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An All-time Classic. Weber’s "Protestant Ethic"

Sascha O. Becker, 19 May 2021

Max Weber was a social scientist par excellence. Quite adequately, his chair at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich was (re-)dedicated as chair of “Social Science, Economic History and National Economics” (Lehrstuhl für “Gesellschaftswissenschaft, Wirtschaftsgeschichte und Nationalökonomie“).

The lectures and private tutorials he offered at LMU covered an equally broad range of different subjects. In the winter semester 1919/20, he gave lectures titled as “Outline of the universal social and economic history” (“Abriß der universalen Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte”) as well as tutorials in Sociology (“Soziologische Arbeiten und Besprechungen”).

Course catalogue of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, summer semester 1920, Universitätsbibliothek LMU Munich, 0015/WU 4 H.lit. 2878/1920,2

In the summer semester 1920, the course catalogue lists “General State Theory and Politics (State Sociology)” (“Allgemeine Staatslehre und Politik (Staatssoziologie)”), “Socialism (Introduction)” (“Sozialismus (Einführungsvorlesung)”), and further tutorials in Sociology (“Soziologisches Seminar”). Indeed, Weber’s syllabus covered the whole breadth of the disciplines we nowadays call “social sciences”.

Course catalogue of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, summer semester 1920, Universitätsbibliothek LMU Munich, 0015/WU 4 H.lit. 2878/1920,2

Weber’s own breadth of approaches is the reason why many disciplines have followed in Max Weber's footsteps and see Weber as the father of their respective disciplines. Today, his “Google Scholar” profile counts tens of thousands of citations from social scientists and beyond who found inspiration in his work. The work of those citing Weber is again cited tens of thousands of times. Literally hundreds of thousands of academic publications, one way or another, relate to Weber’s inspiring work. The filiation of Weber's academic heirs has in turn become a field of research.

Course catalogue of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, summer semester 1920, Universitätsbibliothek LMU Munich, 0015/WU 4 H.lit. 2878/1920,2

When I worked with Ludger Woessmann at LMU Munich more than a decade ago, we were also inspired by Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Following much of the existing social science literature, we summarized the spirit of his argument, the so-called “common interpretation”, as follows: “Max Weber attributed the higher economic prosperity of Protestant regions to a Protestant work ethic.” We provided and tested an alternative theory: “Protestant economies prospered, because instructions in reading the Bible generated the human capital, which is crucial to economic prosperity.” Using census data from 19th century Prussia, we found that Protestantism indeed led to higher economic prosperity, but also to higher school enrolment, and higher literacy rates. In the Prussian context, our results seemed to be consistent with Protestants’ higher literacy accounting for most of the gap in economic prosperity between Protestant and Catholic countries.

The title of our publication “Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History” was deliberately provocative. Even though we were cautious in describing in which way our analysis related (or not) to Weber’s work, some dedicated Weberians felt that we were testing a parody of Weber’s Protestant Ethic. They felt that our one-sentence summary of Weber’s work was inadequate. And of course, it was!1

Other economic historians, looking at a link between the Protestant Reformation and economic outcomes, were equally explicit and referred to “a simplification of the ‘Weberian’ argument” (Cantoni, Dittmar and Yuchtman, 2018). In their extremely detailed and fascinating empirical study, Cantoni et al. (2018) documented an important, unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation: a reallocation of resources from religious to secular purposes. Specifically, they showed that Protestant university students increasingly studied secular subjects, especially degrees that prepared students for public sector jobs, rather than church sector specific theology. At the same time, graduates of Protestant universities increasingly took secular, especially administrative, occupations. Finally, the Protestant Reformation affected the sectoral composition of fixed investment. If one interprets the Weberian argument as an indirect “cultural channel” from Protestantism on economic outcomes, Cantoni et al. (2018) stressed the direct economic consequences of a reallocation of resources.

Clearly, the quality of a truly path-breaking work – like Weber’s legacy – is that it makes others, and literally thousands of others, think and develop new ideas. Weber asked the right questions. Whether one agrees with his answers or not, he paved the way for many fields of research that became distinct disciplines. If you ask 100 social scientists which piece of work comes to their mind when they think about the link between “religion” and “economics”, I bet that a clear majority would name Weber’s Protestant Ethic. At the same time, I bet that only a small minority ever read his Protestant Ethic in its entirety. We may mourn about this, and I wished more researchers would really read Weber page by page! Or, we may rejoice, because Weber achieved what so few academics ever achieve: being remembered a century after their death.

But certainly, a careful reading of the Protestant Ethic still inspires contemporaneous work in Economics. For instance, Weber explicitly talks about the Cistercians as encompassing values with a clear antecedent to the Protestant Ethic. Andersen, Bentzen, Dalgaard and Sharp (2016) took this as a starting point for a detailed empirical analysis, which collected data on the historic location of all Cistercian monasteries. The data revealed that English counties which were more exposed to Cistercian monasteries experienced a faster growth of productivity from the 13th century onwards. Consistent with a cultural influence, this impact is also found after the monasteries were dissolved in the 1530s. Weber’s discussion about Catholic orders such as the Cistercians, also shows that he carefully hedges against over-simplified statements concerning causality, such as the Reformation “causing” economic development, as he sees “Protestant” traits already in certain pre-Reformation orders.2 More generally, in his Protestant Ethic, Weber presents arguments both for an effect of religion on economic behaviour as well as for the reverse direction: economic factors shaping religious change.

Max Weber is a constant source of inspiration in many sub-fields of the social sciences, but one field has particularly strong links with his Protestant Ethic: the field of “economics of religion”, of which the above mentioned papers are good examples. “Economics of religion” gained prominence as a separate field of investigation by Larry Iannaccone’s (1998) seminal survey. Of course, studying religion from an economic perspective has a long history itself, with a chapter of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) famously exploring the market for religion. In Larry Iannaccone’s (1998) seminal survey on the economics of religion, many of the papers cited directly relate to Max Weber’s (1904/05) thesis of a Protestant ethic. In the meantime, work on religion in economic history has literally exploded, as a recent handbook chapter documents (Becker, Rubin, Woessmann, 2021).

The Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture (ASREC), founded two decades ago, hold their annual congresses in North America, Europe and Australasia, with hundreds of scholars discussing economic aspects of religion, many inspired by Weber’s work.

There is no doubt that future generations of researchers will again and again be drawn to Weber’s work because he transcended disciplinary boundaries as we know them today, and he took a world-wide, comparative perspective. Was his work perfect by any means? No! But the breadth and depth of Weber’s writing continues to excite readers. Long live Weber!

  1. At the same time, we carefully discussed in Becker and Woessmann (2009) Weber’s elaboration on Luther’s notion of the calling and cited Weber (2001, p. 40) verbatim, “The only way of living acceptably to God was (…) solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling.” The entire section 3 of Weber’s Protestant Ethic, on Luther's concept of the calling (Luthers Berufskonzeption) is a central piece of his argument on how Protestantism relates to economic development. See also Edith Hanke’s contribution in the CAS Blog.
  2. See also Karsten Fischer’s and Florian Englmaier’s contributions in the CAS Blog.

Andersen, Thomas Barnebeck, Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard, and Paul Sharp. 2017. “Prereformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic.” Economic Journal 127(604): 1756-1793.

Becker, Sascha O. and Ludger Woessmann. 2009. “Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History” Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(2): 531-596.

Cantoni, Davide, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman. 2018. “Religious Competition and Reallocation: The Political Economy of Secularization in the Protestant Reformation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 133(4): 2037-2096.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. 1998. “Introduction to the Economics of Religion.” Journal of Economic Literature 36(3): 1465-1495.

Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1979).

Weber, Max. 1904/05. “Die protestantische Ethik und der „Geist“ des Kapitalismus.” Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 20: 1-54 and 21: 1-110. Reprinted in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, 1920: 17-206. (English translation: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons, 1930/2001, London: Routledge Classics).

Sascha O. Becker, An All-time Classic. Weber’s "Protestant Ethic", CAS LMU Blog, 19 May 2021,
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