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Verstehen Max Weber : Study of Social Action & Empathetic Understanding

Verstehen Max Weber

Sociological Thinkers : Max Weber- Social action, ideal types, authority, bureaucracy, protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

  • Verstehen Approach in Sociology: Verstehen, initially introduced by Weber and Dilthey, is a sociological perspective urging researchers to adopt an insider’s viewpoint rather than an external observer’s stance in their studies.
  • Empathetic Understanding: Verstehen emphasizes the necessity for sociologists to genuinely comprehend individuals or groups by immersing themselves in their experiences, akin to “walking a mile in their shoes.” The term finds its roots in the German word for “understanding.”
  • Insightful Perspective: Verstehen encourages a shift towards empathetic insight, acknowledging that genuine understanding comes from internalizing the lived experiences of subjects, fostering a richer comprehension of their actions and behaviors.

This approach follows three main beliefs:

  1. That sociology should consider not just behavior, but the motivation for that behavior;
  2. Reality is constructed through interactions, aligning with the perspective of symbolic interactionism.
  3. Quantitative methods can be employed to comprehend individual subjectivity.

Weber sought to understand a version of social reality driven by individual subjectivity, constructed collectively through the interactions between people. As such, it has been characterized as an “interpretive” or qualitative method of inquiry.

Social Action

  • Weber used Social Action and Ideal Types as the basis of his theoretical framework.
  • Subject matter of Sociology is to study Social Action.
  • Social Action – Any action is social by the virtue of the meaning attached to it by the actors, it takes into account the behaviour of others and is thereby, oriented in its course.
  • Conditions for an action to become a social action:
    • Action is social if some meaning is attached to it by the actor. Actor must be conscious of his or her action. The meanings are in the form of motivation of an individual.
    • An action is considered social when it is directed towards another, meaning only actions taken with an orientation towards some other object are regarded as social.
    • Excluded imitative actions and mass conditioned action.

Types Of Verstehen

Weber (1947) distinguished between two types of Verstehen: the verstehen that resulted from direct observation, and that sociologists can apply when trying to understand the motives that give rise to a particular action.

He called these Aktuelles and erklärendes verstehen, respectively. Someone who observes someone’s emotional state from their body language or facial expression would be employing aktuelles verstehen, while someone using erklärendes, or empathetic understanding would examine why someone is doing an action in the first place.

  • Aktuelles Verstehen:
    Aktuelles Verstehen, meaning “contemporary understanding,” is a nuanced aspect of the verstehen approach that focuses on comprehending explicit actions individuals engage in. This entails observing actions, such as building a house or cooking, while also assessing emotional states through cues like body language and facial expressions (Ray, 2007).
  • Erklärendes Verstehen:
    Complementing aktuelles verstehen, erklärendes Verstehen, or “explanatory understanding,” delves into the motives underpinning actions. It aims to discern the significance of an act by exploring the motives that drive it. This extends to understanding historical events, trends, or past phenomena. For instance, the act of demolishing a house prompts erklärendes Verstehen to explore whether the motivation is practical, like land clearance for farming, or rooted in more negative emotions like hatred or revenge (Ray, 2007).

Max Weber

  • Max Weber: Founding Father of Sociology:
    Max Weber, a pioneer in sociology, gained renown for popularizing the concept of Verstehen. He emphasized interpreting human actions with empathy to gain deeper insights into social phenomena.
  • Understanding Social Change through Human Actions:
    Weber believed that societal changes stemmed from motivating individual actions, triggering broader societal transformations. His book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” exemplified how religious beliefs, like Calvinism, led to the rise of capitalism in Europe.
  • Four Ideal Types of Social Actions:
    Weber introduced four ideal types of social actions: traditional, affective, value rational, and instrumental-rational. These classifications aid in dissecting real actions, each serving as a tool to categorize human behaviors based on socio-cultural norms, emotional states, belief systems, or goal-oriented outcomes.
    • Traditional social action: It refers to actions controlled by socio-cultural norms in the society. 
    • Affective social actions: They are determined by one’s emotional state wherein one might not think of the consequences of actions. 
    • Value rational social actions: They are determined by a conscious belief in the inherent value of a type of behaviour
    • Instrumental-rational social actions: They are carried out to achieve a certain goal. 


  • One can compare any actual action with these ideal types of actions and then attach meanings to them.
  • Ideal type methodology provides investigator with readymade models and saves time of the investigator.


  • Greater stress on individual meanings and ignores influence of social structure in the understanding of reality.
  • His claim of objectivity is also not true. Ideal types are highly susceptible to subjectivity of the investigator.
  • They ignore collective action.
  • Weber also ignore some unintended meanings and consequences of social action.
  • Parsons expanded the meaning of social action by including situational choices, constraints and aspiration of the actor as well.


Verstehen, with its focus on achieving a profound understanding of individual behaviors, seeks to assist social science researchers in grasping the dynamics of social actions and the broader structural transformations within society.

Read Also: Sociology Optional Notes for UPSC

Read more: max weber, max weber theory, social action by max weber, max weber sociology, sociology in hindi, what is sociology, sociology, sociology meaning in hindi

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