Thursday, September 25, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Problems in the Methodology of Difference

I have only initial impressions from reading a small fragment of Weber's work and a scholar's overview, but there are some issues which have emerged to do with his methodology and I think they are significant.

To paraphrase from my readings - Weber observed that in Protestantism, especially in Calvinism, there were beliefs and practices that had an important bearing on economic affairs; key was thrift, which was pleasing to God in that it reflected values that rejected this world and sought the divine. This led to the amassing of capital and the development of capital was a reflection of this process; it subsequently became something that was regarded as being of positive worth. This was a spark for Weber's main thesis that Protestant asceticism was a major factor that led to economic growth in Western Europe based on the 'spirit of capitalism.' Having written the early work 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' Weber sought to investigate more deeply religious phenomena with respect to the social context and thus he spends quite some time developing his notions and analysis, especially - as reported in my previous post - of the 'ascetic' and 'mystic.' He establishes that this ethic in relation to its creating conditions for the spirit of capitalism contributes to Western Europe having a pre-eminent position in terms of capitalist development.

However, from reading the literature the analyses vary about what is unique, the extent to which the religious practises caused the spirit of capitalism - some muffle it and just refer to it as a 'factor', in which case what were the causes, were there any?! I guess also that the views have shifted over time! I wonder with so much ambiguity, how far can this work be fairly called scientific? In terms of being systematic, what do academics agree upon? I'll try to indicate some of this variability below

In trying to develop such a broad systematic treatment, Weber inevitably had to make quite a number of efficiency gains (to use economic parlance!) He had to make deliberate choices ranging from particularities in definitions (as in his treatment of 'asceticism' and 'mysticism') through to methods designed to extract distinctive features and marked results. (The particularity of the choices becomes obvious as I start reading a rather different book - 'The Idea of the Holy' by Rudolf Otto...)

One of Weber's fundamental tools was to isolate on the basis of difference and attempted to do this in a way that accounted for subjective individuality, whilst avoiding complexity. For this he formulated the notion of 'ideal type.' For analysis at a particular moment in time I think this seems reasonable, but problems crop up when you start moving forward along the timeline because becomes completeness becomes critical ... and I wonder whether this notion is really adequate when analysing collective social situations?

In discussions on Weber's treatment of difference there's quite a diversity of views! Some claim or assume that Weber chose to base this on John Stuart Mill's Method of Difference, which he defined in his book A System of Logic (1843)], see e.g. Benjamin Nelson (1973): "tells us plainly that he applying Mills 'Method of Difference' and, therefore, looking for the factor or chain of circumstances which helped to explain some unique outcome of a given experiment" [sorry, I only have a second hand reference (further commented on below)].

Certainly, Nelson makes reference to it a year later: "Weber does not deal here in detail with the problem in the logic of the method of differences which he knew from the discussion of John Stuart Mill." p.274 [Max Weber’s “Author’s Introduction’’ (1920): A Master Clue to his Main Aims in Sociological Inquiry 44(4): 269-278]. I think that sentence is ambiguous - ir could read as "... deal with the problem in the logic..." though I don't think that's what was meant!

In notes on Max Weber: On Capitalism, John Kilcullen, appears to consider that Weber was indeed trying to apply Mill's method of difference to show that religion can be isolated as the factor that distinguishes the development of modern capitalist Europe from its Asian counterparts. However, he goes on to say:

"But Mill would have been horrified at such a crude application of his method of difference. It overlooks his warning that 'consensus' means, in social inquiry, that major institutions in one social context cannot really be compared directly with, and pronounced to be similar to, the 'corresponding' institutions embedded in another social context. This is drawing lessons from history in just the way Mill warns against (e.g. Logic, Book 6, ch.10, para.4). ['On the Inverse Deductive, or Historical Method']"

I better just note the definition!

Definition: Method of difference

If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance in common save one, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon.
A B C D occur together with w x y z
B C D occur together with y w z
Therefore A is the cause, or the effect, or a part of the cause of x.

Again the problem is in knowing all the variables as well as the problem of abstraction indicated above.

However, it's argued against by others, including Stephen P. Turner [See The Search for a Methodology of Social Science: Durkheim, Weber, and the Nineteenth-Century Problem of Cause, Probability, and Action, Chapter 11, page 211 that Weber actually adopted an anti-Millian doctrine of cause. [I wonder why this book is so expensive - it doesn't help to promote a universal methodology!]

Returning to the comparison with Asian countries, what of the economic boom that developed there, especially in the second half of the 20th century in the 'Pacific tigers' such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia? It might be described as conspicuously capitalist. What gave rise to this? If we take the basic assumption about the Protestant ethic was unique in fostering the 'spirit of capitalism' that lead to capitalist economies and that ethic was uniquely Western European, then applying crudely Mills 'method of difference' implies that Asian capitalist growth must have its roots in Western Europe and to be consistent with that view capitalism was 'exported' to such countries (e.g. through invasion) and only then could it lead to similar kinds of economic development. Weber apparently considered this view.

This thesis, particularly the 'spirit of capitalism' being uniquely Western European in origin has (not surprisingly) been challenged from the East! See e.g. 'Max Weber revisited: Some lessons from East Asian capitalistic development' [Volume 6, Number 2 / April, 1989, Asia Pacific Journal of Management], which specifically contests Weber's Weber's thesis of the incompatibility of the Confucian ethos and rational entrepreneurial capitalism. Randall Collins, 'An Asian Route to Capitalism: Religious Economy and the Origins of Self-Transforming Growth in Japan' [American Sociological Review, Vol. 62, No. 6 (Dec., 1997), pp. 843-865, Published by: American Sociological Association] proposes a model "in which the initial breakout from agrarian-coercive obstacles took place within the enclave of religious organizations, with monasteries acting as the first entrepreneurs. This model is illustrated by the case of Buddhism in late medieval Japan." I haven't read these to check the validity of their particular claims, but papers like this at the very least point to the need for a weaker hypothesis - that doesn't claim the uniqueness of Western European Protestant ethic as providing the conditions of economic capitalism - but rather expressed in terms of looser religious orientations or dispositions of mind that are perhaps culturally-independent.

I think I shall now move on from Weber to get some other perspectives.

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