Weber – Social Action and Alms-Giving

Written by Ben Eyre

Spirit of Capitalism

A short summary of our reading

As part of our moral anthropology reading, a number of the group felt the weight of Weber on our intellectual consciences. We therefore decided to engage with Economy and Society and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not being Ivy League undergraduates, we elected to forego the 800-page-plus marathon of the former, and stick to key essays alongside the shorter second text. We focussed on selections that spoke to contemporary anthropological and sociological concerns about humanitarianism (linking back to Didier Fassin again):

  • Social Action (from Economy and Society)
  • Alms-giving, Charity, and Protection of the Weak (from Economy and Society)
  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

We also looked at two articles to illustrate the relevance of Weber to contemporary debates about humanitarianism:

  • Erica Bornstein (2009) ‘The Impulse of Philanthropy’
  • Craig Calhoun (2008) ‘The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action’

Each of these texts deal with the issue of moral imperatives by categorising different forms of action and institution in which they inhere. The Weberian ideal model is at the centre of this project.



The group met on 23.01.17 and 05.02.17.

Participants: Ben Eyre, Piyush Pushkar, Karen Sykes.

I think it is fair to say that Weber was a more elusive interlocutor than other authors we have focussed on in the moral anthropology reading group. Why? We seemed to agree that our readings from Economy and Society and The Protestant Ethic were clear, relevant, and resonant, but somehow Weber did not inspire the debate nor the attendance we have become used to. Our discussions might help to explain why.

I began to engage with Weber through the lens of recent anthropological discussion that have used his typology of social action to help understand humanitarianism. This seemed like an obvious departure point considering our past reading and future plans. The discussion opened around Weber’s delineation of different forms of social action: value-rational (wertrational), instrument (zweckrational), affective, and traditional action. Anthropologist Erica Bornstein (2009) finds Weber’s ideal model useful to understand the ‘philanthropic impulse’ and the relationship between unregulated largesse and regulated charities in India. We agreed that Weber provides a helpful explanatory framework here. As both Bornstein and Weber make clear, this ideal model does not preclude the simultaneous existence of different rationales for social action. This is important in this case. However, we questioned how useful this model is when the overlap and relationship between different rationales seems key to emic conceptions of action, rather than incidental or occasional. This led us to something of an impasse: did Weber hold the generalizable explanatory value we required? We were unconvinced that Weber helped to answer the three questions that Craig Calhoun says haunt humanitarians:

  • Do they seek to improve the human condition, the well-being of all humanity?
  • Or, do they seek to alleviate suffering, impartially, neutrally, and wherever it may occur?
  • Or, do they respond more specifically to “humanitarian emergencies,” seemingly sudden crises in which human conflict creates concentrated human suffering, in which, perhaps, suffering is so extreme as to be dehumanizing?

Calhoun does not claim Weber answers such enormous questions. But he finds Weber constructive for understanding the different actors connected by this endeavour. Comparative attention to humanitarianism using Weber builds on an approach to ‘good works’ (Benthall 2012).  This has helped ground an important corrective to the idea that Christian or ‘Western’ notions of charity have been privileged above other cultural norms of moral activity. Weber’s grand sweep of world religions was not our focus, however, we found that thinking about the connection made between different rationales for action and specific religious traditions was useful. The instrumental rationality of ascetic Calvinism is key to the regulation of charity, and distinctions between proper subjects of assistance and those who should look after themselves. This insight could be important for different contemporary anthropological projects concerning humanitarianism. Bornstein’s (2009) example of the resonance between regulation of the charitable sector in India and the instrumentally rational Calvinistic model that challenged alms-giving is sufficient to show that.

Perhaps Weber has been a victim of his own success. We seemed to find little revelatory potential in his grand and influential theories of the link between religion and political economy. But neither did we find them controversial. Weber seemed, instead, in both Economy and Society and Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, to offer conceptual resources to draw upon to theorise detailed ethnography and to situate through comparison. Perhaps it is no accident, though, that we decided to read a collection of essays (Das et al 2014) that specifically challenges the use of philosophers (and other thinkers) in this way. Perhaps we will be able to return to Weber with specific ethnographic problems.



Benthall, J. 2012. ‘Charity’. In Fassin, D. (Ed.). A Companion to Moral Anthropology. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Bornstein, E. 2009. The Impulse of Philanthropy. Cultural Anthropology. 24(4): 622-651

Calhoun, C. 2008. ‘The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action’ in Weiss and Barnet (eds). Humanitarianism in Question: Politics; Power: Ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Weber, M. 2006 (1905). Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.

Weber, M. 1978 (1922). Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.