Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Change

Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists

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Herbert Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology
Max Weber [1864-1920]

Max Weber: On Social Evolution

An excerpt from Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

By Frank W. Elwell


Weber’s analysis of sociocultural change is based on cumulative changes in sociocultural systems, with changes in one component of society leading to changes in others, and eventually changes in the overall system itself. That Weber is a social evolutionist—that is, asserting cumulative systemic change—is attested to throughout his writings. As mentioned previously, he uses the term “evolution” extensively in his writings, even using it in several chapter and section headings. While he is far too much of a systems theorist to assert the near “single-causality” of Marx and his followers, he clearly gives material and structural factors great weight in his analysis of sociocultural change.[1]

Some have asserted that Weber went so far as to claim that the rationalization process itself was an inevitable evolutionary development. For example Gerth and Mills (1946/1958) characterize the rationalization process as Weber’s “philosophy of history” with the rise and fall of empires and nations, rulers, and classes progressively serving the drift toward a bureaucratized and rationalized world (51). And there are passages from Weber that support this, perhaps the most telling are remarks Weber made to the Association for Social Policy (Verein fur Sozialpolitik) in Vienna in 1909 in which he warned of the dangers of bureaucratization.  Perhaps because it was a political speech and not the careful scholarship he is known for, Weber was much more expressive of his personal reactions to bureaucracy, his predictions as to the evolutionary trajectory of the West, the growing bureaucratic juggernaut, and of his views of socialism and capitalism:

It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving toward bigger ones--a state of affairs which is to be seen once more, as in the Egyptian records, playing an ever increasing part in the spirit of our present administrative systems, and especially of its offspring, the students. This passion for bureaucracy enough to drive one to despair. It is as if in politics. . . we were to deliberately to become men who need "order" and nothing but order, become nervous and cowardly if for one moment this order wavers, and helpless if they are torn away from their total incorporation in it. That the world should know no men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught up, and the great question is, therefore, not how we can promote and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parceling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life…

It is apparent that today we are proceeding towards an evolution which resembles (the ancient kingdom of Egypt) in every detail, except that it is built on other foundations, on technically more perfect, more rationalized, and therefore much more mechanized foundations.  The problem which besets us now is not:  how can this evolution be changed?--for that is impossible, but: what will come of it? (Mayer 1944, Appendix A 127).[2]

More famously (and traditionally more available) Weber (1904/1930) strikes similar themes in the closing paragraphs of The Protestant Ethic. :

This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer….In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved (181-182).

There are several things I want to call to your attention about the passages from the Protestant Ethic quoted above. First, note how in the first paragraph Weber ties the social order “to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” which now determine the lives of all. Capitalism, Weber believes, is one of the primary carriers of bureaucracy and rationalization, and he sees its triumph as having dire consequences for the entire society, specifically, an iron cage in which social life is dominated by bureaucratic organization and centered on the acquisition of material goods. Also note that the only limit he sees on the continuing mechanization and bureaucratization of society appears to be the availability of fossil fuels upon which it is based.

In the second paragraph of the quote, Weber makes clear that while the Protestant Ethic helped begin capitalism, capital now exists independently of that ethic. As we have seen, Weber came to believe that material and structural factors played a much larger role in the origin of capitalism, yet true to his systemic view of society, he continued to see a role for ideas in his sociology. It is also interesting that at this early date he likens the pursuit of profit in America to sport.

In the final paragraph of the extract above, Weber again speculates on where evolution is taking us. Will it be a continuation of current trends—an iron cage in which tradition, values, and emotions play an ever diminishing role, where goal oriented rational behavior increasingly rule our lives in the pursuit of wealth and material possessions, though such “nullities” might well imagine that they are living at the pinnacle of civilization. Or, will this development be finally stopped by the rise of new prophets and charismatics, calling us to higher purpose?

Others argue that these speculations are not part of Weber’s theory but rather his all too human reaction to his analysis. And this too is supported in the final paragraphs of The Protestant Ethic, where he writes that the above lament is one of “judgments of value and faith, with which this purely historical discussion need not be burdened” (182). But he did burden his discussion with this, and though his speculations go beyond his historical analysis they are consistent with the evolutionary trends identified in that analysis. Regardless, many of his followers have incorporated this pessimistic view of evolution into their analysis, for once encountered who could escape?[3]

[1] Again, I would assert (along with many others) that Marx himself made no such claim that the means of production determined all.

[2] As the speech is very revealing but not widely available I have included it verbatim off of the following website:

[3] And this last comment by me, that “who could escape?” is a reflection of my value and faith—value I place on Max Weber’s sociology, faith in my fellow students—rather than my sociology. 

For a more extensive discussion of Weber's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Weber, M. 1903-1917/1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. (E. Shils, H. Finch, Eds., E. Shills, & H. Finch, Trans.) New York: Free Press.

Weber, M. 1904/1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (T. Parsons, Trans.) New York: The Citadel Press.

Weber, M. 1921/1968. Economy and Society. (G. Roth, C. Wittich, Eds., G. Roth, & C. Wittich, Trans.) New York: Bedminster Press.

Weber, M. 1927/2003. General Economic History. (F. Knight, Trans.) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Weber, M. 1946/1958. Essays in Sociology. (H. Gerth and C. Mills, Eds. And Trans.) In M. Weber, H. Gerth, & C. Mills, From Max Weber. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Referencing this Site:

Weber’s Evolutionism is copyrighted by Frank W. Elwell. Should you wish to quote from this material the format should be as follows:

Elwell, Frank, 1996, "Weber’s Evolutionism" Retrieved June 1, 1999 [use actual date],

©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to

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