Working with Max Weber Today

Travailler avec Max Weber cover

Beatrice Hibou and Jean-Pierre Grossein have recently published an edited volume entitled Working with Max Weber (Travailler avec Max Weber), which seeks to contribute to a better understanding of Max Weber's work by giving the floor to researchers—sociologists, economists, historians—who actually engage with Weber's work and do not simply yield to the temptation of quotations. In this interview, they present the objectives and outcomes of this initiative.

You have built this collective volume to counteract a specifically French perception of Max Weber’s work, which often foregrounds Weber as a theoretician and neglects Weber as an empiricist. Can you comment on this objective?

Our initial observation was twofold. In the first instance, we saw that Max Weber is often cited in French scholarly literature, and increasingly so, but that he is very often misquoted, his arguments and methodology simplified, sometimes with misunderstanding (particularly of the argument of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), or that he is cited only as an incantation, in search of recognition or legitimacy. In the second instance, we noted that the reception of Max Weber's work in France has occurred through a filter of translations and readings that have oriented its meaning. Independently of the problem of translations, this reception has also been undeniably hindered by the fact that the social sciences have been persistently monopolised by two “schools” (the Durkheimian school on the one hand and Marxism on the other), which has left little room for a fruitful appropriation of Weber's work. The result has been a very partial and biased reading of this work, in particular with a lack of knowledge of Weber's empirical work, whether it be his vast surveys of agricultural workers east of the Elbe or of industrial labour, for example, or his long empirical political analyses of Russia or Germany during his time. Hence the lasting perception in France of Weber as the founder of “grand theory”, including the theory of politics—Raymond Aron having played no small part in this perception. However, Weber's work suggests that social reality can only be apprehended by an intellectual elaboration that proposes an understanding in a perpetual back and forth between empirical and conceptual construction.

Why is the French translation of Weber's work a matter of debate?

Even if we limit ourselves to the problems of translating Weber's work into French, there are several issues to be distinguished: the late nature of the translations, their selective character, and the question of their quality.
While Weber died in 1920, the first French translations of his work were not published until 1959, specifically withLe savant et le politique, then 1964 for L'éthique protestante et l'esprit du capitalisme and 1965 for the publication of Essais sur la théorie de la science. It was only in 1971 that a partial translation of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Économie et société) appeared.
In addition to their late nature, a list of the texts translated shows their very selective and partial character, which hindered a wide reception of this work. This state of affairs had the effect of reinforcing the role of Anglo-American translations and their commentators, beginning with Talcott Parsons. However, the English translations of Weber's work have introduced biases that have had an effect on its reception, including in France. To take just a few examples, we can think of expressions that have flourished despite being inaccurate translations: “the disenchantment of the world” or the “steel cage”.
Without being so naive as to think that the reception of a body of work as complex as Weber’s has been determined by the quality of its translations, one cannot ignore the deficient nature of the translations cited above.
Jean-Pierre Grossein undertook a critical analysis of these French translations, before writing new ones, though he received little encouragement for this task and was sometimes criticised for being too strict. Today, a greater number of Weber’s texts have been translated into French by others as well. These newer translations are very uneven and we are still faced with a dispersion of publications and an absence of coordination in the choices of what gets translated, which does not facilitate the understanding of the texts and which adds additional uncertainties of interpretation to the intrinsic complexity of the Weberian corpus. Critical attention to translations remains a healthy attitude, if we are to take the right measure of Weber's language, which is rich in subtleties and, at the same time, in difficulties.

The aim of this edited volume is to “show how Weberian theoretical language can be used to enrich empirical analyses based on a better knowledge of Weberian conceptuality”. How did you compose this edited volume? What was the genesis of this project?

This book is partly the result of a conference that we organised in October 2017 at CERI and the Institut Historique Allemand (IHA). Our starting point was threefold. Firstly, as just mentioned, we wanted to do justice to a body of work that is often caricatured and misunderstood, or even poorly known, and in so doing, to do justice to the revival of French translations and to the concern of certain translators to make explicit, in a precise and coherent manner, the concepts, problematisations, and approaches specific to Weber’s work. Secondly, our aim was to take the study of Weber's work out of the hands of a small group of specialists and out of the not always fertile disputes between exegetes. Finally, we wanted to make the richness of Weber's theses and methodology better known by showing both their complexity and their topicality. We therefore decided to bring together social sciences scholars—mainly French and German—who work concretely with Max Weber’s ideas. Historians, sociologists, specialists in political science or political economy, anthropologists... Colleagues who do not necessarily know each other but who have in common that they take Weber's conceptualisation or methodology seriously and who are not satisfied with quoting Weber just “for the sake of it”.
The book is organised in four sections, each introduced by an extract from a text by Weber, the aim of which, as you point out in the introduction, is to propose “problematic openings”. Can you tell us more about the choice of the four themes and the purpose of the texts quoted at the beginning of each section?
Very classically, we have chosen the major themes that underpin the architecture of Weber's work, even if they are far from summarising it on their own: law; bureaucracy and the government of the social; the demagification of the world; art and technology. What we found interesting was to compare works that dealt with completely different historical situations, geographical contexts, empires and social configurations (from the Middle Ages to the present day, from France to Africa, from music to agriculture, from the police to labour). These themes reflect—but only in part—themes worked on by Weber himself. We have therefore designed the connections between these heterogeneous approaches taking into account both the ways in which our colleagues read Weber's work and the way Weber conceptualised or approached these themes.
Quoting from Weber’s texts at the beginning of each section aims precisely at recalling the complexity of Weberian thought and at challenging the crude understanding that is often prevalent, including in scientific circles. These excerpts also highlight the reasoning and demonstrative methods that Weber continually developed, the art of nuance and the constant back-and-forth between empirical and conceptual thinking. Above all, these texts or extracts from texts are characteristic of Weber's work: they are not dogmatic statements that would open the way to a reflection, to a way of conceptualising, to a type of conclusion to be reached. On the contrary, they allow for multiple interpretations and differing or even opposing intellectual paths. This is also what we have tried to show in this edited volume: that Weber can be used in different ways.

How does this edited volume show the contemporaneity of Max Weber's work for research in the humanities and social sciences?

Our book shows this contemporaneity first and foremost by publishing texts written today by scholars who are inspired by Weber’s conceptualisation. This contemporaneity is also reflected in the current use of questions raised by Max Weber in his time, which help to problematise new configurations. This contemporaneity can be seen, finally and perhaps above all, in the emphasis placed in all these contributions not on the “conclusions” of Weber’s work, but on his approach, the structure of his arguments, his ways of reasoning.

Contributors to the edited volume: Etienne Anheim, Gilles Bastin, François Chazel, Claude Didry, Laurent Fourchard, Pascale Gruson, Thomas Kroll, Romain Melot, Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Emmanuel Pedler, Mohamed Tozy, Hubert Treiber, Hartman Tyrell, Johannes Weiss

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.

Access the book's presentation online

Table of contents

J.P. Grossein et B. Hibou – Présentation du volume

J.P. Grossein – Introduction : La sociologie wébérienne comme science interprétative

M. Weber – Science juridique et sociologie (Congrès de sociologie allemande de 1909)
F. Chazel – La sociologie wébérienne du droit sous la loupe d'Hubert Treiber
C. Didry – Weber et le droit du travail. Les voies d'une autre histoire sociale
R. Melot – Enquêter sur les usages du droit. L'apport de la réflexion wébérienne

Bureaucratie et Gouvernement du social
H. Tyrell – Le type de la bureaucratie est-il un type de justesse objective ?
H. Treiber – Max Weber et la réforme du management public: Qu'a réellement à voir « l'État néo-wébérien avec Max Weber?
L. Fourchard – Domination et action policière au Nigéria et en Afrique du Sud
J.P. Olivier de Sardan – Max Weber à l'épreuve des bureaucraties africaines, ou vice-versa
B. Hibou et M. Tozy – Bureaucratie et ordre public. Gouverner « en entente » au Maroc

La démagification du monde
M. Weber – L’ascèse protestante et la vie active moderne (conférence de 1905)
J. Weiss – La démagification du monde, la science moderne et l’avenir de la religion
P. Gruson – La dimension éthique de l’action : entre probabilités et normes
T. Kroll – Le type-idéal wébérien du « charisme » dans la pratique historiographique

L’art et la technique
M. Weber – L’art et la technique (Extrait de « Neutralité axiologique »)
E. Anheim – Max Weber et la musique médiévale
E. Pedler – Cultures visuelles et rationalité technique
G. Bastin – Le démon wébérien du journalisme. Ordre de vie, anonymat et personnalité dans le siècle de la presse

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