Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 30 June, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Ideal types

core definition

Ideal type is a theoretical construct used to make comparisons between organisations, communities or historically.

explanatory context

The concept of the ideal type was developed by Max Weber. It is an analytic tool for his historical and comparative studies. Ideal types are 'logical' rather than real or empirically observable versions of a given phenomenon, such as bureaucracy. Ideal types are not meant to imply that the construct is in any way perfect or exemplary.


In a more recent study, Harvey and Stensaker (2008) proposed 4 ideal type reactions to quality assurance in higher education in a paper entitled 'Quality culture: understandings, boundaries and linkages' click here for the pdf.

analytical review

Coser (1977, pp. 223) explained ideal types:

An ideal type is an analytical construct that serves the investigator as a measuring rod to ascertain similarities as well as deviations in concrete cases. It provides the basic method for comparative study. "An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified anlaytical construct." An ideal type is not meant to refer to moral ideals. There can be an ideal type of a brothel or of a chapel. Nor did Weber mean to refer to statistical averages. Average Protestants in a given region or at a give time may be quite different from ideal typical Protestants. The ideal type involves an accentuation of typical courses of conduct. Many of Weber's ideal types refer to collectivities rather than to the social actions of individuals, but social relationships within collectivities are always built upon the probability that component actors will engage in expected social actions. An ideal type never corresponds to concrete reality but always moves at least one step away from it. It is constructed out of certain elements of reality and forms a logically precise and coherent whole, which can never be found as such in that reality. There has never been a full empirical embodiment of the Protestant Ethic, of the "charismatic leader," or of the "exemplary prophet."

Kim (2012) described Weber's development of ideal typesas follows:

The methodology of “ideal type” (Idealtypus) is another testimony to such a broadly ethical intention of Weber. According to Weber's definition, “an ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view” according to which “concrete individual phenomena … are arranged into a unified analytical construct” (Gedankenbild); in its purely fictional nature, it is a methodological “utopia [that] cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality” [Weber 1904/1949, 90]. Keenly aware of its fictional nature, the ideal type never seeks to claim its validity in terms of a reproduction of or a correspondence with reality. Its validity can be ascertained only in terms of adequacy, which is too conveniently ignored by the proponents of positivism. This does not mean, however, that objectivity, limited as it is, can be gained by “weighing the various evaluations against one another and making a ‘statesman-like’ compromise among them” [Weber 1917/1949, 10], which is often proposed as a solution by those sharing Weber's kind of methodological perspectivism. Such a practice, which Weber calls “syncretism,” is not only impossible but also unethical, for it avoids “the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals” [Weber 1904/1949, 58].

According to Weber, a clear value commitment, no matter how subjective, is both unavoidable and necessary. It is unavoidable, for otherwise no meaningful knowledge can be attained. Further, it is necessary, for otherwise the value position of a researcher would not be foregrounded clearly and admitted as such — not only to the readers of the research outcome but also to the very researcher him/herself. In other words, Weber's emphasis on “one-sidedness” (Einseitigkeit) not only affirms the subjective nature of scientific knowledge but also demands that the researcher be self-consciously subjective. The ideal type is devised for this purpose, for “only as an ideal type” can subjective value — “that unfortunate child of misery of our science” — “be given an unambiguous meaning” [Ibid., 107]. Along with value-freedom, then, what the ideal type methodology entails in ethical terms is, on the one hand, a daring confrontation with the tragically subjective foundation of our historical and social scientific knowledge and, on the other, a public confession of one's own subjective value. Weber's methodology in the end amounts to a call for the heroic character-virtue of clear-sightedness and intellectual integrity that together constitute a genuine person of science — a scientist with a sense of vocation who has a passionate commitment to one's own specialized research, yet is utterly “free of illusions” [Löwith 1982, 38].


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) states:

Ideal type - A construct that serves as a heuristic device developed for methodological purposes in the analysis of social phenomena. An ideal type is constructed from elements and characteristics of the phenomena under investigation but it is not intended to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one case. An ideal type is a sort of composite picture that all the cases of a particular phenomenon will be compared with. Max Weber developed this technique. Examples of ideal types are: sacred society, secular society, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, sect, church, and marginal man.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'ideal type' as:

A one-sided, exaggerated concept, usually an exaggeration of the congruity of a given phenomenon, used to analyze the social world in all its historical and contemporary variation. The ideal type is a measuring rod to be used in comparing various specific examples of a social phenomenon either cross-culturally or over time. (Weber) .

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) states:

IDEAL TYPE. Weber's construct of a 'pure type', constructed by emphasizing logical or consistent traits of a given social item. The traits are defining ones, not necessarily desirable ones. Ideal types do not exist anywhere in reality, rather they are "measures" that we can use in comparing social phenomena. One example is Weber's ideal type of bureaucratic organization (which are anything but desirable). More widely used (and understood) examples would include "ideal democracy" and "ideal capitalism."


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Ideal type: A construct or model that serves as a measuring rod against which specific cases can be evaluated.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section

Researching the Real World Section 2.3 Case Study Weber's Ideal Types


Coser, L.A., 1977, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context,” second edition, New York: Harcourt Brace.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Harvey, L. and Stensaker, B., 2008, ‘Quality culture: understandings, boundaries and linkages’, European Journal of Education 43(4), pp. 427–42. Pre publication version available here as a pdf.

Kim, Sung Ho, 2012, 'Max Weber', in Zalta, E.N. (Ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), first published 24August 2007; substantive revision 31 July 2012, originally available at, accessed 14 May 2013, available still at, 22 December 2016.

Löwith, K., 1982, Max Weber and Karl Marx, H. Fantel (trans.), London, Allen & Unwin.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 15 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017.

Weber, M., [1904] 1949. “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy” in Shils, E.A and Finch, H.A. (Eds. and trans.), The Methodology of the Social Sciences, New York, Free Press.

Weber, M., [1917] 1949. 'The Meaning of "Ethical Neutrality" in Sociology and Economics' Shils, E.A and Finch, H.A. (Eds. and trans.), The Methodology of the Social Sciences, New York, Free Press.

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