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© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Weber's ideal Types

The use of ideal-types in Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber tried to show how the ideas behind the protestant group known as Calvinists were important to the development of capitalism. The Calvinist religion encouraged people to work hard. At the same time Calvinists were also encouraged to live ascetic (or frugal) lives. This was because Calvinists believed in predestination, therefore they believed that only 'God' knew who were 'the saved' and who were 'the damned'. This belief led to a certain degree of insecurity, which in turn led the Calvinists to look for signs that they were among the saved. It was reasoned by the Calvinists that the worthy would prosper but that also the worthy should not be wasteful or 'show off' their prosperity. According to Weber's ideal types the actions of Calvinists were value-rational actions. Weber noted the correlation between these value-rational actions of Calvinists and the development of capitalism.

This was 'the spirit' of capitalism because, according to Weber, it was this particular combination of ideas that enabled capitalism to take hold. Weber argued this because it was clear that, in order for capitalism to succeed, there had to be an accumulation of capital. If people spent everything without re-investing money back into their businesses then their businesses would be more likely to fail. Weber thus could claim that his analysis had causal adequacy as well as meaning adequacy.

In Weber's analysis value-rational action gave way to instrumental action because he theorised that in order to demonstrate that they were amongst the saved the Calvinists had to maximise their productivity.

Value-rational action can thus be seen to have had an unintentional consequence of producing a way of life (capitalism) that is characterised, above all, by an all-consuming instrumentality from which there can be no escape.


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