Bridging a gulf between rivals

Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology
November 13, 1998

Nowadays a buzzword in social science research is interdisciplinarity. Historians work with computer scientists, engineers with anthropologists, and even philosophers combine with business studies thinkers. So far has interdisciplinarity gone that some of the most interesting areas and intellectuals today are not even classifiable by disciplines - one thinks, for example, of cultural studies and the likes of David Harvey in these respects.

In spite of this, economics and sociology, two of the longest established social-science disciplines, remain widely separate and even hostile one to another. Mainstream economists focus on studying behaviour, and as such have built a formidable array of quantitative methods to develop their analyses. Sociologists centre on values and beliefs when they try to account for human behaviour, and economic interest scarcely gets a look in. In these ways, the disciplines go their different ways, economists counting transactions while sociologists examine moral codes. This gulf is especially odd given that Max Weber (1864-1920), an awesome intellect and one of the founders of sociology, spent much of his life, and all of his final years, trying to combine the two subjects. His key study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), is very well known as an attempt to chart the influence of religion on the rise of capitalism, and his little book that was put together posthumously from student notes, General Economic History, is a classic account of the development of economic organisation from primitive agriculture to modern capitalism. But his major work, Economy and Society (1922), contains much more than this that deserves close inspection from both disciplines. Here Weber set out his alternative to what he considered the outdated 19th-century tradition of political economy. In its place he proposed the study of social economics which had three main elements: economic theory, economic history, and economic sociology. At the core of this endeavour was Weber's classic insistence on meaning since there could never be an economic interest until people interpreted it as such (an observation which really ought to make econometricians hesitate in their confident application of advanced statistical techniques to behaviour). That focal concern characterises all adequate social economics.

Richard Swedberg is a professor of sociology at the University of Stockholm with a long interest in Weber as well as in economics. His examination of Weber's economic sociology is enormously learned and of an exceptional scholarly standard. In six chapters, it covers Weber's thought on the rise of western capitalism, his basic concepts of economic sociology and, in separate chapters, Weber's ideas on the relation of economics to politics, the law, and religion. All chapters may be read fruitfully by advanced scholars or novitiate undergraduates. No fewer than 100 of the book's 350 pages are given over to footnotes, and these are frequently illuminating in themselves. The book is beautifully produced and, at less than £20 for a hardback, will appeal to all Weber scholars and even to some undergraduates. It has to be said that - like Weber himself - it is a bit hard-going in places, but it is consistently accurate and impressively researched.

This book will contribute a good deal to the emerging field of economic sociology. Institutional economists, occupied in an unglamorous sub-sector of the discipline, will surely find here arguments for extending their range. Likewise, the book may well add support to the rising tide of rational-choice theory in sociology. The late James Coleman was the major exponent of this theoretical approach and Swedberg finds much to applaud in this project. Indeed, Coleman can arguably trace a more direct lineage to Weber than can those - very far apart from rational choice theorists, though much more numerous - who proclaim the primacy of erstehen (broadly, interpretation) for their own approaches to sociology. I find rational choice almost as dry as the dullest economics tome, in constant danger of evacuating human values from its accounts, however much it claims to be doing just the contrary. Still, it is commonplace nowadays to reinvent classics to suit whatever purposes one might have in mind. Just as good a case can be made for Weber as a prophet of postmodernity as it can for his being a precursor of rational-choice theory. I am not sure how much this will help to bridge the divide between sociology and economics, but Swedberg's impressive study makes a good case for trying to overcome it.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology

Author - Richard Swedberg
ISBN - 0 691 02949 0
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 315

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