upon Western-centric value configurations.[10]

While threatening to the core all “superiority of the West” assumptions, the Weberian methodology devoid of a fixed point of orientation implied an unequivocal advantage for research: social scientists could now investigate “the other” on its own terms. An occluding of comparisons by overarching assumptions, teleologies, and axes no longer occurred. “Unconstrained” empirical studies could now investigate subjective meaning in the East and West, and in the ancient, medieval, and modern epochs.[11] Yet how was this to take place? How can comparisons be conducted once all forms of evolutionism and quasi-evolutionism, as well as organic holism and all “abstract”, societal-level concepts, are rejected? This “anthropocentric” and “empirical” turn gave birth to a new field of discourse: the methodology of comparative research.[12]

2 Macro Comparisons Are Possible: The Usefulness of Ideal Types

Despite Weber’s precautions, his texts obviously undertake macro comparisons – indeed on a continuous basis, particularly in E&S and The Economic Ethics of the World Religions (Weber 1951, 1952, 1958). He is the quintessential comparative sociologist, one who, as noted, seeks uninterruptedly to isolate uniqueness through rigorous experiments. In the sustained manner pursued by Weber, no other sociologist has undertaken comparisons, in order precisely to define the causes that distinguished the particular developmental routes followed by China, India, and the West, explicitly at the level of civilizations.

Hence, despite his emphasis upon subjective meaning and Verstehen, his attention to the uniqueness of “the other”, his strong embedding of patterned social action in delimited contexts, and his rejection of organic holism and evolutionism, an exploration of how Weber nonetheless articulates a comparative methodology and offers rigorous, large-scale comparisons in his empirical work must be undertaken. The ideal type stands at the center. Its major features, usefulness, achievements, and limitations must be briefly examined.

Ideal types, rather than raw empirical reality (“historical narrative”) on the one hand or “society” on the other hand, distinguish the level of analysis of Weber’s research. As heuristic aids, these models facilitate the researcher’s grasp upon and comprehension of an amorphous and ceaselessly flowing reality, and assist the clear conceptualization of the particular case or development under investigation. Ideal types aim, by analytically capturing patterned orientations of meaningful action, neither to provide an exhaustive description of empirical reality nor to introduce general laws or theories. They never seek to capture overarching differentiation, universalization, or grand-scale evolutionary processes, nor do they aim to document a global shift from “traditional” to “modern” societies or from the Gemeinschaft to the Gesellschaft.

Hence, ideal types must not be equated with the general models formulated alike by structural-functionalists and World Systems theorists. They differ owing to a) their origins in empirical reality rather than a theoretical scheme, b) their purely heuristic purposes, and c) the delimited character of their generalizations. They preclude all axiomatic statements on the nature of “society”, social order, and social change. Only these analytic tools, Weber insists, capture that which is central to his causal sociology: “individual concrete patterns” and the causal explanation of uniqueness (see Weber 1949b, pp. 99-100; 72; see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 83-95).

Weber’s sociology offers a comparative methodology largely owing to the capacity of ideal types to depict the patterns of social action prevalent in a delineated grouping – that is, the subjectively meaningful action that is dominant. The ideal type “Puritan” indicates the meaningfulness of intense work to this group of persons, the “Confucian” articulates the meaningfulness of classical learning, devotion to one’s family, and obedience to familial authority in a bounded grouping, and the “civil servant” implies the meaningfulness among specific groupings of notions of duty, hierarchy, specialized tasks, and respect for the organizational office.

Ideal types, as bounded realms of subjective meaning presented in crystallized forms, are well-suited for comparative analysis. As heuristic tools that succinctly capture essences, they unveil differences across major empirical groupings: the Confucian can be compared to the Puritan (see Weber 1951, pp. 226-49), exemplary to missionary prophecy, Continental law to Common law, feudalism to patrimonialism, mysticism to asceticism, adventure capitalism to modern capitalism, the Lutheran economic ethic to the Puritan ethic, Buddhism to Hinduism, etc., etc. Again, each ideal type represents a grouping, and each grouping implies arrays of patterned action-orientations meaningful to group members. Clear contrasts can be drawn in respect to the action meaningful in specific groups – as well as implications in regard to large questions of interest to the researcher. Does, for example, the economic ethos of a particular salvation religion accelerate or oppose the development of modern capitalism?

Indeed, this capacity of ideal types – to offer clear definitions of the patterns of meaningful action within groupings – appears to invite comparative research, whether within or across societies and civilizations. And comparisons of ideal types readily define uniqueness – an accomplishment that leads immediately to the questions central to Weber: queries regarding the causal origins of this uniqueness. How, then, Weber frequently asks at this point, did a particular configuration of groupings in one social milieu call forth a delineated group, yet similar configurations in a different setting failed to do so? Why did “economic interests pave the way [in the West] for the rule of a stratum of jurists who were professionally trained in rational law (...) and why then did capitalist interests not call forth this stratum of jurists and this type of law in China or India” (Weber 2009, p. 215)? The isolation of causal patterns of action requires, he argues, always comparative procedures: “One can only define the specific characteristics of, for example, the medieval city (...) after one has established which of these characteristics were lacking in other cities (classical Chinese, Islamic). That is a general rule” (Weber 1914, pp. xxiv).

However, the capacity of ideal types to offer clear definitions – and hence to invite comparisons across these constructs and a causal explanation of the differences – constitutes only one usage of this analytic construct relevant to comparative research. The usefulness of Weber’s “dynamic”, “contextual”, “affinity”, “antagonism”, and “developmental” models must also be noted briefly.[13]

Dynamic Models. Many of Weber’s ideal types are not in any sense linear. Rather, frequently they depict an assemblage of dynamically interact action patterns. Importantly for comparative research, hypotheses are formulated within these ideal types regarding causal relationships. In other words, propositions about regular action in empirical reality are contained within these models. Hence, each “dynamic ideal type” inherently raises comparative questions: under what circumstances are certain hypothesized causal relationships empirically validated? These models can be utilized as orientational guides in comparative research.[14]

Contextual Models. Hypothesis-forming contextual models are prominent in E&S. Indeed, all of Weber’s substantive texts testify that contexts of regular action are endowed with the capacity to allow, utilize, and even cultivate new patterns of subjectively meaningful action or, on the other hand, to circumscribe and hinder them. According to him, patterned action acquires causal significance only owing to a conducive context of regular action. Social settings alter and shape these patterns. Historical events, charismatic personalities, an accumulation of power in particular groups, and the strength (or weakness) of carrier strata, for example, may cause a constellation of action-orientations to shift slightly – leading to a transformation, elimination, or merging of patterns of action and the formation of new groupings.

The contextual models of WG, as theoretical frameworks that articulate hypotheses regarding regular action, all serve to assist conceptualization and the isolation of significant causal action-orientations. Assessment of their postulates, to Weber, is always a comparative endeavor.[15]

Affinity and Antagonism Models. Ideal types often chart analytic relationships. These “logical interactions” of patterned action constitute, for Weber, hypothesis-forming models that assist conceptualization of amorphous realities and empirical patterned action. He refers to these analytic relationships as ones either of “elective affinity” or “antagonism”.

A compatible intermingling of two or more ideal types indicates the existence of an elective affinity model. A non-deterministic, though typical and reciprocal, interaction of patterned regular action is hypothesized. Inner relationships of “adequacy” are implied. A mutual favoring, attraction, and even strengthening is involved whenever ideal types coalesce in a relationship of elective affinity. Each such interaction model involves an inner affinity between two or more separate ideal types rather than a common opposition to external constraint rooted in sheer power. Antagonistic relationships, on the other hand, indicate hypotheses of “inadequacy” and a clash, a hindering, and even an excluding of the patterned action-orientations implied by each ideal type. As a result of such irrevocable antinomies, Weber’s model-building forecloses a dissolution of fundamental antagonisms in an ideal, or higher, synthesis, as occurs with “value-generalization” and “adaptive upgrading” in Parsonian functionalism (Weber 1966, 1971).

Logical interactions are postulated in E&S, for example, between types of rulership and types of economies, salvation paths and types of economies, types of law and types of economies, types of rulership and types of law, universal organizations and salvation paths, universal organizations and types of economies, and specific status groups and types of economies. In what ways does charismatic rulership stand in a relationship of antagonism to the rational economy? What is the character of the affinity between a certain status group (intellectuals, peasants) and certain religious orientations (the salvation path of mysticism; ritual and magic-based religions)? What is the nature of the opposition of civil servants, feudal nobles, and traders and financiers to salvation religions? Hence, these models, rather than taking Western modernization processes, the development of the state, or modern capitalism as their point of reference, remain delimited in scope. Each offers a theoretical framework that facilitates clear conceptualization and provides an analytic location for a particular relationship of regular action. Comparisons across models isolate unique configurations of groupings, the causal origins of which can then be investigated empirically through in-depth research.[16]

Developmental Models. Developmental models chart a course of patterned action in groups that implies a number of stages. Hypotheses are formulated at each stage regarding the further path of regular action.

Weber’s developmental models also serve as constructs that provide the researcher with clear and practical organizational mechanisms. Each can be utilized not only as a “yardstick” to assist the clear definition of a particular empirical development under investigation, but also as a theoretical framework that facilitates a conceptual grasp upon – and analytic location of – a series of empirical developments. At each stage delimited hypotheses regarding causal patterns of action are formulated. Each postulate can be evaluated by specialists oriented to the empirical development at hand. Weber formulates, for example, developmental models driven (in part or entirely) by interests (the closure of social relationships; the routinization of charisma; see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 120-26), by formal rationalization (the development of the free market and the state; see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 128-35), and by theoretical rationalization (the development of other-worldly salvation religions and modern science; see Kalberg 1994b, pp. 135-40; Kalberg 2001b). Each model hypothesizes various stages through which regular action passes. Hence, each construct can be utilized a) on behalf of a clear conceptualization of a particular development and its distinct causes, and b) as an heuristic tool offering guidelines for an historical investigation of these causes. Each model implicitly poses the further causal query: how did an important development ran its course in one setting, yet fail to do so in another. Only in-depth comparative research allows satisfactory answers.

The dynamic, contextual, affinity, antagonism, and developmental “limited analytic generalizations” exemplify the model-building procedures prominent in E&S. They constitute important organizing mechanisms for empirical, comparative research. All testify to the strong focus in this conceptual treatise upon a theoretical framing, in a demarcated fashion rather than as “abstract theory”, of empirical cases, relationships, and developments.

This task – the formulation of delineated generalizations – stands at the marrow of Weber’s comparative-historical sociology. His models aim to isolate uniqueness and hence must be seen as pivotal to his comparative sociology. As constructs they can be utilized as standards for comparisons and by providing clear definitions they comprise the first step toward the causal explanation of unique cases and developments. To Weber:

“A genuinely critical comparison (...) should be concerned with the distinctiveness of each of (...) two develoments that [are] finally so different, and the purpose of the comparison must be the causal explanation of the difference.”

Weber 1976, p. 385; emph. orig

Whether Weber’s models are utilized, or those of others, a model-buildingprocedure remains indispensable in all comparative research, his methodology insists.[17]

3 Macro Comparisons: Achievements and Limitations

Weber’s mode of comparative analysis, resting upon the utilization of ideal types, never strives to provide an exhaustive description of empirical reality, introduce general laws or theories, define overarching differentiation, universalization, and evolutionary processes, predict the future, or document a global shift from “traditional” to “modern” societies. Rather, it aims to explain the particular orientations of meaningful action held by persons in groups, to offer a clear conceptualization of unique cases and developments, and to provide “adequate” causal explanations of them. What advantages and limitations characterize Weber’s research strategies and procedures?

His open-ended constructs – his ideal types – fail to introduce a priori assumptions into the research process. These models, as analytic tools only, render no general pronouncements in respect to the nature of social life; whether, for example, “class conflict” proves salient remains a question for empirical, case-based investigation. Whether “societal integration” congeals and “social order” exists, likewise, cannot be addressed in general – and theoretical – terms. Similarly, whether exploitation and the use of power is more likely in societies – or harmony – similarly must be investigated empirically. Whether a civic sphere and judicial system are well-developed in a specific industrial society, even to the extent that corruption is lessened, remains a question for research by specialists.

Surely, defined by reference alone to technological innovations, evolution has taken place – and particularly in the last three centuries in the West. Yet Weber focuses his glance on less quantifiable realms. He asks, for example, what did the introduction of modern capitalism and a “rational” economic ethos mean for “how we live today” and for the “type of person” (Menschentyp) likely to become dominant (for example, the bureaucratic functionary)? Whether evolution (in some specifically pre-defined manner) has occurred, or “modernization”, must be addressed in a very cautious, case-by-case, and empirical manner.

Weber’s sociology aims to “contribute to the technology of controlling life by calculating external objects as well as man’s activities”, offers “methods of thinking [and] tools and training for thought”, and clarity in respect to the interpretive understanding of patterned social action and its causal explanation (Weber 2005, pp. 333-34; 1949a, pp. 20-22). It rejects all attempts to formulate in the name of science, even after broadranging and detailed research, values. Similarly, Weber scorns the view that values “invented by science” can – or should – serve as valid guidelines for our lives. Finally, he opposes the charting of putatively evolutionary processes.[18] Hence, Weber’s sociology denies support to all invidious dualisms, ethnocentrism, and provincialism – yet refuses to bestow praise upon cosmopolitanism and universalism. His empirical-causal – and comparative – analyses are played out on a different stage. Here Weber aims, for example, to compare and contrast the effects upon practical activity of beliefs held by groups of people in Confucian teachings as opposed to the effects upon practical activity of beliefs held by groups of people in Puritan doctrines (see Weber 2009, pp. 275-89).