Max Weber’s Ideal Types – Drawing the line between fact and fiction

Max Weber, sociologist
Max Weber, 1894

You might have heard the sociological term, ‘ideal types’ but not know exactly what it means.

For those who have taken classical sociology courses, if you stayed awake and were not sleeping you would recall that ideal types are conceptual tools developed by the sociologist Max Weber.

Ideal types represent an exaggerated category designed to facilitate understanding and dialogue.

Ideal types do not represent statistical averages. Nor do they accurately describe every aspect of a given phenomenon. Rather, they are abstract generalizations.

Some might say that ideal types, then, are just a lot of malarkey that do not reflect reality.

But life isn’t that simple. And rarely is it that clear cut.

Weber himself argues that our highly revered science cannot avoid developing concepts that are, to some extent, abstract generalizations. This is pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about language and semiotics (the study of signs).

However, Weber isn’t really offering a philosophical critique of ALL THAT IS. Rather, he is trying to get what he sees as the right balance between the range and focus of a given study. Weber claims that the ideal type is created through the use of reason, and exists somewhere between empty details (empirical studies devoid of any meaningful, interpretive theory) and obscure generalizations (untenable ideas and opinions not carefully thought out with reason).

Ideal types may describe ethical ideals but Weber claims the types themselves do not advocate a particular ethical ideal.

Weber’s reliance on reason to ‘get it right’ and his apparent ability to separate ethics from understanding have both been roundly critiqued. Nevertheless, an updated version of Weber’s ideal type could still be useful to typology, providing we embrace not only rational but also emotional, aesthetic, sensual, intuitive, empirical and ethical considerations.¹

To close, I should underscore that ideal types need to be empirical to some extent. Making up categories with no bearing on what’s out there will bear little fruit, except perhaps to tell us something about the person making them up.²

Some sexually repressed persons project their own unfulfilled desires and perversions onto others with no empirical support whatsoever

¹ One could argue this is what Carl Jung tried to do, if in a sort of blunt, kindergarten-ish way.

² A good example of Weber’s ideal types is found in his distinction between ‘exemplary’ and ‘instrumental’ religious teachers. An exemplary figure teaches through his or her own living example whereas an instrumental teacher tells us what to do, even though they themselves may not fully embody their teaching.


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