Religion in

Studying Religion in Culture

Max Weber

Whereas the French sociologist Emile Durkheim has been influential of reductionist social theorists, the German sociologist and economist, Max Weber, has been just as influential of those scholars of religion who are part of what we could term the Verstehen [German, to understand, as in empathetically re-experiencing the feelings of another person] tradition which studies religion as a system of meanings (represented in part by the work of the U.S. anthropologist, Clifford Geertz). Weber's work is therefore part of a tradition intent on understanding the meaning-worlds of the people scholars study. However, he has also been profoundly influential on scholars who argue for the value-free, or objective, nature of science in distinction to the subjective nature of value-judgments. Having studied law, history, and theology early on, Weber earned his Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in 1889 with a dissertation entitled "The Medieval Commercial Associations"--a study of trading companies in medieval Italy and Spain. In the early to mid-1890s, he was a law professor at the University of Berlin and practiced law in Berlin as well. Taking a position at Freiburg University in 1894, Weber taught political economy and, in 1897, taught political science at Heidelberg University. However, after an ongoing nervous illness in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Weber left scholarship for a time, to return, from 1904 until his death, as a private scholar and editor, but without a university appointment (though he held a visiting appointment at the University of Vienna in the summer of 1917 and held an appointment in 1919 to the University of Munich). During the last fifteen years of his life, Weber edited an encyclopedia (Foundations of Social Economics), founded the German Sociological Society (1909), increasingly participated in public debates and journalism during the World War II years, participated in efforts to reform the post-War German government (along with being a member of the German Peace Delegation to Versailles, at the conclusion of the war), all the while producing what are today considered some of his most important cross-cultural and theoretical works on economics, ethics, and religion.

Major Works

The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1904)

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5)

"The Vocation of Science" and "The Vocation of Politics" (1919)

The Religion of China; Ancient Judaism; and The Religion of India (1916-19)

Economy and Society

The Sociology of Religion (1922)


"To define 'religion,' to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as this. Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study. The essence of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior. The external courses of religious behaviors are so diverse that an understanding of this behavior can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the subjective experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned--in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior's 'meaning'."

- from Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (1922)

Select Web Resources on Weber

Max Weber Studies

Web-based resources by and on Max Weber

Comprehensive edition of Max Weber's works

Encyclopedia of Religion and Society entry on Max Weber

Secondary Literature on Weber
and Religion

Gordon Marshall, In Search of the Spirit of Capitalism: An Essay on Max Weber's Protestant Ethic Thesis. Columbia University Press, 1982.

Brian Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, chapter 2. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Norman Birnbaum, "Weber, Max," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition. vol. 14, pp. 9710-9713. Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

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