Max Weber's Analysis of Modernity

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  • 0:00 Weber & Modernity
  • 0:47 Weber & Rationality
  • 2:42 Criticism of Rationality
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson discusses how rationality is the defining feature of modern societies according to Max Weber. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Weber & Modernity

Did you know that the ancient Greeks used to think the sun was drawn across the sky every day by a chariot? Or that lightning and thunder were a product of the Greek god Zeus, displeased with his people? People throughout history have had interesting theories of why things happen. Their ideas and beliefs are powerful things that affect how they behaved.

As time progressed however, ideas and beliefs change. The advent of the Industrial Revolution was one such event that brought about change. The Industrial Revolution is often considered the marking point where societies began to move out of their traditional social patterns and instead move towards modernity.

One such sociologist spent much of his life studying the movement towards modernity. His name was Max Weber. In this lesson, we will delve into Weber's theories of how ideas and beliefs led to modernity.

Weber & Rationality

For Weber, modernity meant replacing a traditional worldview with a rational way of thinking. In pre-industrial societies, tradition acts as a constant brake on change. Weber meant 'tradition' to mean values and beliefs passed from generation to generation. Traditional people are guided by the past, and they feel a strong attachment to long-established ways of life. They consider particular actions right and proper, mostly because they have been accepted for so long. In other words, 'That's how we've always done it, so let's keep doing it.' The adage 'If it's not broken, don't fix it' is another way to sum up this mentality. While tradition is not bad in and of itself, you can hopefully see how this mentality can prevent new ways of thinking and innovation.

On the other hand, Weber felt that that people in modern societies favored rationality, or a way of thinking that emphasizes deliberate, matter-of-fact calculation of the most efficient way to accomplish a particular task. In other words, sentimental ties to the past had no place in a rational worldview and instead, tradition just becomes one more piece of information to use when deciding the best way to do something. For a modern person, Weber saw them as constantly weighing present action and future consequences.

For example, if there was a person who was trying to decide where to go to college, a traditional person would probably pick the same school that his or her parents went to. But a rational person would use this piece of information, plus maybe such things as how much it costs, where it is located, what courses of study they offer, etc. Weber even categorized the types of rational people that exist in a rational world. There is the scientist, who is committed to the orderly discovery of truth; the capitalist, who is committed to the pursuit of profit; and the bureaucrat, who is committed to a system of rules.

Criticism of Rationality

On the surface, it seems like a rational worldview is a good thing. I mean doesn't it make sense to actively determine the most efficient way to do something? Rationality has led to many amazing things, like improved technology and medicine. However, Weber also felt that modernity and the increase in industrialization led to a sense of disenchantment. He felt that everything in life would now be whittled down to basic calculations of 'yes' or 'no.'

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