The virtues of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A guest blogger at the Christian Science Monitor extols the virtues of Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Weber’s historical thesis is fascinating in itself, but what really makes the work is that it is a mini-study in how to historically investigate a social-science proposition, complete with asides on method w[h]ere Weber explains what he is doing. He takes two situations that are in most respects the same (that of German Catholics and that of German Protestants) and notes a crucial difference (besides religion): the two populations have significantly different degrees of participation in the capitalist mode of economic organization (as of 1905).Then, he asks whether the first-noted difference (in religion) could be to some extent responsible for the second (in economic circumstances). He systematically rejects alternative explanations as inadequate, and then shows why religion was, indeed, an important factor in the rise of capitalism.

It is interesting to see Weber’s classic as a methodological text.

Since I’ve always heard this book talk about from a sociological perspective, I would have liked to been able to read more in this post about how an economist would view this work. From the sociological end, this book is one of the first to suggest that “ideas matter” or “culture matters” for larger social structures. While Karl Marx argued that culture was the result of the economic base of society and Emile Durkheim was interested in how culture, rituals, and religion held society together, Weber argued that theological ideas could lead to cultural and economic changes.


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