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A Critical View of Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Sects and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism’ - Felicity Eden

Weber’s classic study looked at the roots of capitalism and how he believed it arose from religion, in particular the Calvinist faith. Weber’s study has helped to develop Sociology as a whole and forced other sociologists to think counter intuitively about social action and the role that religion and other social institutions have an effect on our day-to-day lives.


Max Weber wrote his paper on the ‘Protestant Sects and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism’ after a trip to the USA in 1904. On his journey across America he found that religion and business had a strict affiliation with each other, often citing that it was impossible to do business with someone who was not affiliated with the church “Baptism secures to the individual the deposits of the whole region and unlimited credit without any competition. He is a ‘made-man’”. (Weber; 395) It was during this trip that Weber asked himself why Capitalism only developed in Western Societies and not other developed Societies. It is understood that Weber believed that capitalism had existed before, but in small stages, but tried to understand why it had developed on a large scale that he saw in Europe. He asked himself why did people need to make more money than that what was otherwise necessary for consumption and leisure? In this paper he explores the belief that capitalism arose from religious sects, and more importantly Calvinism.


The pursuit of the ultimate values in ascetic Protestantism, led to more obedient, disciplined workers (which is essential to a capitalist society). Protestant sects believed in ‘predestination’ which meant that only a chosen few elect could be saved and it is thought that discipline in your work, and to deny one of ‘luxuries of all sorts’ (Weber; 313) would lead to a greater after life “the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, creates his own salvation, or as would be more correct, the conviction of it”. It was the Calvinists belief that if they worked hard at their vocation, and invested further into business, and if they were successful it was a sign that they were ‘predestined’ therefore, everyone who was a member of the protestant sect worked hard and re-invested their money, rather than spending it. Weber believed this is what led to Capitalism spreading across Europe and described this as the elective affinity. It was not as though capitalism was born from the protestant ethic, but had an affinity with it (Parkin; 1982:43) At the end of his essay he argues that ‘only a methodical way of life of the ascetic sect could legitimate.... the economic ‘individualist’ impulses of the modern capitalist ethos’ (Weber; 322)


Kenneth H. Tucker Jr. does not necessarily agree with Weber on how capitalism emerged from religion and the protestant sects. He would argue that the introduction of money would be an important part in explaining why capitalism developed faster in the West as ‘it permitted the storage of wealth that was necessary for the rise in capitalism’. Banks were able to give out loans and therefore fostering the economic growth of capitalism (Tucker, Jr. 1998;117.) The fact that capitalism could have spawned from something other than a religious ascetic way of life is something that troubled Weber, he believed that people who read too much into his work, and believed that capitalism just came from Calvinism would make it a ‘foolish and doctrine thesis’ (Parkin 1983; 44) and believed that most religions had beliefs and rituals in place that would stimulate economic growth.


Parkin believes that Weber did not show any evidence that a member of the sect was in anyway deeply troubled about his own salvation, he agrees that it is a ‘plausible hunch’ (2002;45) but no proof was given. Parkin provokes the idea that the anxiety of the Calvinists could provide the chain in the link of the causation of capitalism and their ‘energetic response to salvation anxiety that set the Calvinist on the uphill path that led to rational action’ (1982;47) Giddens (2006; 104) criticised Weber’s thesis and suggested that there were early signs of capitalism forming as early as the 12th Century in Italian Merchant Cities, long before Calvinism was ever heard of, and that ‘working for a vocation’ could also be widely attributed to the Catholic church, and not just Protestantism as Weber suggested. Asceticism was not new to the Calvinist churches either, if you look as far back as the 15th Century Friars, and even to this present day, still lead a frugal lifestyle.


Another argument could be that early signs of capitalism was emerging before the reformation, is it possible that Weber understood this the wrong way around? However, Weber made a point, that was often overlooked, that he denied making a ‘causal connection’ (Scaff cited in Stones 2008; 65) between the protestant work ethic and capitalism.


The debate around Weber’s ‘Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ is still in contention to this day, and has influenced many sociologists work and their thinking- From Parsons to Foucault with his theory of Social Action. Weber himself   criticises his own work and Parkin (1982; 46) suggests that he is only ‘too ready to encourage our resistance’ and if this is the case, is it even possible to believe that Capitalism was spawned out of Calvinism and their ascetic way of life? Certainly over the last few years, we have seen Capitalism develop profoundly in the East, in particular China and India, where Protestantism is not the core fundamental religion and capitalism could be attributed to Globalisation and the huge surge in technological advances which enable countries to take on Capitalist ideals, yet the world is becoming a more secular place.


Giddens suggests that Weber’s theory does not have to be valid to be considered a good theory. He suggests a good theory is one that ‘is fruitful in terms of how far it generates new ideas’ and Weber’s thesis, despite being over 100 years old, is still being highlighted as a ‘springboard for a vast amount of subsequent research and theoretical analysis’ (Giddens 2006:105) Howard Becker and Erving Goffman both have drawn upon Weber’s work directly, and his thesis has inspired thousands in the Frankfurt school to look at history and how it has affected social action and social change.





Parkin, F (1982) – Max Weber. Tavistock Publications, New York.


Scaff, Laurence.A (2008) – Key Sociological Thinkers Edited by Rob Stones. Palgrave Macmillan Publishers, Hampshire.


Tucker, K (1998)- Anthony Giddens and Modern Social Theory. Sage Publications. London


Weber, M (1991 [orig. 1920] The Protestant Sects and The Spirit of Capitalism in Gerth, H.H & Wright Mills, C. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London: Routledge: pp.302-22




Felicity Eden is a third year mature student at the University of Brighton studying Sociology. Felicity is going on to train in a PGCE next year.

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