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ABSTRACT This article aims at substantiating two theses: (1) Weber’s programmatic metatheoretical texts contain a description of the method of socioscientific explanation, which anticipate a specific version of the Rational Choice Approach (RCA) in contemporary sociology, and (2) it is possible to distinguish two versions of this description; the first, however, being closer to the RCA than the second. The late Weberian outline of sociological theory of action is reconstructed out of his famous typology of action. KEY WORDS • interpretive sociology • Max Weber • rational choice approach • sociological explanation • theory of action

1. Introduction Theoretical discussion in the field of sociology over the past two decades has been largely influenced by the growing popularity of the methodological line of thought known as the Rational Choice Approach (RCA). Starting out as ‘economic imperialism’, this view is becoming increasingly popular in sociology. Some advocates of the RCA tend to justify the new approach in part by referring to specific programmatic scientific claims by Max Weber, which are interpreted as an anticipation of RCA. In one of the most recent exchanges between defenders and critics of RCA, Edgar Kiser and Michael Hechter even designated their version of RCA as analytical Weberianism (Kiser and Hechter 1998: 798). The aim of this article is to systematically examine the points of convergence and divergence between conceptions of sociological explanation in Weber’s Verstehende Soziologie and in RCA. In section 1, I outline the differences and affinities between the two approaches. These

Rationality and Society Copyright © 2000 Sage Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi), Vol. 12(3): 259–282. [1043–4631(200008)12(3); 259–282; 013478]



observations are then specified and defined with consideration of the internal distinctions of RCA (in section 2) and the modifications of Weber’s concept of interpretive sociology (in section 3). These modifications are assessed as thoroughgoing enough to distinguish two versions of Weber’s interpretive sociology, the earlier one being closer to RCA than the later, which founds the tradition of specifically ‘sociological’ action theory.

2. Interpretive Sociology as a Meta-Theory of Sociological Explanation Weber famously defined sociology as ‘a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences’ (Weber 1922/1968: 4). If we read this definition retrospectively from the perspective of the RCA, two things stand out: (1) Sociology is not defined here by a specific subject area, which would distinguish it from other social sciences, above all economic science, but by the description of an explanatory method. (2) As I will show, this definition merely contains the description – already familiar to sociological circles – of a schema of sociological explanation as a macro–micro–macro transition (Figure 1), which can be found in all introductory accounts of the leading principles of RCA.1 It may also be of historical interest and relevance that this schema was first published in The Achieving Society, by McClelland, where it is used to illustrate the Weberian methods of argument in his work ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ (McClelland 1961: 47). This schema was adopted by James S. Coleman2 and has, with slight modifications, become a type of trademark of RCA in sociology. In this scheme, the correlation of two (or more) macrosociological variables (represented in Figure 1 by the dotted arrow) is explained through the micromechanism of their relationship, by deducing that the explanandum is a collective consequence of individual actions (right arrow). These individual actions are explained as the consequences of acts of rational choice (bottom arrow), which are completed in the macrosocially determined situations (left arrow). In the simplest case, a sociological explanation consists of three steps that link the variables of the macro-level to those of the micro-level: (1) from the logic of the situation, in which the relationships between the state of the social system – as the field of activity of individual agents – and their expectations and wants are analysed; (2) from the logic of


Macrosociological Explanans


Macrosociological Explanandum

Logic of Situation

Logic of Transformation Logic of Selection

Agent in the Situation


Figure 1. ‘Deep’ Sociological Explanation

selection, in which the choice of actions is explained by the expectations and aims of the agents; (3) from the logic of transformation, which, through the deduction of the collective consequences of individual actions, returns to the macro-level of the sociological facts to be explained. Those three steps of sociological explanation are found in the Weberian definition of sociology presented earlier. The interpretive understanding of social action can be identified with the reconstruction of the subjective definition of situation. This reconstruction results in a macro–micro transition starting from the accepted rules, institutionalized world views, and uniformities that an agent observes in the pursuit of ideal and material interests. It is this step that creates the premises for a causal explanation of the course of social action within the context of the logic of selection at the micro-level. Weber specifically claims that the causal explanation of social action has two, not one, explananda. Both the course and the consequences of social action have to be explained. In Weber’s view, therefore, the explanation of the course of social action is not an end in itself but a means to explain its effects, i.e. the collective or social consequences. After all, interpretive sociology is, by definition, concerned with the explanation of social action. These collective effects could even be unintentional or contrary to the intentions of the agent. ‘The final result of political action often, no, even regularly stands in completely inadequate and often even paradoxical relation to its original meaning. This is fundamental to all history, a point not to be proved in detail here’ (Weber 1919/1948: 117; see also Weber 1922/1968: 585–6). The third principal idea in Weber’s concept of interpretive sociology, the one that confirms its status as the anticipation of RCA, is his persistent claim that instrumentally rational (zweckrational) action in the interpretive understanding of social action always has methodical priority or



primacy. An interpretive understanding of social action must always begin by asking how an instrumentally rational agent, whose expectations are objectively rational (richtigkeitsrational) would act in a given situation. These expectations are based on comprehensive and accurate information on the situation. The answer to this question constitutes a sort of zero hypothesis, which should be the starting point for the explanation. Similar to present-day advocates of the RCA, Weber recommends this initial hypothesis both for economic science as a way of explaining the behaviour of market participants, and for an interpretive understanding of other forms of action. In working out a concrete causal explanation of individual events, the procedure of the historian is essentially the same. Thus in attempting to explain the campaign of 1866, it is indispensable both in the case of Moltke and of Benedek to attempt to construct imaginatively how each, given fully adequate knowledge both of his own situation and of that of his opponent, would have acted. Then it is possible to compare with this the actual course of action and to arrive at a causal explanation of the observed deviations, which will be attributed to such factors as misinformation, strategical errors, logical fallacies, personal temperament, or considerations outside the realm of strategy. Here, too, an ideal-typical construction of rational action is actually employed even though it is not made explicit. (Weber 1922/1968: 21)

However, there are at least three distinctions between the Weberian concept of interpretive sociology and the methodological views of RCA. Jon Elster pointed out the first of these distinctions: The two main theorists of rationality in the social sciences are, I believe, Max Weber and John Neumann. One of Weber’s main legacies to the sociological tradition is the notion of instrumental rationality, or ends–means rationality. Rationality is to choose the best means for a chosen end, given the initial conditions. The assumption of given conditions I refer to as the assumption of a parametric environment, and the corresponding notion of rationality as parametric rationality. (Elster 1979: 68)

Elster is therefore of the opinion that Weber does not have a concept of a strategic or game-theoretic rationality. However, this concept is essential, for example, in order to make explicit the ‘ideal-typical construction of rational action’ of Benedek and Moltke in the war of 1866. In the above citation, Weber clearly shows no sense of the game-theoretical problems that emerge if one attempts to demonstrate what ‘fully adequate knowledge both of his own situation and of that of his opponent’ actually means in the case of Moltke and Benedek. Weber’s concept of instrumentally rational social actions is that of parametric rationality. The agents in his interpretive sociology are ‘oriented to the past, present, or expected future behavior of others’ (Weber 1922/1968: 22) but do not take into consideration how they determine by their expecta-



tions the expectations of their counterparts, whose object is their own expectations. Weber’s particular interpretation of instrumental rationality also influenced his stance on the principle of methodological individualism, which he passionately defended in his foundational theoretical writings. Weber’s belief in methodological individualism is shared by the modern advocates of RCA: If sociological explanation is defined as a macro– micro–macro transition, it results in the application of the principle of methodological individualism. Therefore, I want not to treat this as a another one common feature shared by RCA and Weber’s interpretive sociology but, on the contrary, to emphasize the different ways that this principle is interpreted in each case. The principle of methodological individualism can be expressed as follows: All collective facts can and should be explained as consequences of individual action. This principle is the standard for assessing socio-scientific explanations and indicates the direction in which they could and should be improved. However, two readings of methodological individualism exist: the strict reading and the weak one.3 The individualistic ‘deep explanation’ is weak if the logic of a situation is described to already include the facts of the institutional rules. On the other hand, social theorists can be classified as advocates of strict methodological individualism, provided they attempt to explain the existence of the social system on the basis of a hypothetical presocial state. In this case, the initial conditions of the explanation of individual action must not include the description of sociological institutional rules. The issue is how, as a public good enabling agents to cooperate, these rules are created and continue to survive. This problem can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes. It is the concept of strategic rationality in modern game theory which allows this strict, individualistic problem to be raised once more and elaborated in the context of the RCA. Weber was a passionate advocate of methodological individualism, but did not hold such a radical individualistic position. He was solely interested in the typology of uniformities of the social order and their transformations. It is perhaps worth citing a pertinent remark by one of Weber’s interpreters at this point: ‘no action begins at a social zero state, but is always interwoven with macroconditions. One can therefore change the sequence in the “Basic Concepts in Sociology” [Economy and Society, Weber (1922/1968: Ch. 1)] and begin with the paragraph on social structures and regularities’ (Schwinn 1993: 235). The third point of divergence between the RCA and Weber’s interpretive sociology relates to the following question: What should one do if



the zero hypothesis of the objectively rational action, which always enjoys the advantage of the greatest clarity and certainty (Evidenz) or ‘adequacy on the level of meaning’ (Weber 1922/1968: 9, 11) does not prove causally adequate, i.e. if it is contradicted by the actual course of action? What should replace the discarded zero hypothesis? At this point, Weber introduces the concept of subjective instrumentally rational action. These are actions that, although optimizing and maximizing by intention, contain misinformation, strategical errors, maybe even logical fallacies in their actual determinants (Bestimmungsgründe) (Weber 1922/1968: 312). Thus, the observed deviations of the action in its actual course from its objectively rational course are explained by the hypothesis that the action was in fact instrumentally rational, but only in relation to the subjectively, not objectively, defined situation. Weber’s concept of subjective instrumental rationality is both complex and fascinating. It is fascinating because it can be linked to the current discussion on substantive and procedural, perfect and bounded rationality. Because of the limitations of space, I confine myself to the minimum of detail needed for a systematic classification of Weber’s views.4 The key question regarding this set of problems is the following: how strictly must one formulate the conditions for attributing (subjective) rationality? If we formulate these conditions very strictly, comparatively few examples of human behaviour can be included in the concept. A good example of this type of formulation of attributive conditions of instrumental rationality is the theory of subjective expected utility. The theory was developed by Frank P. Ramsey and Leonard Savage and explicates the concept of rational decision under risk. The rational action is defined here as an action that maximizes the agent’s expected value. According to the theory, an agent can act rationally, that is in a maximizing or optimizing way, only if his intentional system – i.e. all his wants and beliefs – fulfill specific formal, extremely strict conditions. The wants of the agent should be consistent and manifested in an order of preference that is complete, transitive, continuous, etc. The theory is about the ‘subjective’ rationality, because it allows to attribute the subjective rationality to an agent whose decision is premised on false beliefs. It is not the truth but the degree of belief that matters. This degree of belief is defined as subjective probability. As we all know, even false statements can have a high degree of subjective probability and be an object of firm conviction. Even an action influenced by such beliefs can be classified as instrumentally rational as long as these beliefs are synchronically and diachronically consistent, which they are if the subjective probabilities that quantitatively express the degree of



belief of an agent at a specific time fulfill the axioms of the probability calculus. The beliefs are diachronically consistent if an agent learns from new experiences updating the degrees of his beliefs in the manner described by the Bayesian Rule.5 Agreement still does not exist as to how often the intentional systems of agents fulfill all of the consistency conditions. Experiments in cognitive psychology have produced a long list of systematically recurring discrepancies between the observable decision-making and the consistency conditions, formulated by the theory of subjective expected utility. These deviations are called anomalies of rational choice. Most social scientists who subscribe to the RCA remain cool to these findings, pointing instead to Sir Karl Raimund Popper, who argues for the autonomy of the social sciences from psychology: he recommends the method of situational analysis to the social sciences.6 Popper’s remarks on the matter are interesting regarding Weber’s concept of subjective instrumental rationality on two grounds: (1) His views on the method of situational analysis were probably directly influenced by Weber,7 and (2) he formulates the conditions under which social action can be seen as instrumentally rational as loosely as possible. In this respect, his conception and the theory of subjective expected utility form to a certain degree the two polarities between which Weber’s theory is situated. Similar to Weber, Popper recommends that the socio-scientific explanation begins with the zero hypothesis of the objectively rational action, and where deviations occur to revert to subjective instrumental rationality. Contrary to Weber, however, he does not allow this assumption to be dismissed under certain conditions. All conceivable deviations in the course of action from that which was presupposed as instrumentally rational are seen not as evidence that the agents did not act rationally, but as evidence that the explanation was based on erroneously specified initial conditions. In other words, ‘deviations’ merely show that a researcher has not adequately reconstructed the logic of the situation. On the one hand, Popper supports his argument by formulating the rationality principle as vaguely and noncommittally as possible: ‘agents always act in a manner appropriate to the situation in which they find themselves’ (Popper 1976/1994: 172). On the other hand, he understands that the situation is not the objective situation but the situation as subjectively defined. In his view, the beliefs and wants of the agent constitute part of the situation. ‘We must remember, of course, that the situation, as I use this term, already contains all the relevant aims and available relevant knowledge, especially of the various possible means to achieve these aims’ (Popper 1976/1994: 169).



Whether an action is rational or irrational is decided solely by its appropriateness or inappropriateness in relation to the subjectively defined situation. It does not matter how the subjective definition of the situation was produced or how it was justified. Popper is only consistent when he claims that even the actions of a madman are rational in this sense: ‘and understanding his actions means seeing their adequacy according to his view – his madly mistaken view – of the problem situation’ (Popper 1976/1994: 179). At this point, the intuitions of Popper and Weber diverge, because Weber repeatedly defines psychopathic behaviour as irrational and maintains that it can only be explained psychologically, as in his example of the behaviour of the late Friedrich Wilhelm IV (Weber 1903–6/ 1975: 137). Weber’s definition of (subjective) instrumentally rational action is, however, broad enough to subsume a certain action inspired by a belief in magic or sorcery: Rubbing will elicit sparks from pieces of wood, and in like fashion the mimetical actions of a magician will evoke rain from the heavens. The sparks resulting from twirling the wooden sticks are as much a ‘magical’ effect as the rain evoked by the manipulations of the rainmaker. Thus, religious or magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct, particularly since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic. Only we, judging from the standpoint of our modern views of nature, can distinguish objectively in such behavior those attributions of causality which are ‘correct’ from those which are ‘fallacious’, and then designate the fallacious attributions of causality as irrational, and the corresponding acts as ‘magic’. (Weber 1922/1968: 400)

The conditions under which an action can be considered subjectively instrumentally rational are not as strict in Weber as in the theory of subjective expected utility, but neither are they as loose as in the Popperian concept of situative rationality. In recent years, the well-known French sociologist Raymond Boudon has repeatedly attempted to connect Weber’s concept of subjective instrumental rationality with his own cognitive model of rationality (Boudon 1987, 1991, 1994: 1–55, 1995, 1996; see also Boudon 1986/1988). In his view, the subjective rationality is only ostensively definable: ‘behaviour is rational when it can be explained by a sentence beginning ‘X had good reasons for doing Y, because …’., without risking objection, and without oneself having the feeling of having said something incongruous’ (Boudon 1994: 255). The word because should be immediately followed by the description of the beliefs of the agent that motivated his behaviour. Boudon illustrates his proposed solution to the problem with examples:



Thus, one cannot say: ‘the mother had good reasons to slap the children’s face, for she was angry’. Such an expression gives immediately a feeling of absurdity. One would rather say: ‘the mother had no reason to slap the children’s face, but she was angry’ … By contrast, one would say without meeting resistance: ‘the Puritans had good reasons to invest their profits, since they were convinced that one should refrain from superfluous consumption, and that prosperity in business is a sign of election’. (Boudon 1991: 38)

Whether Boudon can solve the problem of subjective instrumental rationality is more than doubtful. One cannot assume that common sense is a guarantee of consensual evaluations in judges. How, for example, can we judge the reasons of an agent if certain judges have the ‘feeling’ that his reasons are good, and others consider them bad? In situations where such conflicts of intuition arise, explicitly formulated criteria are required to classify an action as instrumentally rational. Nonetheless, Boudon’s proposal contains a grain of truth, which can be predicatively formulated. Behaviour can be seen as subjectively instrumentally rational if the motives can be intersubjectively approved. Or, in Weber’s terminology, the context of meaning (Sinnzusammenhang) (Weber 1922/1968: 5) to which the subjective meaning of the action belongs, should be objectifiable, i.e. communicable and intersubjectively shared. So-called madness is always a dropout of social relationships (soziale Beziehung), which, according to Weber, are constituted by common meaning, into total isolation. Shared madness is no longer madness but a new (micro) Lebenswelt, or subculture. In other words, subjective instrumental rationality can be attributed only to actions that are appropriate with respect to shared definitions of the situation, irrespective of how bizarre and grotesque it may appear to others who don’t accept it. To formulate it in Weber’s own terms: The action is at least subjectively instrumentally rational if its subjective meaning content (subjektiv gemeinte Sinn) can also function as the meaning content of a social relationship. Weber’s interpretation of subjective instrumental rationality differs from Popper’s interpretation of situative rationality, however, not just in the claim that an action must be appropriate to the nonidiosyncratically, socially defined situation. Weber attributes subjective instrumental rationality only to those actions performed by an agent in the clear and distinctly articulated consciousness of its subjective meaning, i.e. those that are the outcome ‘of rational consideration of alternative means to the end, of the relations of the end to the secondary consequences, and finally of the relative importance of different possible means’ (Weber 1922/1968: 26). This condition of conscious deliberation in the choice of action led Weber to the conviction that interpretive understanding



through the hypothesis that the agents (subjectively) acted instrumentally rationally, can rarely be causally adequate: In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate halfconsciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to ‘be aware’ of it in a vague sense than he is to ‘know’ what he is doing or be explicitly conscious about it. In most cases his action is governed by impulse or habit. (Weber 1922/1968: 21)

In such cases, Weber sees even subjective instrumental rationality as having a purely heuristic function: It serves as a passage to other hypotheses that interpret the action of an agent as value rational, traditional or affective. We are now at a point where the methodological views of Weber differ from those of the majority of advocates of the RCA. If the actual course of the action deviates from that predicted under the assumption of (subjective) instrumental rationality, the majority tend toward Popper rather than Weber. They do not want to abandon the assumption of the agent’s instrumental rationality, but to rescue the explanation based on this assumption by reviewing the descriptions of the primary conditions. They thus specify shadow incentives and shadow prices that were not originally considered. In their opinion, the question whether the behaviour was motivated by conscious deliberation or not is irrelevant for the attribution of instrumental rationality.

3. Weber as a Theorist of the RCA Despite all of these divergences, Weber’s methodological instructions on how to approach interpretive understanding and causal explanation qualify as an anticipation of the RCA. To qualify, however, two assumptions implicit in my comparison of the two worlds of ideas must be explained and revised. I have viewed both the RCA and Weber’s methodology each as monoliths, disregarding the fact that various interpretations of the RCA exist and, moreover, that Weber’s methodological views have also changed, with the result that two versions of the concept ‘interpretative sociology’ in his work can be distinguished. Not all social scientists who subscribe to the RCA interpret it as the so-called pure universalism of Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro (1994: 192–4). This interpretation, advocated by, for example, Gary S. Becker, amounts to the conviction that all phenomena of socio-scientific interest can be explained in the framework of the RCA. However, attempts to do so encounter certain problems of explanation or anomalies, which cause many supporters of the RCA to modify their core assumptions or



confine the sphere of application. One example is the legendary paradox of election participation, which also illustrates the heuristic value of the zero hypothesis of strict instrumental rationality already emphasized by Weber. The election paradox runs as follows: If we hold the voters to be strictly instrumentally rational agents, we must expect an election participation of 0%, because the larger the electorate, the slighter are the chances for an individual to determine the outcome of the election. Therefore, the costs of election participation are always greater than the expected value of election participation, irrespective of how strongly the voter feels about a particular candidate. Nevertheless, the reality deviates very strongly from the hypothesized participation rate of 0%, and this deviation must be causally explained. If we follow the methodological instructions of Weber outlined earlier, we must first try to explain the deviation by the hypothesis that, in this case, the purely subjectively instrumentally rational action diverges from the strictly instrumentally rational action, and then try to locate the systematic error that voters make in estimating the importance of their vote. However, this hypothesis is not sufficient: Very few people who cast ballots nurture the illusion that their vote can decide the outcome of the election. According to Weber, one should abandon the assumption of instrumental rationality here and explain election participation as a valuerational, affective, or traditional action instead. Supporters of the strictly universalistic interpretation of the RCA prefer, however, to salvage instrumental rationality by searching for the ‘shadow incentives’ of election participation that more than balance the costs of election participation. However, some social scientists who consider the RCA a resource of the socio-scientific market of ideas nevertheless do not take the view that the anomalies of the RCA can always be surmounted by searching for shadow costs and shadow incentives. They prefer to apply the RCA only if specific boundary conditions have been fulfilled. Green and Shapiro describe this as segmented universalism. In cases that fulfill these conditions, the RCA can completely explain human behaviour. This view is advanced by Erich Weede and Michael Taylor, for example, who exclude so-called low-cost decisions from the sphere of application of the RCA (Weede 1996: 7–8; Taylor 1989: 148–52). In these situations, an agent hardly risks losing anything if she misjudges them, or the effects of her actions depend less on her choice of action than on circumstances outside her control. Consequently, the RCA can explain the behaviour of politicians, military leaders and, of course, entrepreneurs better than that of voters.



Another moderately imperialistic interpretation, as it were, of the RCA is partial universalism (Ferejohn 1991: 282–6; Bates et al. 1998). Advocates of this interpretation assume that although the RCA is applicable to every behaviour, in many cases it can only partially explain it. This applies for both low-cost and high-cost decisions. In matters of life and death, strictly instrumentally rational agents are often embroiled in strategic interactions, which have the structure of games with more than one equilibrium. In this case, the game-theoretical model can at best partially explain or predict how these interactions will develop (certain outcomes are excluded). Nevertheless, it cannot explain why, of a number of equilibria, this particular one was realized. Since gametheoretical models cannot unequivocally predict the results of strategic interactions, they merely present incomplete (partial) explanations. Therefore, some people advocate viewing the RCA and the culturalistic or interpretive social science as mutally complementary, because only the so-called Third World of the shared linguistic and cultural meanings places the participants of a strategic interaction, which, for example, is structured like a game of coordination, in a position to identify a specific equilibrium as a focal point.8 This internal differentiation of the RCA allows one to specify the extent to which Weber’s interpretive sociology can be seen as an anticipation of the RCA – i.e. as an anticipation of the segmented universalistic RCA. After all, Weber did not say that ideally typical constructions arising from social action, which for their part presuppose a strict instrumental rationality, had a purely heuristic meaning as generators of research problems. Even the zero hypotheses of the theory of marginal utility describing objectively rational economic behaviour can be causally adequate. Weber mentions a constantly increasing convergence (Annäherung) of reality with the theoretical propositions of neoclassical economics, which he calls abstract economic theory, ‘affecting the fate of continually growing sections of mankind’ (Weber 1908/1968: 305). ‘It is, for example, no coincidence, that a particularly striking measure of convergence with the theoretical propositions of price fixing, developed by v. Böhm-Bawerk with reference to Menger, was demonstrated by the Berlin Stock Exchange fixation under the system of the so-called uniform price: it could be seen as a perfect example of this’ (Weber 1908/1968: 395–6). According to Weber, the ability to act in an instrumentally rational way is an anthropological constant. Another matter, however, is the realization of this ability (as potentiality) at full capacity. Historical epochs and cultures differ from one another according to how widespread the



sphere of instrumentally rational and especially strictly or objectively rational action. When Weber speaks of the rationalization of social action, he means the existence of institutional and cultural conditions that force people to mostly act in an instrumentally rational way, at least subjectively, and which simultaneously enable such action in the first place. Not only are the zero hypotheses of the RCA first heuristically valuable under these conditions, but also causally adequate. Weber attributes the quality of formal rationality to institutional conditions under which the RCA not only gains heuristic meaning, but can also explain social action in causally adequate way. It is a matter of institutions, which render social action calculable and thus decrease the transaction and information costs for the agents. The conditions for expanding areas in which the zero hypotheses of instrumentally rational action are causally adequate include the following: 1. The accumulation of objectively rational knowledge by modern science, which decreases the information costs of instrumentally rational action. 2. The invention of semiotic techniques that expand the natural boundaries of the cognitive capacity of the human psychophysical apparatus, just as the spade, the bulldozer and the hammer did for physical capacities. Weber considered one of these inventions – double-entry bookkeeping – so significant that he included it in his definition of modern capitalism (Weber 1923/1961: 208, 211– 12). These are inventions that sink information costs and consequently make maximizing action both increasingly possible and necessary for boundedly rational human beings.

4. Max Weber as Sociological Action Theorist I have specified my thesis that Weber’s concept of interpretive sociology is the anticipation of the RCA. I also wish to take into account that this concept was transformed during Weber’s lifetime. Two texts exist in which this is clearly stated. The first is the article ‘Some Categories of Interpretive Sociology’, published in 1913 in the journal Logos (Weber 1913/1968) but possibly written two years previously (Schluchter 1998: 336–9); the second is the famous Chapter 1 in Economy and Society (Weber 1922/1986), which he wrote in 1919–20. The first text can be seen as the conceptual head of the original text in Economy and Society; whereas the second was intended to perform the same



function for a revision of the book, which Weber did not finish before he died. The most important difference is that Weber’s famous typology of social action – in which the pure types of the instrumentally rational, the value rational, the traditional and affectual action are distinguished – is found only in the later text. Although Weber had already worked with the differentiation of value rationality and instrumental rationality in the earlier text, he related this distinction here to the institutional, i.e. to the macro-level, where he distinguishes the material rationality of legal norms from their formal rationality, but not to the micro- or action-level. Weber’s response to the question of what should be done if the zero hypothesis of instrumentally rational action proves causally inadequate differs in the two texts. According to the earlier text, an action that is not even subjectively instrumentally rational must be explained psychologically. Weber faces the following problem: On the one hand, he has so strictly defined the conditions under which behaviour can be seen as instrumentally rational that instrumentally rational action scarcely occurs; on the other hand, he insists that interpretive sociology should be independent of psychology. Both have strongly restricted the sphere of interpretive sociology. ‘Since meaningful social action is the object of Weberian sociology, he must, as he says, presumably describe 80% of all social action, that occurs in the shape of semi-conscious or meaningful amorphous habits (‘traditionally determined action’), as not actually belonging to his theme’.9 With respect to this difficulty, Weber had to insist in the earlier text that rational action only differed gradually from irrational action: For sociology 1. the more or less approximately realized type of the objective rationality (Richtigkeitstypus), 2. the (subjectively) instrumentally rationally oriented type, 3. the more or less consciously and clearly and more or less unambiguosly instrumentally rationally oriented, 4. no longer instrumentally rational but meaningfully understandable, 5. the more or less understandable behavior, which is comotivated by the ununderstandable elements in the more or less disconnected context, and, finally, 6. completely ununderstandable psychic and physical facts ‘in’ and ‘concerning’ a man are connected by the gradual transitions. (Weber 1913/ 1968: 435)

Weber can be understood here both in the sense that only case 6 can be attributed to psychology, and that it can already play a role in case 3. At any rate, these explanations cannot provide any unequivocal guidelines for empirical research. Weber’s action theoretical innovations in ‘Basic Concepts in Sociology’ can be read as a second attempt to surmount these difficulties. In this text, Weber attempts to supplement the interpretive sociology as



explanation method through sociological action theory. This involves an action theory that should satisfy the following conditions: 1. It should be independent of psychology.10 2. It should be linked to everyday experience or folk psychology.11 3. It should be more realistic (or descriptively accurate) and have a broader explanatory scope and analytical power (Heckathorn 1984) than the theory of instrumental rational action, which is regarded as a special borderline case. Weber’s action typology basically already contains all the variables of this kind of comprehensive sociological action theory. These variables are the opportunities, or in Weber’s terminology, the chances of action (O), goals (G), the expectations (E) of the agent, the value commitments (V ), the habits (T), and the affects (A). Therefore, the comprehensive sociological theory regards the action (H) as the function H = h(O, E, G, V, T, A). Provided that the meanings of the variables in the argument concerning the function independently vary from each other and can also have the meaning 012, the borderline cases are the pure types of instrumentally rational action [H = h(O, E, G)], value rational or conviction-ethical action [H = h(O, V )], traditional action [H = h(O, T)] and of affectual action [H = h(O, A)]. Besides these pure types, 10 mixed types are also possible from the purely combinatory point of view. In total, Weber’s action typology includes 15 action types: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15.

H = h(O, E, G) instrumentally rational action H = h(O, V) value rational action H = h(O, T) traditional action H = h(O, A) affectual action H = h(O, E, G, V, T, A) H = h(O, E, G, V, T) H = h(O, E, G, V, A) H = h(O, E, G, V ) responsibility-ethical, or verantwortungsethisch, action H = h(O, E, G, T, A) H = h(O, E, G, T) H = h(O, E, G, A) H = h(O, V, T, A) H = h(O, V, T) H = h(O, V, A) H = h(O, T, A)



Weber himself explicitly pointed out and discussed some of these mixed types: ‘choice between alternative and conflicting ends and results may well be determined in a value rational manner. In that case, action is instrumentally rational only in respect to the choice of means’ (Weber 1922/1968: 26). This obviously refers to type 8, which he treats under the name of responsibility-ethical action. In the later work, whenever Weber wrote about rational action, he subsumed at least three types of action under this concept: 1, 2, and 8. ‘It is a case of sublimation when affectually determined action occurs in the form of conscious release of emotional tension. When this happens it is usually well on the road to rationalization in one or the other or both of the above senses’ (Weber 1922/1968: 25). In this sentence, Weber refers to the mixed types 14, 11, and 8. A reconstruction of Weber’s entire action typology shows that he tended to also define as pure types behavioural episodes that in fact belonged to the mixed types. This is particularly true of his use of the expression ‘traditional action’. The expression refers not only to the action of type 3, which has ‘its place in a systematic classification’ merely as ‘a limiting case’ (Weber 1922/1968: 25), but also to the action of type 13. When Weber writes that ‘attachment to habitual forms can be upheld with varying degrees of self-consciousness and in a variety of senses’ (Weber 1922/1968: 25), he means cases 6 and 10, concerning which he says, ‘in the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning’ (Weber 1922/1968: 21). The action theory outlined by Weber in his late work can perhaps be better understood by slightly modifying the filter model of instrumentally rational action proposed by Jon Elster.13 In this model, the choice is presented as a filtering out of several alternatives. Elster’s model contains two filters. The first consists of the restrictions, which separate the ‘real’ action options, or the opportunity set, of an agent from options that are possible only logically. The second filter consists of the wants and expectations of the agent, which in combination determine which one real action option is selected. The principle of utility maximization describes how this second filter functions. The whole is represented in Figure 2. The Weberian model was intended to include five filters altogether, which according to the circumstances can be reactivated and can independently or, in conjunction with other filters, determine which action is chosen. By contrast, the theory of instrumentally rational action attempt to do without additional filters by attributing value commitments, affects, and habits to the first or second filter. Value commitments can


Logically possible actions


Opportunity set

Beliefs and wants


Chosen action

Figure 2. Elster’s Filter Model

be interpreted as special ethical wants or metawants, which have as a subject other wants of their subject; the traditional action can be redescribed as risk-averse instrumentally rational action or as instrumentally rational action restricted by the information costs, etc. Weber’s later outline of the action theory anticipated later attempts at a sociological action theory. Perhaps the best known among them is the voluntaristic theory of action formulated by Talcott Parsons and presented in his early work, The Structure of the Social Action, which was directly inspired by the action theory attempt in Weber’s later work. If the Weberian concept of interpretive sociology does anticipate the RCA, this applies more for the earlier version of the ‘Some Categories of Interpretive Sociology’ than for the later version of ‘Basic Concepts in Sociology’, which distanced itself from the positions of the RCA. However, the action typology in Weber’s later work contains only the outline, not the formulation of an action theory that would fulfill the above three conditions for such a theory. To fulfill these conditions, Weber’s action theory should contain at least one nomological relational statement, which would specify the functional relationship between all of its variables. Let us make a comparison: If we know that the attraction force F stands in functional dependency F = f(r, m1, m2) from the distance r and the masses m1 and m2, we still do not have the attraction law. The shape of this functional dependency must be specified, too (in this case, F = q(m1m2)/r2). As long as Weber’s action theory does not include nomological statements, it can be seen only as a scheme of classification, not as an explanatory theory. The same applies for all later efforts to construct a sociological action theory, from Parsons to Jürgen Habermas. They merely contain classification schemata and are not explanatory theories. Precisely because these efforts failed to produce an explanatory sociological action theory, social scientists, who do not want to renounce the autonomy of their discipline from psychology,



hold the theory of rational choice – despite all its anomalies – to be the best action theoretical offer available.

5. Conclusion I have restricted myself to an analysis of Weber’s programmatic scientific texts and not investigated the relationship of Weber’s metatheoretical concept of interpretive sociology to the logic-in-use of his substantive work.14 This topic has been reserved for separate treatment. Comparing Weber’s concept of the verstehende Soziologie and the methodology of RCA, I applied the distinction made by Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro between the strictly universalist, segmented universalist, and partially universalist versions of the RCA. I also distinguished two versions of Weber’s concept of interpretive sociology, the earlier one anticipating both the method of situational analysis propounded by Karl Popper and the segmented universalist version of the RCA, and the later pointing in the direction of the voluntaristic theory of social action promulgated by Talcott Parsons. The main reason for the divergence between Weber’s early interpretive sociology and mainstream RCA is Weber’s very restrictive concept of instrumental rational action. In the later version of Verstehende Soziologie, Weber was about to embed instrumentally rational action in the comprehensive theory of action. As I argue, the only tangible result of this project was Weber’s famous typology of action, which in its complete form includes 14 types of action. It is obvious that RCA, with heavy infusions of ideas direct from economics, long ago surpassed Weber when it comes to analysing systematic properties of instrumental rationality. Has Weber’s quest for the fuller action theory any remaining present relevance for RCA? The virtues of empirical theory (both discursive and mathematically formulated) are descriptive adequacy, universality of explanatory scope (in our case, the ability to explain all episodes of human behaviour), and analytic power, which means ‘the efficiency of a theory in converting an informational input (e.g. quantitative specifications of initial conditions) into an informational output (i.e. predictions or explanations). Thus analytic power can be defined as the ratio of informational output (IO) to information input (II), i.e. AP = IO/II’ (Heckathorn 1984: 297). The attraction of the theory of rational action consists in its considerable analytical power. Given beliefs and preferences, it yields the determi-



nate predictions of choices (with some important exceptions, e.g. in games with several undominated equilibria15); given choices and beliefs, the preferences (or expected utility function) are derivable; for given choices and preferences, the beliefs can be triangulated. The broadening of the explanatory scope of this theory up to pure universalism doesn’t succeed, however, without sacrificing descriptive accuracy or analytical power. ‘The obvious interpretation of the statement that an action is rational is that the agent can give reasons for it – that he can explain why he does it, or did it. The clearest instances are those where he has had to make a case for doing this, not that’ (Hicks 1986: 102). This robust descriptive intuition goes lost in the reformulation of the theory of instrumentally rational action by Gary S. Becker in terms of microeconomic theory of production (Becker 1976: 87–149), which nevertheless achieves greater analytical power. As for Popper’s permissive view of the instrumental rationality as appropriateness with respect to situation as defined subjectively, it results in tautological explanations, which achieve universality of explanatory scope at the expense of descriptive adequacy and analytical power. It was the preference for descriptive accuracy that motivated Weber and other sociological action theorists to seek the specifically sociological action theory. This preference was satisfied, however, at the expense of analytical power: Weber’s later action theory and its kin yield no testable predictions. Nevertheless, the efforts to produce such a theory were not completely fruitless. They enriched the vocabulary of qualitative sociological research, providing the valuable tools for ‘thick descriptions’. Weber’s concepts of value rational, traditional, and affectual action are of remaining value for such work. By now, Weber’s types of action achieved in the sociological discourse the status of Nelson Goodman’s well-entrenched predicates (Goodman 1955/1965: 98–106), governing sociologists’ ‘feeling of the real’. So they can be useful as the test conditions for the descriptive adequacy of the elaboration of the theory of instrumentally rational action striving after the greater descriptive adequacy without refusing pure universalism and sacrificing analytical power. Such elaboration can count as descriptively adequate if it doesn’t eliminate or explain away distinctions between instrumentally rational, value rational, and nonrational behaviour by redescribing or reclassifying the problematic behaviour episodes, but rather, if it provides the conceptual resources to explain them, preserving their descriptions in types-of-action terms. But is such a task not self-defeating? How can the same behaviour episodes be both described as nonrational and explained as effects of instrumentally rational choices?



Valuable suggestions for answering these questions can be found in the work of German sociologist Hartmut Esser (Esser 1990, 1996, 1999; see also Lindenberg 1989). He elaborates a pure universalist version of the theory of instrumentally rational action, distinguishing the firstorder decisions from those of the second order 16. The objects of the first-order decisions (or selections) are the alternative courses of the outer behaviour. The objects of the second-order selections are mental: the modes of information processing and the frames, named by Esser alternatively as models of situation and codes. The modes differ with respect to the heuristics used. There are costly heuristics, which demand plenty of time, attention, and other scarce mental resources to process information, and cheap heuristics. They differ in the probability of finding the course of outer behaviour that is optimal with respect to objective situation. Ceteris paribus, the more costly heuristics provide objectively rational decisions with higher probability. Frames or codes are dominant leitmotifs or dominant goals – criteria for evaluation of the prospective courses of outer behaviour. The framing or coding of the situation means that the actor considers only one value or supreme goal relevant for evaluating those courses and suppresses alternative points of view. In this way, the task of making a decision is simplified. Esser proposes rational reconstruction of Weber’s typology of action,17 considering Weber’s types of action as frames or codes selected in the inner, mental behaviour. While the actor frames or codes a situation in the instrumentally rational way, she makes her first-order choices in the self-interested and calculative way, using costly and efficient heuristics to process information. Obviously, this picture corresponds closely to Weber’s restrictive view of the instrumentally rational action. While the actor uses frames other than Zweckrationalität or cheap heuristics (e.g. habits), she selects the course of her outer behaviour in the manifestly nonrational way. Nevertheless, the behaviour which is coded or framed value-rationally, traditionally, or affectually is latently instrumentally rational, because the selection of these frames or codes and heuristics is itself the effect of the instrumentally rational inner behaviour, maximizing the actor’s subjective expected utility under the restrictions imposed by her bounded rationality (the scarcity of mental and cognitive resources). So the pure universalism of the theory of instrumentally rational action is preserved at the level of the second-order decisions, which produce the subjective definition of situation. At the same time, phenomena are saved, too: the distinctions described by Weber’s types of action are accounted as real at the level of the first-order decisions.



NOTES I wrote this paper as a 1998–99 Fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin, where I read the first version at Dienstagskolloquium. I thank Lynda O’Riordan for improving my English and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. 1. This point is made by Esser (1993/1996: 3–6). 2. For the first time in: Coleman (1986: 1320–3). See also Coleman (1990: 1–23). Coleman considers Weber’s argumentation in ‘Protestant ethic thesis’ as specimen of sociological explanation via macro–micro–macro transition. He criticizes Weber for missing elaboration of the concluding link (micro–macro transformation). However, he presents Weber’s case in a not completely correct way, considering as Weber’s final explanandum ‘capitalist economic system’ (Coleman 1986: 1322). McClelland describes Weber’s explanandum correctly as ‘spirit of modern capitalism’. For recent interesting suggestion how to improve the micro-macro link in Weber’s argument see Swedberg (1996: 319–23). 3. In this distinction, I follow Udehn (1987). 4. The useful systematic overview of the field with relation to the metatheoretical problems of sociological explanation is provided by Goldthorpe (1998). 5. See, for example, Eells (1982), Howson and Urbach (1989), Morton (1977/1997). 6. See Popper (1944–45/1957), Popper (1961/1980) Popper (1967/1985), Popper (1976/ 1994). 7. Popper makes no reference to Weber in his description of the method of situational analysis. But because of Popper’s good knowledge of Weber’s methodological work there is no reason to doubt Weber’s influence on Popper on this point. Such influence is also assumed by Goldthorpe (1998: 181, 189). 8. Regarding the concept of ‘focal point’, see Schelling (1960). 9. Baumgarten (1964: 603–04). This statement by Baumgarten (80%) about Weber’s views cannot be justified by the direct textual evidence but, substantially, it is correct. 10. Weber presents his case for the independence of social science from psychology most strongly in his review essay on Lujo Brentano’s attempt (Brentano 1908) to deduce the law of diminishing marginal utility from the psychophysical Weber–Fechner law. See Weber (1908/1968). 11. This condition was called ‘Postulate of Adequacy’ by Alfred Schütz: ‘Each term in a scientific model of human action must be constructed in such way that a human act performed within the life-world by an individual actor in the way indicated by the typical construct would be understandable for the actor himself as well as for his fellow-men in terms of common sense interpretation of everyday life’ (Schütz 1953/ 1962: 44). 12. In this case the variable has no influence on behaviour. 13. See Elster (1986: 22–3); Elster (1989: 13–18). 14. With respect to this problem, see Udehn (1987: 151–7). 15. On the problem of indeterminacy of rational choice, see Elster (1993). 16. I am using the distinction between the first-order and second-order decisions to present Esser’s theory in a shorter, but somewhat simplified way. He locates the decisions which I refer to as ‘second-order’ in the context of the ‘logic of situation’ (see Figure 1). The decisions I refer to as the ‘first-order’ belong to ‘logic of selection’. Esser conceives his theory of second-order decisions as the theory which explains the phenomena described in the sociological tradition as ‘definition of



situation’. On the second-order decisions, see most recently Sunstein and UllmannMargalit (1999). 17. See Esser (1990: 244–5), Esser (1996: 30–1) and especially Esser (1999: 224–30), where he presents his view in the most detailed way.

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ZENONAS NORKUS is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Social Theory at the Vilnius University (Lithuania). He graduated from the University of Saint Petersburg (formerly USSR), where he defended his PhD thesis on Edmund Husserl’s philosophy of logic. He was Humboldt Research Fellow at the Mannheim University and Fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin. His academic interests are the history of philosophy, history and philosophy of social science, and metatheory of historical studies. He has published articles (mainly in Lithuanian, German, and Russian) on German and Austrian intellectual history (the works of Edmund Husserl, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Johann G. Droysen, and Max Weber; German historism; Austrian theories of value), social theory (positivism and postpositivism in social theory, the concept of power), and theory of action (heuristics of suspicion; the ‘thin’ and the ‘thick’ concepts of rationality). His books include Study of History (Historik, in Lithuanian, 1996); Max Weber and Rational Choice (forthcoming, in German). ADDRESS: Department of Philosophy, Philosophy Faculty, Vilnius University, Didlaukio 47, Vilnius LT-2057, Lithuania [email:].

[HiA]Max Weber's Interpretive Sociology and Rational Choice Approach  

1. Introduction KEY WORDS • interpretive sociology • Max Weber • rational choice approach • sociological explanation • theory of action ABST...