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What exactly is Weber's Protestant Ethic Thesis?

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Introduction

What exactly is Weber's Protestant Ethic Thesis? Contemporary Sociology regards Max Weber as one of its 'founding fathers', and today, over eighty years after his death, Weber's writings are still celebrated as being among the most influential sociological material. As an academic of a wide variety of subjects, Weber has contributed to a range of sociological issues, including politics; religion; modernity; the relationship between society and economics; bureaucracy and his widely recognised theory of rationalization. Arguably his most famous piece of work, developed in two journal articles in 1904-05, is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The following discussion aims to explain the precise argument developed by Weber regarding Protestantism and its links with modern capitalism. Firstly, I will provide a statement of the basic argument. I will address the main sociological concepts that are central to Weber's thesis, and which I feel are crucial to our understanding of his argument. I will then provide a discussion on the rise of Protestantism, and the main ideas or 'ethic' that lay behind it. I will attempt to show the links between this ethic and the capitalist way of life, as seen by Weber. Weber's primary argument was that "the secular culture of capitalist society originated paradoxically in the asceticism of the Protestant Reformation, and that the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism have an elective affinity for each other." ...read more.

Middle

Although they had no direct knowledge of God's will and believed that such upright living could not earn their salvation, perhaps success in life was evidence of being part of the elect. They attributed much importance to the role of the conscience as the revelation of God to the individual, and so they emphasised control and self-discipline in everyday life. This is where Weber's concept of Protestant asceticism can be witnessed. It was an all-encompassing value system that shaped one's whole life. Impulse and those activities that encouraged impulse, such as sport or dance, were to be shunned. External finery and glamour turned attention away from inner character and purpose. Excess consumption and idleness were resources wasted that could otherwise glorify God. Life was to be simple and controlled, so as to better serve God. The way in which this asceticism is linked to capitalism is seen, as Weber argued, in the moral attitude of capitalist workers. Firstly, work became the centre of the Protestant individual's life. "Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God." (McIntosh, 1997:123)? Devotion to work, and also the treatment of work as one's 'calling' in life satisfies the capitalist requirement of profit maximization, insofar as it implies that labour as a resource is being utilised in an efficient manner. ...read more.

Conclusion

Their devotion to work facilitated the relentless pursuit of profit that characterises capitalist economies. In fact, the capitalist emphasis on profit maximisation through exploitation of labour was met by the Protestant belief that wealth accumulation was God's will, as He provided the opportunities to maximise wealth. The treatment of work as their calling in life also coincided well with the capitalist division of labour and the specialisation of work tasks. Protestants avoided the consumption of lavish or expensive goods, as this was seen as a waste of the resources provided by God. They believed that if salvation awaited them, then so too did their eternal rewards. This life was for working, the next life would allow rest. This ethic of deferred gratification allowed the capitalist worker and indeed the capitalist firm to avoid immediate consumption of wealth in favour of productive reinvestment of capital. While this theory all appears to have a certain stability, Weber himself recognised the flaws that emerged with modernity, and has completed his thesis with the idea that the religious element loses significance as capitalism advances. As riches inevitably expand, so too do the associated temptations, and capitalism itself, not religion, is the sole survivor in a new, materialistic age. ? These quotes are actually from M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Allen and Unwin:London, 1978) pp.17-22; 144-51; 155-83, in McIntosh, I. 1997. Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1 ...read more.

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