Ideal Type in Sociology

Instructor: Terry Haru

Terry has worked in mental health and has taught college social science courses. He has a doctorate in sociology and a master’s degree in counseling.

Learn what an ideal type is. This lesson will discuss how sociologists use the term ideal type, why they use it as a method of analysis, and the three ways they apply it.

Ideal Type in Everyday Conversation

In everyday conversation, we commonly think of an ideal type in terms of the best. So, if you're applying for college, your ideal type of college would be the one that best meets your academic, social, occupational, and financial needs and wants. One might also think of ideal type in terms of the average features of some social phenomenon; for example, the average characteristics found among residents of a large metropolitan area in contrast to residents in small rural towns.

Ideal Type in Sociology

In sociology, however, the ideal type means something very different from the best or the average.

Max Weber
Max Weber
heuristic devicea social phenomenon's most essential features whose totality makes up the purest form of that phenomenonno actual social phenomenon would possess all the characteristics as fully as the ideal type would describe it

Rationale for Ideal Type in Sociological Analysis

Weber believed historians of his day over-emphasized the uniqueness of social phenomena. He was also not satisfied with over-generalizations that could take place in the search for patterns, trends, and tendencies of social phenomena. For example - continuing with capitalism - none of the economies of the U.S., Japan, Peru, South Africa, and Australia is exactly alike. However, if we tried to understand only what makes each unique, we'd miss some things they have in common; that is, they all have capitalist economies. Yet saying they all have capitalist economies is too broad to understand what capitalism is. Weber believed the ideal type as an analytical tool could resolve this dilemma, no matter what social phenomenon sociologists looked at.

Ideal Type Helps to Understand Real Social Phenomena

Let's look at how an ideal type can help us understand what is real by comparing the reality of any social phenomena against the ideal type.

Again, for purposes of illustration, let's stick with the example of capitalism. One of its key features is that only the free market - unregulated buying and selling - determines economic activity. Another is that government does not interfere with market activity. Still another is that the primary means of production are privately owned and are used for the purpose of generating profit. If we identified all such key features, we'd have a good idea of what the ideal (or pure) type of capitalism looks like.

You might say, OK, it's nice to have a clear idea of what a pure capitalist economy (or any other social phenomenon) looks like, but what value is it if it doesn't fully represent reality? Good question! Here's how it is nonetheless valuable: by applying the ideal type to a real capitalist economy (or any other social phenomenon), it allows us to identify how closely the reality fits the ideal type or deviates from it. This offers a richer understanding of the reality.

To use another example, let's say a sociologist wants to understand the behavior and values of Baby Boomers (those born between 1946-1964). An ideal (pure) type of this generation would be applied to a sample of Baby Boomers to identify the similarities and differences, providing both real world commonalities as well as variations around them.

Ideal Type Facilitates Comparative Analysis

An ideal type also allows us to compare important similarities and differences between the same social phenomenon over time; for example, how has capitalism in America changed from 1815 to 2015? Or, we can use an ideal type to compare similarities and differences during the same period; for example, how does capitalism differ today in the U.S., Japan, Peru, South Africa, etc.?

Or, we could analyze Baby Boomers and Generation X (those born between 1965-1980) by comparing the ideal types of both with a sampling of people born in these periods. This would give us a portrait of their real world similarities and differences.

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