Monthly Archives: February 2015

Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis, and in Modern Life

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Max Weber (1864–1920)

For my first post on Rational Action, I’d like to offer a summary of Max Weber’s classic analysis of rationality and social action in his posthumously published Economy and Society (E&S, 1922).1 This subject has not exactly wanted for attention. Weber’s discussion is unquestionably an important reference in twentieth-century thinking about rationality, and we will no doubt have ample opportunity to link back to this post in the future.

A central feature of Weber’s sociology was his belief that sociological inquiry should be grounded in the analysis of how individuals attach “meanings” to their “social actions.” For Weber, an action was social and subjectively meaningful to the actor insofar as it embodied some consideration concerning how others had acted and would act. Individuals’ social actions collectively gave rise to observed forms of social organization.

Rationality and Social Action

In Weber’s view, social actions could be classified into four types: “instrumentally rational (zweckrational),” “value-rational (wertrational),” “affectual,” and “traditional,” though he noted that this list was not necessarily “exhaustive” (E&S 1.1.2).

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