Durkheim and Weber on Sociological Method

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon


Is sociology a proto-science struggling toward maturity">

Durkheim and Weber on Sociological Method

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon


Is sociology a proto-science struggling toward maturity, or is it an intuition-based historical approach to the study of human motivation? Sociologists disagree on this issue; some argue fiercely for one definition, and some for the other. A few modern American schools of thought even claim to support both directives and objectives at once. It should scarcely be necessary to point out, however, that the premises, parameters and practices associated with the intuitive/historical method are vastly different from those of a science. Is it really possible to move forward in opposite directions? A look back at the century-old origin of this problem may help not only to clarify current conflicts within the discipline, but to identify longstanding obstacles to progress as well. This paper argues that, if we are ever to understand the nature of these obstacles, we must begin with an acknowledgment of the incompatible philosophical assumptions of two of the most influential founders of modern sociology: Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.

KEY TERMS: naturalism -- romantic idealism -- the unity of science -- "middle-level" theories -- the "ideal type" -- generic concepts -- dualism -- explanation -- the "social fact" -- social representations -- "intentional acts" -- Verstehen -- behavioral norms -- objectivity -- value neutrality -- replicability


There have been numerous influences on sociology since its formal inception by Auguste Comte -- most notably, the enduringly popular premises of Marxism. However, two turn-of-the-century theorists did at least as much as Marx to determine the current shape of the discipline. These were Emile Durkheim, who established it in the French university system, and Max Weber, who did the same in Germany. The productive period for both men spanned the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century and the first fifteen of the twentieth. Although neither scholar survived the end of the era marked by the First World War, their ideas lived on -- affecting the subsequent course of American as well as European sociology.

The two theorists could not have been more different in the paths they charted for sociology. Durkheim was strongly influenced in his early years by the evolutionary perspective of Herbert Spencer. Subsequently, he came to share a number of the defining premises of Henri Bergson's model of cultural evolution, as well as certain aspects of the scientific naturalism of another contemporary: the American philosopher, John Dewey. 1 And above all, he was an intellectual descendant of Comte and Condorcet. Weber owed much of his approach to the neo-Kantian philosophy of his day as spelled out by Heinrich Rickert and Edmund Husserl2 -- and to the Romantic Idealism of Johann Fische and Friedrich Schelling. Weber despised the naturalistic monism to which Durkheim dedicated his life, equating it to Nietzsche's version of Social Darwinism: the one aspect of the latter's philosophy which he could not abide. He once referred to the "unfortunate" fact that "despite the powerful resistance to the influence of naturalistic dogma due to German idealism since Fichte...the naturalistic viewpoint...has not yet been overcome". 3

During his lifetime Weber claimed that his theory was often misunderstood precisely because it was historical and dualistic rather than naturalistic and empirical. He blamed "The naturalistic prejudice that every conception in the cultural sciences should be similar to those of the exact natural sciences."4 Durkheim, on the other hand, was committed to the idea of the unity of science. He was convinced that sociology necessarily requires collective constructs and methods with universal applicability, while Weber believed that the study of human social relations must be individualistic in approach and concerned with the immediate and concrete. Although it is often argued that Weber -- in his typical focus on social institutions -- did indeed study collectivities rather than individuals, the fact remains that his approach was individualistic. Even when studying relations between the economy and religion, his methodology prevented any interpretation in general terms.

Both scholars wanted sociology to be scientific in methodology, but they differed profoundly in the way they viewed science. The extent of that difference has not always been appreciated by American sociologists. For example, far too little recognition has been given to the significance of Wolfgang J. Mommsen's conclusion that Weber was interested in "meaningful reconstruction of particular segments of social reality in the process of time, as seen in the light of particular cultural values, and not the development of a general social theory capable of more or less universal application."5 Simply put, Weber's work was historical in methodology, and not really scientific at all -- if one is to accept the standard definition of a science as the disciplined search for regularities in experience, and the devising of universally viable explanations for these which are, in turn, capable of generating predictions of new testable regularities. In the light of this, perhaps more attention should have been paid to Mommsen's intriguing interpretation of the apparently uncritical acceptance and glorification of Max Weber by the American sociological establishment during the Cold war Era. He thought it had more to do with a popular assumption that Weber somehow represented the triumph of individualism over collectivism than with the power and soundness of his theories.

Regardless of the reason, it has been the fashion in America to downplay the philosophical differences between Weber's historical/motivational approach and the empirical inquiry method so ably pioneered in sociology by Emile Durkheim. The most influential of the "synthesizers" was, of course, Talcott Parsons.6 Reinhard Bendix also lent his considerable skills to this integrating project during the earlier postwar period7, as did Jeffrey Alexander 8 and George Ritzer 9 in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, Richard A. Hilbert 10 has joined the project in his attempt to trace the classical roots of ethnomethodology. But the ontological and epistemological contradictions between the two approaches to the study of social reality remain, and no amount of "middle-level" theorizing can alter that fact.11

These fundamental incompatibilities place Durkheim and Weber poles apart on all four of the aspects considered by most philosophers of science to be crucial to any disciplined pursuit of knowledge. One of the latter involves the means employed to classify the phenomena under study; a second, the nature of the explanations sought; a third, the procedures for achieving these; and a fourth, the sources and reinforcement of professional standards of objectivity. Indeed, it will be argued in this paper that the conflicting answers offered by the two founding fathers to these questions have served to create, not the integrated paradigm sought by the synthesizers, but an internally fractured sociology set irrevocably on a collision course with itself.


Weber offered the new discipline an "ideal-type" methodology. His classification system was based on deduced constructs of rationally related potential means-end connections. These were not intended as reflections of actual social behaviors, but as abstract examples of possibilities against which the phenomena being studied could be assessed. Weber saw this process as essentially different from "generic conceptualization" which attempts, by means of empirical observation, to isolate key criteria and to group phenomena in terms of these. In his view, such generic concepts reflect the "essence" of the fixed, orderly and valueless reality of the physical world, and comprise the basic facts of natural science. He believed that social reality is so different in its ultimate "essence" that its concepts must be constructed quite differently.

It is evident that Weber was caught up in the Platonic notion of a dualistic reality comprising observable and variable surface "phenomena" and the underlying absolute and ultimate "essence" of being. He thought that the natural sciences were actually capturing bits of this essential reality in their concepts -- which he equated to facts. Obviously unfamiliar with Hume, and with the subsequent refinements of Dewey's Pragmatism, Weber was unaware that others had grappled long before him with the problem posed by the fact that all concepts are necessarily abstract mental constructions. What, for instance, could be more abstract than the formulae of physics?

Weber thought that he had made a major breakthrough in methodology in deriving the notion of purely abstract concepts, which he called "ideal types." These, he explained, unlike generic concepts, can never correspond exactly to any particular phenomenon. They can be used, however, to make sense out of the value-laden reality being studied by social science. "The more distinct and precise the construction of the ideal-type, the greater its abstract or unrealistic nature and the better it is able to perform its methodological functions in formulating the clarification of terminology, or classification of hypotheses." 12

However, Durkheim’s approach to the same issue leads to a quite different conclusion. It suggests that Weber's problem was not the ideal nature of his concepts, but the fact that they were deduced from a priori premises rather than being established through rigorous observation. Durkheim maintained that "Sociology, to be objective, ought to start, not with concepts formed independent of ... [sense perceptions] but with these same perceptions." 13This was the type of concept that such early pioneers of social science as Hobbes, Hume and Diderot had sought to establish; Durkheim was merely following in their footsteps. Like them, he was trying to formulate ideal representations of functional groupings of things on the basis, not of presumed rational relations, but of some observed similarity. And he wanted to discover, rather than simply to deduce from a priori premises, how present social things or events have come to be. Such practice was not the rule, however, in the social science of his day. Weber's approach was typical in more than the name of his categories. As Durkheim put it, "Since it has been customary to think of social life as the logical development of ideal concepts, a method which makes social evolution depend on objective conditions defined in space will perhaps be judged crude and possibly be termed ‘materialistic’". 14

Durkheim often expressed regret about the tendency in sociology for beginning in the wrong place, with broad, logically derived categories having no mooring in objective manifestations. "In the present state of our knowledge," he noted, " we cannot be certain of the exact nature of the state, sovereignty, political liberty, democracy, socialism, communism, etc. ... Our method should, then, require an avoidance of all these concepts so long as they have not been scientifically established."15

Durkheim believed that systems of classification should not be drawn from an inventory of all the logically possible characteristics, but from a small number observed to be the sufficient or defining ones. He considered the selection of components for analysis absolutely crucial, "since the nature of the aggregate depends necessarily on nature and number of the components and their mode of combination." 16 He recommended classifying societies, for example, according to degree of organization, since it is the relation among members that constitutes a social group. The basis would thus be the most perfectly simple form of society ever observed either as an isolated segment or as a unit within more complicated systems.


The two theorists differed just as radically on the nature of sociological explanation. The first disagreement concerned the subject to be explained. For Durkheim this was the "social fact". It described observable regularities in the behavior of members of a society, such as their norms and institutions: regularities symbolized and shared by the group in the form of "social representations". He was referring to the collective habits of a society, as well as to the normative and knowledge systems that give them meaning and justify them. He suggested these have a reality of their own because they transcend the lives of the individuals who have helped to form them and who are, in turn, shaped by them. But they are only as "true" as they are soundly based on scientifically derived evidence.

For Weber, explanation required an understanding of the socially relevant motivations or "intentional acts" of members of society, either as individuals or groups. And, by definition, this understanding reflected a kind of truth. He considered all forms of empirical inquiry (sociology included) to require certainty of outcome. His commitment to the neo-Kantian idea of the universality of necessary cause is indicated in his comment that "for any empirical science which operates causally, the occurrence of the effect was certain, not for any particular moment, but for all eternity."17 Torn, as always, by conflicting imperatives, Weber could move only part way toward the conclusion demanded by his ideal-type approach: that, while it could improve the validity of his guiding hypotheses, it was severely limited in terms of ensuring the reliability -- much less the certainty -- of research findings.

Weber insisted there was indeed a way in which ideal types could ascertain "correct" explanations. The subjectively intended meaning of an act could be uncovered by the method of "Verstehen". This was his version of Edmund Husserl's Kantian idea that the investigator can identify with the subject studied through a deliberately intuitive process capable of producing understanding of the underlying intent motivating the actor. "For a science dealing with the true meaning of behavior," declared Weber, "explanation requires a grasp of the context of meaning within the actual course of action occurrences."18

The essential meaning thus arrived at is what he meant by "Verstehen", or "explanatory understanding". He distinguished this from what Durkheim and others referred to as "rational empirical observation of behavior". However, Weber admitted that, even though the latter is similar in nature to general scientific inquiry, it may be legitimate as one possible approach to sociological method. "Verstehen", on the other hand, although equally rational, is, in addition, "an understanding of motivation, i.e., the act as seen as part of an intelligible situation." 19 It deals not merely with observed regularities, he said, but "with the `true meaning' of behavior" as revealed in the 'intentional act'." 20

It is the ideal type that makes such "Verstehen" possible, according to Weber. "When we adopt the kind of scientific procedure which involves the construction of types, we can investigate and make fully comprehensible all those irrational, affectively determined patterns of meaning which influence action, by representing them as `deviations' from a pure type of action as it would be if it proceeded in a rationally purposive way ... The constructed model of a fully rational purposive action can be understood by the sociologist with complete certainty and the total clarity which results from its rationality ... thus enabling him to understand the real action." 21

Weber claimed that the historical-cultural phenomena which are the subject of sociology are inevitably individual and concrete -- and thus irrational in the sense that they are not ordered by general laws. "Social-psychological research," he said, "involves the study of various very disparate individual types of cultural elements with reference to their interpretability by our empathic understanding." 22And for him, this applied equally to large-scale cultural elements such as social institutions.

Durkheim viewed all such objectives as unscientific and doomed to failure. He deplored the fact that explanation in the sociology of his day was generally in terms of either teleological purpose, immutable historical design, or psychological motivation. He believed that, far from being concerned with the intentional meaning of action, "The principal object of all sciences of life, whether individual or social, is to define and explore the normal state and distinguish it from its opposite."23 He considered a social fact "normal" if it is present in average societies in a corresponding phase in their evolution, or if it represents the average pattern of behavior in a given society. According to him, sociological explanation requires searching for the determining cause of such a pattern "among the social facts preceding it, and not among the states of the individual consciousness." 24 Discovering its organizational function is an essential part of the task. "We must determine," he suggested, "whether there is a correspondence between the fact under consideration and the general needs of the social organism, without occupying ourselves with whether it has been intentional or not." 25


Weber recommended what he called a comparative historical approach to the study of social phenomena. His procedure required the application of an ideal type to the history of a particular society, comparing a specified area of action over varying periods to the rational construct of that same action. The objective was to assess the deviation of the actual from the ideal; that is, from the fully "rational". In addition, he sought to relate social institutions -- which he viewed as meaningful action complexes -- within a society.

For example, Weber studied the history of the dominant religious world view (and its relationship to the economy) in India, China, Ancient Israel and Protestant Europe. He began by establishing an ideal type comprising all the requirements of religion which he had been able to deduce from a reading of theology and moral philosophy. Each religion was then analyzed, at each major stage in its development, as to how far it departed from this type. He also drew conclusions about its influence on the world view of the actors in question, and, consequently, on the motivation determining their economic relationships.

Durkheim, on the other hand, had tried to transfer the focus in social scientific analysis from intent or purpose to function or consequence. Like that of Weber, his procedure was implied by his definition of explanation. His method also involved determining the degree to which the actual action being studied deviated from a particular abstraction. But it was deviation from the mean, rather than from a self-devised logical construct, that concerned him. His emphasis on behavioral norms meant that patterns or regularities could be identified among social events in a way similar to the procedures of natural science. He recognized that statistics could then be applied to the measures of these -- as they could not be to the singular events assessed by Weber's ideal types -- in order to allow for comparisons on the basis of degree of deviation from the mean. His comparative study of suicide is a masterful pioneering example of the application of this procedure, regardless of how crude it may seem today. By this means he was able to explain suicide in terms of the social facts impinging on individuals, rather than merely by exploring the intent registered in the psyche of the actor.


Objectivity was an intractable problem for Weber because of the subjective nature of his "meaningful act", and the similarly subjective nature of his "ideal types." How could one achieve objectivity in the midst of an object of study and an investigative procedure that were the very stuff of value judgments? He had hoped the ideal-type construct would do it for him, in that he had emphasized that the "ideal" in it referred to rationality rather than to value. But he could scarcely have avoided the suspicion that its content was dangerously subject to the preconceptions of the sociologist creating it. And, at some level, he must have been aware that the subjectively acknowledged motivations to be investigated by his sociology are by their very nature partial and likely to be biased in favor of the actor's desires. Weber decided that the way out lay in the direction of a particular morality to be stipulated for the social scientist; he would have to assume the cloak of "value neutrality"!

This was rendered even more necessary by Weber's insistence that by definition the social sciences are "those disciplines which analyze the phenomena of life in terms of their cultural significance".26And because of his corresponding insistence that it is the researcher's "valuation" or "particular point of view" which distinguishes the culturally significant from the less so.27

Indeed, to understand Weber's overriding concern with this issue, we must comprehend the crucial role of values in his entire conceptual scheme. His dualistic world view dictated a strict separation of reason and morality, or of knowledge and values. He saw the natural sciences as untainted by value judgments, and believed that all knowledge, to be objective, must be similarly value-free. At the same time he believed that the distinctiveness of a historical-cultural science such as sociology is rooted in the essential value-relatedness and subjective nature of its object of study. It differs from the physical sciences in that, for sociology, verification is based on meaningful as well as causal adequacy. 28It is no wonder that Weber's discussions on the possibility and necessity of value neutrality are confused and tortured.

Durkheim's position on value neutrality was very different. In the first place, he believed it to be a delusion. Where research is concerned, Durkheim was convinced that, in the social as well as the natural sciences, only a rigorously objective methodology can prevent the investigator's preconceptions from affecting the results. A necessary requirement, therefore, is that "The subject matter of every sociological study should comprise a group of phenomena defined in advance by a common characteristic and all phenomena so defined should be included within this group." 29 Here he was pioneering the idea of a disciplined research design as a means of ensuring replicability -- so that findings can be tested by others. Durkheim had little confidence in the method commonly used by historically inclined sociologists, involving the gathering of evidence to support a thesis while ignoring that which disconfirmed it. He also criticized the tendency in sociology to confuse the investigation of social facts with their evaluation. In fact, the two theorists agreed on this point.

However, Durkheim disagreed with Weber's image of science in general, as a value-neutral enterprise within society. He saw it, instead, as the only element in evolution which is thoroughly moral in its objective and function. "Science," he said, "is ... conscience carried to the highest point of clarity ...An enlightened conscience prepares itself for adaptation."30 This was the role he saw for science; it would provide direction for the process of cultural evolution!

Durkheim, unlike Weber, drew no firm line between valuing and knowing. Sounding very much like John Dewey, he explained, "There is not one way of thinking and judging for dealing with existence and another for estimating value. All judgment is necessarily based on given fact; even judgments of the future are related materially to the present or to the past ... all judgments bring ideals into play."31 According to him, the concepts organizing the real and those reflecting the good are equally "ideal" or mental in construction. Consequently, both are social representations in that they are formed through language -- a collective thing. This is why the element of judgment is the same in both cases.

"The function of some is to express the reality to which they adhere. These are properly called concepts. The function of others, on the contrary, is to transfigure the realities to which they relate, and these are the ideals of value. In the first instance the ideal is the symbol of the thing and makes it an object of understanding. In the second, the thing itself symbolizes the ideal and acts as a medium through which the ideal becomes capable of being understood."32 An example of the ideal as a concept is the word, Totemism, which was an object of study in Durkheim's famous investigation of the evolution of religion. In this case, the word symbolizes a system of religious beliefs and values. An example of the ideal as a value is the image of the totem which arouses spiritual awareness in the primitive viewer.

To sum up, it seems clear that what Max Weber was attempting to introduce was not a sounder approach to social science, but a more psychologically oriented study of history. Although he often spoke of science33, his intellectual heritage of German Romantic Idealism had provided him with little means of comprehending the requirements of a scientific study of social reality. Durkheim, on the other hand, was superbly equipped by his familiarity with the ideas of the British empiricists and French materialists (as applied to the social realm by the work of Condorcet and Comte) and by his thorough understanding of evolutionary processes as they operate at the socio-cultural as well as biological levels of human relations. In fact, he was so far ahead of his time that only now are the social sciences in general beginning to move to his position. Ironically, his own discipline may be the last to do so.

Sociology has suffered immeasurably for at least a century from an unwillingness or inability on the part of its practitioners to face up to the lack of logical consistency and empirical reliability in its foundations, and to forge new roots on more soundly scientific ground. There will be no quick and easy resolution of the fragmenting internal conflicts within this troubled discipline. The disagreement between Marxists and non-Marxists is well known. Less widely recognized, however, is the philosophical incompatibility of those sociologists who follow the trail blazed by Emile Durkheim and those who march to the drum of Max Weber. And even less likely to be acknowledged is the persistence of dialectical thinking within sociology -- that habit of thought which lends credibility to periodic "synthesizing" projects aimed at obscuring fundamental logical contradictions such as those outlined above. Perhaps a useful first step is to identify -- for Marxist as well as for Weberian and Durkheimian theory -- their historical sources, philosophical premises and implications for research. I would hope that the discussion in this essay might move sociology a little way in that direction.


1. For the argument that Durkheim was far more influenced by Dewey's ideas than most sociologists have recognized, see Dominick Lacapra, Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1974) and Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social Scientific Thought (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier U. Press, 1996), 228-57.

2. For evidence concerning the Husserl connection, see Hutcheon, ibid., 217-57.

3. Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. and ed. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1949), 86.

4. Ibid., 88.

5. Wolfgang J. Mommsen, The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), 182.

6. For a concise summary of his approach see Talcott Parsons, "General theory in Sociology" in Sociology Today: Problems and Prospects, eds., Robert K. Merton and others (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959), 3-38.

7. For example, see Reinhard Bendix, "Max Weber's Interpretation of Conduct and History", American Journal of Sociology (51), 518-26.

8. Jeffrey Alexander, see especially Vol. 4 of his series, Theoretical Logic in Sociology. Its title is The Modern Reconstruction of Classical Thought (Berkeley, CA: U. of California Press, 1984).

9. George Ritzer, Contemporary Sociological Theory, 2nd. ed. (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983). See also, by the same author, Metatheorizing in Sociology (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and CO., 1991).

10. Richard A. Hilbert, The Classical Roots of Ethnomethodology: Durkheim, Weber and Garfinkle (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina Press, 1974).

11. This refers to the approach of Robert K. Merton, which was to ignore possible higher-level incompatibilities while concentrating on the "middle level" at which he thought that useful sociological research could be conducted for the time being.

12. Max Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology, trans. H. P. Secher (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 1962), 54.

13. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method, 8th. ed. trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller, ed. George E. E. Catlin (Toronto, ON: Collier-Macmillan, 1964), 43.

14. Ibid., xxxix

15. Ibid., 22.

16. Ibid., 80.

17. W. G. Runciman, ed., Max Weber: Selections in Translation, trans. E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1978), 129.

18. Max Weber, Basic Concepts in Sociology, 36.

19. Ibid., 35.

20. Ibid., 36.

21. W. G. Runciman, op cit., 9.

22. Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, 89.

23. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 14.

24. Ibid., 110.

25. Ibid., 95.

26. Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, trans. Hans Gerth and Don Martindale (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1952), 76.

27. -------------, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, 111.

28. -------------, The Interpretation of Social Reality, trans. George Simpson (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1933), 52.

29. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 33.

30. -------------------, The Division of Labor in Society, trans. George Simpson (Glencoe IL: The Free Press, 1933), 52.

31. -------------------, Sociology and Philosophy, trans. D. F. Pocock (London: Cohen and West, 1953), 95.

32. Ibid., 95-96.

33. As an example, see Weber's Science as a Vocation, a talk produced as a companion piece to his less-well-known but more revealing Politics as a Vocation both trans. by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965).