Max Weber: Competing forms of Social Action in the Rationalization of Social Movements

Enku MC Ide SOC 651 Dr. Patrick Mooney 11/19/2011

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

Ide According to Collins, Weber is especially useful in application to political sociology and conflict theory (1990b: 4). Weber’s multifaceted approach within these subfields are helpful in analyzing social movements, here understood as collective action aimed at changing society along the lines of movement beliefs and values, with a particular focus on identity-based social movements (Collins 1990b: 4). Using Weber’s concepts of rationalization, status group, and social action, I will investigate the ongoing and necessary tensions between competing forms of social action throughout the rationalization (formation, development and possible decline) of social movements. Weber’s sociological method seeks, specifically, to understand social action, those behaviors oriented toward the other, and Weber provides an ideal-typology for understanding the motivations of such behaviors. Instrumental rationality and value-rationality, those actions that are based in a “choice between alternative and conflicting ends” as opposed to those that are “determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake …independently of its prospects of success,” respectively, are Weber’s central concern (Weber in Calhoun 2007: 227, 226). Also included are affective (emotion-based) and traditional social action, although Weber sees these as withering with an increase of rationalization. In social movements, no single form of social action is exclusive. Rather, different forms of social action may predominate at different points and in different spheres of social life, as the too-complete domination of any one form of social action can lead to stagnation and irrationality. The ascendance of more rational forms of social action among spheres of social life, and the subsequent tensions between forms of social action, lead to social change. Rationalization is central to Weber’s work. However, Collins writes that “rationalization” seems to take on multiple meanings (1990a: 62). On one hand, there is the 1

Ide rationalization of calculability, “predictability and regularity” with the subsequent predominance of instrumental (means-ends) rationality, over other forms of social action. On the other, the rationalization implies an active, “world-transforming” approach to social action as opposed to passive or reflective behavior vis-à-vis other social arenas (Collins 1990a: 62). Unlike evolutionary or stagist theories, intra-societal institutions rationalize along their own lines of development, impacting (and being impacted upon by) the developments of other spheres of social life, rather than the rationalization of society as a whole. Increased rationality augments conflict between social spheres as each seeks internal consistency and autonomy (Collins 1990a: 71). Such tensions are based in “continuous efforts to achieve consistency” both within and between social institutions, based upon their own logics of legitimation (Collins 1990a: 74) Weber points out, for example, that status groups “hinder the strict carrying through of the sheer market principle” (Collins 1990b: 3, Weber in Calhoun 2007: 251). As such, irrationality in one sphere shapes the rationalization of social institutions. Status groups are a particularly helpful Weberian concept to the understanding of social movements. Collins refers to this concept as a “diversifying of the Marxian class scheme” (1990b: 6). Although Marx discussed the transformation of a “class in itself” to a self-conscious “class for itself,” the processes of this transformation were insufficiently analyzed. For Weber, status groups can be based on class, ethnicity, gender, or other social markers of prestige but are fundamentally established based on “different life chances” that are “distinctly recognizable” (Weber in Calhoun 2007: 250). “Above all else” specifies Weber, status groups arise from “a specific style of life [that] is expected from all those who wish to belong to the circle” and that also creates “restrictions of social intercourse” (2007: 253). A status group, therefore, can be seen as a subculture with an element of exclusivity, which impacts one’s life chances based on 2

Ide social valuation or the “monopolization of market opportunities” (Collins 1990b: 6). Status groups, then, impact economic development. Status groups are based in collective identities, with both “normative authority” and “meaning in the minds of individual persons,” (Collins 1990a: 134; Weber in Calhoun 2007: 272). For example, the gay and lesbian identities emerged as politicized collective identities precisely from a “statistical category” of people who sought sexual gratification among others of the same gender. Further, the arising of status groups is impacted by external processes. In periods of economic stability, for example, the market takes on the appearance immutable reality. During such periods, forms of stratification based in social prestige are likely to seem more salient than economic class. However, in periods of “economic transformation,” economic classes can become increasingly aware of their commonality and “the class situation” is pushed “into the foreground” (Weber in Calhoun 2007: 254). From this process, we can see that status groups are not static, but develop as a function of the tightness and exclusivity of social networks, culturally-held or socially-articulated identity markers, as well as changes in external social systems including the economy and government. Status groups, then, can be seen as rationalizing to the extent that they are organized and seek to impact the larger society and social institutions outside of their own subgroup, particularly in relation to power-holding institutions. In his own analysis, Weber characterized protest as “directly expressing…values,” thus embodying substantive, or value-rationality (Collins 1990a: 43). However, we may recognize

affective, value-rational and instrumental-rational social action as each important throughout the process of social movement development, with different forms in ascendancy based on the organizational forms the movement takes on through a process of rationalization. The seeds of social movement collective action may reside in a sentiment pool of possible movement 3

Ide constituents who share beliefs but are yet “untapped and unorganized” (Snow et al. 1986: 468). While social movement theory has relied heavily on the cognitive aspects of movement organizing, we are beginning to address more thoroughly the role of “affective action” in spurring on and sustaining movement activity. Individuals may cognitively value many things with which contemporary society and power-holders are out of line. However, lacking emotional impetus, either in spontaneous reaction to turbulent events or through the enflamed passions of organizers and movement participants, simply bearing a social value is not likely to sustain collective action. For example, direct actions undertaken in the civil rights movement sought to highlight structural violence, angering or upsetting possible supporters and eliciting empathy with demonstrators. Through framing, the systems and conditions in question must be seen as “unjust” with requisite emotional reaction (Snow et al. 1986: 466). Through the process of building a social movement community, movement adherents must form a collective identity (Taylor and Whittier 1992: 505) Such an identity can amplify an extant status group identity or form a new identity based in shared beliefs. According to the political process model, extant community organization, be it cultural or structural, is a major factor in “the generation of insurgency” (McAdam 1982: 40). Value rationality is clearly linked with movement participants’ cognitive beliefs and values which have been at the fore of collective action frame analyses. One type of movement framing specifically deals with “value amplification” through which particular extant values become increasingly salient for movement participants (Snow et al. 1986: 469). The impetus behind this amplification is likely a balancing of value and affective rationality, as movement grievances become “intensely felt” by participants (Snow 1986: 465). As feelings take shape


Ide with demands, visions, and movement goals, we can see value rationality in ascendance. Affective social action must remain, but likely as a secondary characteristic. Framing also indicates increasing support for movement tactics, indicating the necessity of instrumental rationality (Snow et al. 1986: 464). Movements become increasingly rational as movement communities seek to become “world-changing” and as goals are solidified and quantified. In this sense, we can see the highly politicized second wave of feminism as more rational than the community-building third wave. Movements are more likely to draw participants if their tactics are seen as possibly leading to the social change valued by supporters. Weber’s inability to recognize instrumental rationality within protest movements, and equating instrumental rationality solely with conventional political action, seems to be based in a particular, narrow view of social change (see Collins 1990a: 43). Many movement participants are drawn to protest after disillusionment with formal political channels. As such, Weber’s characterization of protests as predominately based in value-rationality may have been shortsighted. Structures emerge from collective actions and organizations that seek to impact social life. When formal social movement organizations are formed, then, and particularly when organizational staff members rely on the continuation of the organization for their personal support, bureaucratic tendencies within the movement may arise. Such structures lead to irrationality in the incongruence between the goals of the movement and the latent goals of the organization. This is especially likely when social movement organizations take on a “nonprofit” status and rely on foundations and grants for financial support, with requisite hierarchical organizational structures and calculability of movement outcomes. As Weber points out, such “objective” bureaucratization is based on the logic of the market and of “pursuits of naked 5

Ide economic interest” (Weber in Calhoun 2007: 269). In the case of non-profit organizations, we may consider the “naked economic interest” of organizational actors if not that of the institution (Weber in Calhoun 2007: 262). Weber pointed out the tendency of movements to “become entangled in the realities of power politics” and thus institutionalize, with movements being transformed into bureaucracies (Collins 1990a: 77; Collins 1990b: 6). This tendency has been well-documented in relation to labor unions and other social movement organizations. A common thread among new social movements is a concern with democracy, seen by Weber as “inevitably…[in] conflict with the bureaucratic tendencies (Weber in Calhoun 2007: 272) In recognizing the history of social movements to become increasingly institutionalized or coopted, many of today’s social movements have sought to balance substantive and instrumental rationality. At times, like feminism’s third wave, substantive rationality may overpower instrumental rationality to the point that the movement becomes only tangentially political, if at all (see Collins 1990a: 16). Social movements, then, must rely on various forms of social action. However, the predominance of any one form will lead to the transformation of the movement into either a bureaucratic or cultural entity that would not be recognized as a social movement. Weber’s schemata gives us one way of understanding the unfolding of social movements and sensitizes us to underlying mechanisms in movement development, highlighting risks to the movement throughout the development. As the above discussion points out, social movements are dynamic and unstable social formations, their continuance relying partly on internal dynamics and the balance of internal tensions between different forms of social action. These struggles are manifest in organizational struggles over democracy and bureaucratization. For a social movement to continue, however, movement actors and organizations must exist within


Ide these tensions, allowing space for innovation and change to adequately respond to changing social circumstances as a social movement.


References: Calhoun, Craig et al. Classical Sociological Theory. 2nd Ed. Maldan, MA: Blackwell Publishing Collins, Randall. 1990a. Max Weber: A Skeleton Key. Newberry Park, CA: SAGE Publications Collins, Randall. 1990b. Weberian Sociological Theory. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press

McAdam, Doug. 1982. “Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency.” Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Snow, David et al. 1986. “Frame-Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” American Sociological Review 51 (4): 464-481. Taylor, Verta and Nancy E. Whittier. 1992. “Collective Identity in Social Movement Communities: Lesbian Feminism Mobilization.” Pp. 505-523 in Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues, edited by Steven M. Buechler and F. Kurt Cylke, Jr. Mountainview, CA: Mayfield
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful