A critic of the sociologists' clinging to Weber's long-ago-debunked theory
Extracts from a paper by Jeff Grabmeier about a book of Richard Hamilton. Safety copy May 00. Original document on the Ohio State University website.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A recent review of 15 undergraduate sociology textbooks found that all discussed Max Weber's thesis that the Protestant work ethic was the decisive factor in the rise of capitalism in the West. The problem is that most books gave unqualified approval for the theory, even though it has been subjected to serious criticism for some 90 years, according to Richard Hamilton, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University. Only a few of the books cited any critiques of the theory. Unfortunately, that's just one example of how scholars, including those who write textbooks, sometimes cling to favorite theories and beliefs long after they've been disproved, Hamilton said.

Hamilton discusses the persistence of the work ethic myth and others in his book The Social Misconstruction of Reality (Yale University Press, 1996). (...) "In some situations, scholars stick with discredited theories long after the theories should have died," Hamilton said. "Scholars know the evidence, but are unwilling or unable to give up the thesis. New findings are either ignored or glossed over."

The Protestant work ethic theory is a good example. The famous sociologist Max Weber developped in detail this theory in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). His basic argument was that there was a strong causal connection between ascetic Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in the West.

The book has been considered a masterpiece and gained widespread acceptance, especially in sociology, Hamilton said. However, several more contemporary scholars – including economic historian Jacob Viner and sociologist Gordon Marshall – have shown major flaws in Weber's argument and found a disturbing lack of evidence to back up Weber's claims.

Some of Weber's obvious factual errors have continued to be published today, long after they have been exposed, Hamilton said. For example, in the first chapter of his book, Weber reviews 1895 enrollment in the schools of Baden, a German state. His statistics show that there were 21 percent more Protestants than Catholics in the scientifically oriented high schools. Weber trumpeted this as proof that Protestants were more likely than Catholics to be preparing for a career in business or science, key fields for the development of capitalism.

But in 1957, one critic pointed to an obvious error – the key row of percentages added up to 109 percent. A recent reanalysis of the original data, making an appropriate control, has discovered the Protestant-Catholic difference to be near zero. However, the original error – the row of percentages adding up to 109 percent – has continued to appear in later editions of Weber's book. No acknowledgment is made of the new evidence or the damage it does to Weber's thesis.

"Many sociology textbooks continue to give the Weber hypothesis without even a sign that there's a problem," Hamilton said. (...) Hamilton said there are many reasons that discredited theories live on in the academic community. One factor is the specialization of academics, which often results in scholars from one field not knowing evidence collected by scholars in another.

Weber's Protestant work ethic thesis is an example. Economic historians who have extensively studied the rise of capitalism give little credence to Weber's thesis. But sociologists in general haven't incorporated that new evidence into their own books and texts, Hamilton said.

"We've got people in other departments generating new findings, but regrettably there is a large gap between departments that allows myths to persist for generations," he said. Also, academics find it difficult to admit a long-cherished and believed theory may be wrong. "You not only have to say you were mistaken about the theory, you have to rethink your whole orientation to the subject matter. It is quite a turnaround," he said.