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Max Weber
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Sociologist, economist, philosopher

Christoph Ricking / cmk
April 21, 2014

Max Weber was one of the world's most influential thinkers. Researcher Edith Hanke tells DW how, 150 years after his birth, the German sociologist, economist and philosopher continues to influence the world.


Max Weber's body of work spans many fields, from science to politics to philosophy. Weber coined terms like objectivity and value freedom, bureaucracy and charisma. His theories have greatly influenced the social sciences to this day.

One of his most important books, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," describes the close relationship between the Protestant work ethic and the beginning of industrialization and modern capitalism in Western Europe. A later book, "Economy and Society," remains a classic in the field of sociology.

DW: Max Weber was born 150 years ago. Is he still relevant today?

Edith Hanke: With his birthday [on April 21], we are, of course, seeing a renewed examination of his life and work in Germany - in the media, for example. But I've noticed an even greater focus on Weber abroad. I was in Paris last week visiting French researchers interested in Weber. There, it's compulsory reading for high school students. They have a much broader knowledge of Max Weber there; in Germany, his ideas are mostly discussed in small academic circles.

Why is that?

I don't think we're really aware of how big a deal Weber is. He's really one of Germany's major cultural exports, in the intellectual and academic world. The majority of Germans don't actually know this.

Which countries are particularly interested in Weber and his work?

Lately, Weber has been of particular interest to countries in the emerging markets, mainly in Brazil, Mexico, China and Turkey.

Edith Hanke
Hanke: Germany is not really aware of Weber's global reachImage: privat

Why there?

In my opinion, societies that are undergoing radical economic, political or social change rely on Weber to understand these changes. It's often the intellectual class that knows of Weber and draws on his ideas. They're trying to grasp the rapid change using Weber's categories. This generally means the transformation of agrarian societies into pre-industrial and then industrialized societies. This is much more than just a change of production processes, but also - according to Weber - a change in mentality. And this can, of course, be expressed socially, but also politically: people want to be more involved in politics. These are quite fundamental processes, and it's my impression that Weber is very important in this area.

Weber's work doesn't only focus on the social sciences but also economics, history, culture and politics. Are his ideas widely received, or is there one area where he is most well known?

For the most part, the focus is on Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," a book that he wrote in 1904 and 1905. In the text, he tries to explain the emergence of capitalism by linking it to the special characteristics of strict Protestantism, and how this attitude shaped capitalism in its nascent stage. This text still plays quite a central role.

Another important work is "Economy and Society," a very influential text which is regarded as one of sociology's major works. Though it depends: there are countries, such as Italy or Spain, that are more drawn to Weber's ideas. And his political writing is also noteworthy. It's interesting to see which countries are drawn to which aspects of Weber's works. This is related to cultural idiosyncrasies.

Does the reception of Weber's ideas have significant implications?

There's a very interesting example from the Central Anatolia region, in Turkey. There, one can really speak of an Islamic Calvinism. In recent years, this has been a very economically successful region that has adopted Weber's concept of the Protestant work ethic. There, the economy largely consists of small and medium-sized businesses.

The civic model of self-governance, important to Weber's theories, also plays a major role there and can be tied to the economic gains. For example, schools are being financed and scholarships are being granted. People there are taking their lives into their own hands and to an extent freeing themselves from the central government in Ankara. Weber's work has played a specific role here and served as a model for a particular form of economic activity. But his work is being mixed with a completely different culture and religion.

Edith Hanke is the editor of the complete works of Max Weber, released by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich. Her research areas include the global reception of Max Weber and his work.

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