Primary to Karl Marx’s contributions to sociology are his attempts to explain capitalism via the social relations that he sees as giving...
What are the similarities and differences between Karl Marx and Max Weber’s contributions to sociology?
Primary to Karl Marx’s contributions to sociology are his attempts to explain capitalism via the social relations that he sees as giving rise to it and undergirding it. At the foundation of his sociological approach is a theory of conflict between different social classes, drawn along lines according to their economic relationships to one another and contextualised in a historical perspective (historical materialism) which sees these relationships as the inevitable development of societies through various stages. In this way, his sociology is core to his explanations in the fields of economics and politics – they are closely interlinked.
Max Weber made numerous contributions to sociology, being one of the discipline’s prime influences early on. Arguably his most significant contributions to the subject were methodological rather than material; he is credited with defining ‘social action’ and with breaking from the positivist approach of explaining social phenomena objectively. He argued that social actions should be analysed by interpretation of individuals’ subjective meanings. In line with this, he believed that collectives in society could only be understood by reference to the actions of individuals, an approach known as ‘methodological individualism’.
The starkest contrasts between Marx and Weber are in their methodological approaches to the discipline. Marx admired the positivist project and hoped in his economic work to create mathematical proofs of his theories (although he never succeeded in this). Similarly, Marx characterised the historical development of societies as being deterministic and objective. By contrast, Weber’s approach to the development of societies was highly contextual; he believed that a wide range of factors determined the course of development, including religious and cultural sentiments, which are not uniform across societies. One thing they had in common was a belief in the stratification of societies between different social classes, albeit according to different criteria.