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Weber: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Weber. 1930 [1904]. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Also: Weber, Max. 1958. From Max Weber. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Galaxy.

Weber wanted to know why the West had developed, leaving other regions behind. In his view, other societies had the materials necessary to industrialize, but had not yet done it. He concluded that development does not occur until something encourages people to abandon traditional ways, because people tend to want only to produce enough wealth to sustain their current mode of living: "A man does not 'by nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose" (Weber 1930 [1904], 60).

Calvinism was sufficient to encourage people to seek wealth. In Calvin's view of "election," individuals could do nothing to save themselves; either they were chosen for salvation or they were not. However, those who were "elected" would show certain traits, such as industriousness, ascetic hard work, and wealth. Thus, Calvinism encouraged everybody to maximize wealth, not simply to have "enough" wealth. In Weber's words,

"The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of . . . the spirit of capitalism" (Weber 1958, 172).

Once capitalism is achieved, the Protestant ethic ceases to be necessary:

"Capitalism is today an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalist rules of action" (1930 [1904], p. 54).

In fact, growing rationalization is likely to wash the old religious ideals away. In capitalism, the quest for efficiency and wealth leads to an increasing reliance on rationalization of economic and governmental processes. Bureaucracies (both governmental and corporate) become streamlined, labor grows increasingly specialized, and people come to rely more and more on scientific knowledge over religious traditions. The result is depersonalization and secularization.

Norris and Inglehart summarize Weber's secularization idea as an argument about the rationality of belief systems (2004, 217). I think Gill (2001) was alluding to Weber when summarized one "historical" theory of secularization: To the extent that societies begin performing science to explain the world around them, they will no longer need supernatural explanations. As faith in supernatural explanations wanes, the strength of religious organizations should fall.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Weber, Max (author)Comparative PoliticsDevelopmentModernizationSecularismReligion and Politics

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