Max Weber was a funny guy!

That’s right, Max Weber, the dour looking social theorist on the cover of your social theory text made jokes. How do I know this? Well, my wife and I just published a new book Weber’s Rationalism: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification, and this post is an essay about why you should read it!

      In particular, Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” has real zingers in it.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Some examples of the wit and sarcasm of Max:

      Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it.


Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.

Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations. This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself. (pp 181-182).

But Weber was not going to only take potshots at academics, he also had some fine words for politicians as well, writing as he was during the German Revolution of 1918-1919. Specifically he said:

 But there is one remark I would like to make: At this time and day of pure excitement and passion—even though not all excitement is caused by true convictions—politicians on an outrageous scale run wild with slogans like:


‘It is the world, it is dumb, stupid and mean! It is not me! I am not responsible for the consequences. The consequences are the responsibility of others for whom I work. But I will eradicate their stupidity, arrogance, and nastiness!’


To put it bluntly, I ask myself firstly, are such people truly serious about any ethical and moral convictions? I am convinced that in nine out of ten cases, they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder—they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations. (p. 196)

And then he really lets politicians have it when he writes the following about the characters who turn to that profession:

Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul. (p. 181)

I know, you are probably wondering what is so funny about that last one?  What does he mean when he advises politicians to not make politics with either the soul or “other” parts of the body?  What exactly is the “other” part of the body used to “make politics?”  Anyway,  I don’t think Weber was thinking of hands and feet! Politicians in those days too had fleshly temptations, and giving into them could only lead to poor political decisions, as generation after generation of politicians continually re-discover!

Admittedly, the humor in our new translations is nestled among Weber’s more serious gems of insight which are couched in in more lofty prose.   But wit and wisdom go together, and in our translations and the pages of accompanying editorial material, which we wrote, there are plenty of both.

How prescient? President Bill Clinton said that “Politics as Vocation” was one of the 21 best books he had ever read—it is in the same list with his wife Hillary’s auto-biography!

And there is more humor in “Politics as Vocation,” including endearing comments by Weber about men who blame their wives for their own affairs, and random potshots at political nemeses among the revolutionary politicians of 1919 Germany like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebkencht, and Kurt Eisner,  and even snarky remarks about politicians in the United States and Russia.  But you need to get the book to read about these!

Besides the rip-roaring oratory of Weber’s “Politics as Vocation, first delivered in the lecture hall of the University of Munich in 1919, in our book there are also new fresh translations of Weber’s classic essays “Class, Status, Party;” “Discipline and Charisma;” and “Bureaucracy.” All four translations are new, fresh, and littered with footnotes to help you understand both Weber’s wisdom and humor!

Now for those of you convinced this is worth $90+ , you can have your copy of our new book delivered by either by the post office, or wirelessly to your Kindle. If you don’t have an extra $90+, you can tell your library that they cannot do without this book. Here is a convenient link from our publisher to recommend the book.  Please click on this link and tell your library that they should indeed buy a copy so you can quickly check out the wit and wisdom of St. Max.

A pre-publication version of Chapter 1 is here.

Happy reading!

Originally posted April 28, 2015

Dominance and Subordination, Max Weber Style

I am teaching a sociology class in northern Thailand to a group of nine Chico State students who are here for a special summer session.  As with most of my sociology classes, I have assigned Max Weber’s classic essay “Classes, Staende, Parties” at an early point in the class. Particularly what Weber writes about what in German is called “Staende” is relevant to Thailand. Staende are the groups we form in which we have loyalty to others in the same group, to whom we are loyal, and share a way of life.  Thailand is full of Staende, including the orange-robed Buddhist monks,various ethnic groups, uniformed students, civil servants, police officers, and other groups. Staende are the stuff of social life!

Staende memberships are an honor; notably, you can’t use raw cash to join a Staende, like you would the local fitness club. Rather you are either born into it, or establish a qualification that is typically marked by an education and/or and initiation ritual. An obvious example are the Buddhist monks here in Thailand. Monks are  frequently seen in their orange robes in Thai towns.  You certainly cannot buy your way into a Buddhist monk order!  Rather you go through an elaborate initiation ritual involving study, learning, and ritual. Citizenship is also are Staende. Unlike the monkhood though, we are typically born with a particular passport, though we may also earn it through the rituals of “naturalization.”  Other Staende include professions, ethnic groups, aristocrats, alumni groups, slaves, and some clubs.  The point is that membership is not bought in the open market (like membership in a local fitness club), but is the result of “honor.”

Weber notes that all Staende think that their own group is just about the coolest thing around, meaning that they all think that their own honor is better than potential competitors, even if no one else agrees.  Thus, when teaching with Chico State students, I typically point out that they are clearly cooler than UC Berkeley students, an assertion with whom few Chico State students have ever disagreed. (I have not been offered the chance to test this assertion at UC Berkeley yet).

More relevant in places like Thailand, professional bakers think that they are more important than the fruit-sellers.  Students from one secondary school think they are cooler than those from another school, and vice versa.  And the impoverished peasants are pretty sure that the success of society rests on their shoulders, even though at the same time, the aristocrats assume that the success of society rests on their own obviously brilliant skill.

Staende are readily apparent here in Thailand because of markers like uniforms (e.g. for students, employees of particular companies, civil servants, etc.), and a profusion of local accents. Then of course there are the many foreign Staende, including my own, which is called in Thai “farang,” and is composed mainly of tourists from the US and Europe.  Whether I like it or not, in Thailand, that is one of the Staende I was born into by virtue of my white skin and long nose.

For this blog, there are two important characteristics of Staende, which I want to highlight. First is the fact that by definition, Staende are about who you can hang out with, or in other words those with whom you consider eligible for “social intercourse,” all the way up to marriage.  They are the “us” and everyone else is the “them. “ We recognize the “us-ness” in each other when we share a Staende.  What is more, we recognize the “them-ness” of those who stand outside.

An important marker of Staende in Thailand, students wear school uniforms, all the way up to the university.  Each school has specific color combinations, and at the university the student even wear badges identifying their majors.  These are clear Staende markers of the honors the students have accumulated, and makes it easy for each to recognize the “us-ness,” i.e. who we have responsibilities to—or not.

Weber notes that it is the uniforms and badges that make it easy for different groups to know whether someone else is qualified for what type of social interaction.  Thus you see Thai school children all dressed alike travelling together—the wearers of specific school uniforms easily recognize each other, establishing a basis for who will help who (or not) in the future.  What is more, Stand ranking even gives such groups a chance to see who is violating the norms for interactions. Do university students mix with high school students (not too cool!).  Do English and Pharmacy majors mix (better, but still not so great).  In the United States universities the “Greek system” at many universities provides an obvious marker for stratified Stand relationships.  And not surprisingly, my students tell me, “who goes out with who” is a subject of intra-group regulations among status-conscious sororities and fraternities.

Ultimately, Weber points out, Staende reach their ultimate expression when they become concerned with endogamy and exogamy, which is basically “who goes with who” in a sexual sense. At that point, the Staende become “ethnic.”  This is when it becomes tough to sustain Staende because the hormones of youth are raging.  Thus, American students seek to send their children to the highest status university possible as a way to preserve the honor and status of their own Stand.  In high school, it is clear that cheerleaders can’t go with nerds, and in college, it means that a college boy dating a high school girl is discouraged.

I don’t know of any studies of Thai marriage patterns, but I would bet that the elaborate system of education and uniforms here patterns marriage patterns very strongly, guaranteeing that high Thai youth mix only with lower status Thai youth.  I would guess that marriage is most likely between those who wear the same university uniforms during their formative years are less likely to be caught in a compromised situation with someone from an unapproved Stand.


Ethnography, Tanzania, PhD degrees, and Something to Read at Bedtime


       Someone told me once that a PhD is a license to write for other PhDs.  As Donna Lanclos notes, this is different than making a living, and getting a full-time tenure-track job.  Nevertheless, as Donna herself demonstrated with her own book about childhood in Northern Ireland, this is a license that we can actually on occasion use.

       But, while a PhD may be a license to write, what is really fun is getting people to read what you wrote. And hopefully to do this, they do not need a PhD (indeed, a lot of really good ethnographic writing is actually done by people who don’t have a PhD, but don’t tell anyone!).  Having said that, here is my latest use of my license to write, and the result of something like ten years of back and forth in the wilds of western Tanzania, archives of Dar Es Salaam, and Chico where I tried to figure out how a very remote area became what we see to you today.  So, from African Studies Quarterly, presenting: “Social Organization and Social Status in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Rukwa, Tanzania.”  This is written for the other nineteen people in history, anthropology, and sociology who are interested in western Tanzania, and for Mark Dawson who is bound to find plenty of material for more existential musing.

      Seriously, I hope more than the other people interestedin Tanzanian history read this.  But, as I tell my students, such articles are perhaps best read for content in the mid-morning with a cup of coffee.  Unless of course you have insomnia, in which case you might try reading it in bed!

The Funny Worlds of Our Meritocrats

The meritocracy is a ideology that is too often known for its failures, rather than its strengths. Cindy Van Gilder noted this on this blog. And if that’s not enough, I am reading The Price of Admission by Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Golden which demonstrates that the most meritocratic of America’s universities—those at the top of the US News and World Report list—maintain admissions offices that are carefully structured to favor the already privilege, including well-heeled donors, the powerful, alumni, the wealthy, and celebrity. As with the archaeological dig Cindy described, the privileged at America’s “best” universities move to the front of the line, ahead of all those over-achieving national merit scholars who already at age 17 already have stellar resumes.

The lesson is: look too carefully, and you find that the meritocracy is often dead or perhaps dying. Cindy did this when she found that someone with a Y chromosome was awarded the privilege of going on an archaeological dig rather than someone who had accumulated archaeological merit. Privilege, wealth, gender, race, etc. are triumphant not only in Ivy League admissions offices, but across much of academia.

But manipulating the system actually goes far beyond gender discrimination. To keep his story up close and personal, Daniel Golden starts off his story of Ivy League privilege by describing how two Tennesseans got their sons into Harvard and Princeton respectively. Former Vice President Al Gore and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, both had sons who, despite problematic academic records from elite academic prep schools where they had been coached in the mechanics of the SAT test since childhood, were nevertheless below the institutional averages to which the rest of us are held. Nevertheless, the two sons were admitted to the Ivy League, when (presumably) their test scores meant that they should have done no better than being sent to me at Chico State. Golden’s point goes further though, when he notes that such admissions are in fact a zero sum game, since by providing the Gore and Frist offspring admission, two over-achieving National Merit Scholars were denied. The implication is that if the preferences for the privileged were removed, we would have a more productive and just meritocracy.

The odd thing though is that the very term “meritocrat” was created as a 1958 satire in The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033 by Michael Young. Surprisingly, Young’s satirical point is not the same that Cindy (and Golden) make, though. Both Cindy and Golden imply that a well-oiled meritocracy is desirable. Young’s point is that isolating the best and the brightest from the rest of society is a recipe for short-term success, but long-term social tension. The problem he writes, is that the resume gods with the perfect SAT scores come to believe that their status is due to the merit represented by SAT scores, rather than the privilege of having been raised in the environment that such tests reflect. The result is that they begin to isolation into little mutual admiration societies where they believe excellence is equivalent to well, themselves: People who can precisely fill out Scantron bubbles in the same way that the test designers seek. They become as Max Weber wrote 100 years ago:

Narrow specialists without minds, pleasure seekers without heart, ; in its conceit this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained…”(p. 158)

So when the meritocracy breaks down, as Cindy described, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just roll my eyes cynically. I laugh when the admissions offices try so assiduously pretend that SAT scores and G.P.A. reflect an intrinsic worth, rather than simply a tool of the existing elite uses to justify its own privileges. But on the other hand, the SAT and G.P.A., imperfect though they may be, are better than older systems in which academic privilege was assumed to be identifiable through bloodlines and Y chromosomes.

So we live with this new meritocratic system, even if it does reward the narrow specialists without mind, and pleasure seekers without heart emerging from the habitats of the privileged. If nothing else, it beats the arbitrariness of older forms of discrimination based on hereditary privilege, chromosomes, skin color, and the networks emerging from gentlemen’s clubs.

But I become cynical when realizing that despite the pompous claims to a regime of vaguely defined excellence; that the children of the Tennesseans, despite having all the advantages of a prep school education and tutors, still cannot best the SAT scores of many of my students at Chico State. The reality of the presumably meritocratic system is that it preserves power in the existing elite first, and foremost.

Further Reading

Brooks, David (2000). Bobos in Paradise.

Golden, Daniel (2006) The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.

Karabel, Jerome (2005). The Chosen: the Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Weber, Max (1904-1905/2009) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Translated and Introduced by Stephen Kalberg, 4th edition

Young, Michael (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy.