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Weberian Sociological Methods

Max Weber was exposed to four different methodological traditions used in the field of sociology directly or indirectly prior to his contributions to sociology. Most important of them are

  • Idealistic method developed by Kant and Hegel
  • Positivistic method used by Auguste Comte and Saint Simon,J.S Mills
  • Comparative method of Emile Durkheim
  • Dialectical Materialistic method of Karl Marx

The idealistic method adopted by Kant and Hegel advocated that the difference between statement of fact and statement of value is necessarily mitigated through the application of human mind meaning when statement of value explains what it ought to be, statement of fact indicates what it is.Consistent application of mind serves the dichotomy between the two. Hegel believes that mind is exclusively rational. Hence using this rational mind taking the help from rational thought man gets engaged in various kinds of discoveries, innovations to create and recreate human history. The knowledge about the reality is real and rational comes out of application of human mind. This approach is known as rational approach and idealistic approach as well.

The positivistic approach advocates that knowledge about the reality can be procured not by application of human mind but by observation, personal experience and experimentation. It is the sensory organ of human body that sees the reality. Hence knowledge about the reality should be understood through the application of empirical or positivistic method. The fundamental concern of positivism is to extend the methodology of natural science to the field of sociology. It advocates that both the disciplines should be using scientific method to study the reality in its every possible aspect.

Weber is not convinced either with empirical arguments or with the rational approach to study the reality. He advocates that behind every possible reality there is present natural causalities body of values forms of actions, source of motivations. Therefore every reality is a mixture of multiple attributes that cannot be studied either from rational stand pt or from empirical standpt. Weber asserts that every possible reality being multi dimensional no branch of knowledge can ever be able to study every possible dimension of reality.

Max weber criticizes the sociological commitment to the methods of science on the one hand and the application of the methods of science in the natural science on the other, He makes a distinction between the method of science and the philosophy of science. The methods of science are the steps, procedures used by the scientists to conduct research. The methods of observation, separation and verification are used in scientific research. To its contrast the philosophy of science is not concerned about the scientific procedures and methods rather it is concerned about the spirit and ethos of science. It believes that scientists being a professional body of people maintain objectivity while conducting a research. They maintain value neutrality and use relational rationality or substantive rationality while conducing research.

Spirit of science is not engaged in the compartmentalization of knowledge dividing them into natural versus social science or nomothetic versus ideographic disciplines. Knowledge is absolute, No possible branch of knowledge is absolutely objective or subjective. Subjectivity and objectivity are inter-twined and combined together explain the essence of reality.Weber believes that sociology should not make an attempt to go for first rate generalizations to study facts as facts rather it must have to use subjective meanings to objective reality following spirit of science rather than the methods of science.

To Weber mind always imposes a pattern on the sensory organs on the basis of which one explain the reality. Mind and matter, values and realities are complementary to each other. Thus effective negotiation between the both is the fundamental concern of sociological research. Weberian sociology makes an attempt to establish interlink age between the both considering that sociology is concerned with subjective understanding of objective realities.

Weber believes that collectivity doesn't have any life to think, feel or perceive. The basic unit of a social structure is social action. The concern of sociology is to understand the meanings associated with the action of the actor than mechanically studying action and its consequence using the methods of natural science. Sociology being concerned with problem of understanding, he introduces Verstehen method into the fold of sociology. He divides verstehen method in two types
Direct observational verstehen
Indirect explanatory verstehen

In case of the first method a researcher can look into the action of a body of people and predict the meaning behind their action and what they are going to do next. To its contrast indirect explanatory verstehen method should be used to understand the historic situations. The second method goes beyond observational method offering scope for the use of statistical method, historical method, comparative method, and explanatory method into the field of sociology.

The essence of reality can be addressed through sociological research but not the totality of reality. Sociology must have to admit its limitations while conducting research on a given theme to have comprehensive understanding about it. The method of verstehen is not an alternative to other methods in sociology. It is only a supplementary to the other methods according to Weber.He believes that verstehen method may help a sociologist to gather sufficient information about a given reality and the information collected may be used by the researcher to construct hypotheses about the same problem to research on the same the me.

Weber believes that verstehen method explains the goal of sociology and sociological research to achieve this goal it must have to use a well-defined methodology and that methodology is as open and elastic defined as Ideal Type.

Ideal type is a conceptual abstraction helping a sociologist to understand the essence of reality .The distinction between ideal type and actual type speaks about the intellectual dichotomy between Marx and Weber.When Marx believes that capitalism is real, Weber believes that to a sociological research. Hence a sociologist requires a mental frame of reference to understand the essence of real capitalism in the real place. Collecting inference from the writings of others and adding to it his own observational judgments about capitalism one can develop a mental frame of reference or a model or ideal type about capitalism to understand the essence of real capitalism implying that ideal type is a consciously developed model by sociologist to guide his research.

Sociology can develop ideal type on the descriptive concepts used in the field of other branches of social science-Weber finds out that the concepts like capitalism, democracy, authority, bureaucracy, religion are loosely defined in the field of political science, economics and anthropology. Centering around them a sociologist can develop an ideal type and using it he can study various forms of capitalism etc. This approach will facilitate sociology to go for comparison on the basis of which generalizations can also be made. This will introduce inter-disciplinary approach in the field of social sciences helping other branches of knowledge to take the help of sociological approach to authority or bureaucracy to research on the same theme in different other situations.

Weber is the first scholar to conceptualize that sociology is not a prescriptive discipline rather it is a descriptive and interpretative discipline. A sociologist necessarily pursues a vocation he should not be guiding either social rebellion nor should operate as the high-priest of the society. Rather the concern of the sociologist is to conduct and guide research in order to study the essence of the reality in a value-neutral and rational manner.