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Weber's text is a landmark work of sociology. Posing the question of why Protestant areas in his native Germany tended to be more economically developed, Weber sought answers by investigating an association between the ethics of Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. Capitalism refers to any economic and political system that includes private ownership of trade and industry. Weber suggests that the "spirit of capitalism" is an ethic of capitalist behavior that goes beyond mere greed or acquisitiveness. It is a belief in the pursuit of profit and self-reliance that has its origins in Protestant ideals. These ideals include self-disciplined thrift and hard work, an approach to labor as a "calling," and the need to live a life of industry as a way of securing assurance of salvation in the next life. Weber analyzes these trends across four branches of Protestantism—Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects—and demonstrates how Protestant ideas and the capitalist spirit were linked.
Weber's text helped to pioneer an evidence-based and analytical approach to the study of human societies. His approach embraces the complexity of human society and cautioned against deriving grand conclusions from limited evidence. Instead he promotes methods that helped scholars grapple with vast and complex phenomena by using "ideal types" to define terms of discussion and to contextualize individual parts of society. As a result, the text is considered one of the foundational writings of modern sociological study. Moreover, its insights into the connections between Protestant ideas and capitalist ethics remain relevant in the modern world, even as capitalism has spread well beyond the bounds of what Weber called "the West."
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber seeks to describe two phenomena and to show how they are related. The first is the "Protestant ethic," a worldview that stresses hard work, individualism, and self-reliance. This attitude is characteristic of Protestant branches of Christianity—especially those derived from Calvinism, based on the beliefs of French theologian John Calvin (1509–64). Weber demonstrates this ethic's relationship to the "spirit of capitalism." This concept is likewise centered on hard work and individualism, but it also encourages acquisitive behavior. Weber's argument is that modern capitalism emerged in the form and time it did in Europe because much of its "spirit" derived from the "ethic" of the Protestant Reformation, a 16th-century movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church.
This study guide for Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism offers summary and analysis on themes, symbols, and other literary devices found in the text. Explore Course Hero's library of literature materials, including documents and Q&A pairs.