Weber was born in Germany in 1864. His father was a bureaucrat who later held important political position. In light of the social milieu of Germany at that time, his father was assertive, self indulgent and patriarch. In contrast, his mother was a devout Calvinist who took least interest in worldly pleasures unlike her husband. She focused on otherworldly aspects and inner righteousness in order to get the salvation. The opposing views of his parents had a great impact over Weber’s intellectual and psychological development.

Weber’s work was mainly focused on religion, the state and the economy. During Weber’s time, the positivists and non positivists held the diametrically opposite views regarding relationship between History and Science. The positivists believed that history could be explained on the basis of general or monotheistic laws, the non positivists on the other hand, believed that history is composed of individual events and actions.

Weber rejected both of these extremes to study historical sociology. He combined both of these perspectives to put forth his views. According to Weber, historical sociology is concerned with both generality and individuality. The focus of Sociology as a discipline should be on developing concepts for causes effect analysis of specific historical events. Weber was not interested in developing a grand theory like structuralists.

Social Action Theory

Social action :  “an action is ‘social’ if the acting individual takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course”. In other words, a thoughtful action is a social action unlike an instinctive action.

Sociology is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action to arrive at a casual explanation of its course and effects. The task of sociology is to interpret the action in terms of its subjective meaning.

How to study social action :

Weber’s sociology consists of a few tools, Ideal types and verstehen.

For Weber, the subject matter of sociology was the study of Social Action. And as action is a subjective act done by the actor, Weber is what is called an anti-positivist. He did not believe that social sciences are similar to natural sciences. The method of social sciences was idiosyncratic, which takes into account the free will of individuals, as against the nomothetic approach of natural sciences. He did not treat the actors as puppets controlled by the macro sociological structures, rather, actors were active participants in the world they inhabit. Thus, the study of sociology requires understanding, which Weber calls as verstehen.

There are two types of understanding of action : Direct observational understanding and indirection explanatory understanding. 

Direct observational  understanding  is done on an action driven by impulse or emotion. Here the actor does not think before acting. This type of action does not hold any sociological relevance.

An Action is of sociological relevance only if the actor thinks before acting i.e. takes into account the social actors involved in the action, the cause and consequences, then acts. This is called as indirect verstehen.

But how to create an objective understanding out of this subjective subject matter?

For this, Weber devised ‘ideal types’ as a conceptual construct.  Ideal types are one sided exaggerations of reality, which are used as a yardstick from which to compare different societies. These ideal types may be made using historical evidences, or guessing. Weber used ideal types in his study of bureaucracy, types of actions, religions etc.

Ideal types of Social Action

Weber proposed four types of actions as ideal types to understand a social action.

Means end rationality or Instrumental rational actions: 

Behaviors in which means and ends are rationally related to each other. The actions are planned and taken after evaluating  the goal in relation to the other goals. The expectations of the environment are used as means or conditions for the attainment of rationally pursued calculated ends.

Value rational action : 

Here the ends are bounded by the values we hold. If certain means are against our values, we hold them as irrational. Thus, this is also a type of rational action, but the definition of rationality is decided by our values.

Traditional action

This type of action believes that action has been done in this past. Thus, it believes in tradition, if things have been proven to work in the past will work now too.

Affective action

This type of action is based on emotion. It does not take into account the consequences of action, or ignores them. E.g. murder in a fit of rage.