Weber in America

Lawrence Scaff offered a fascinating preview of his forthcoming book, Max Weber in America, at a sociology seminar in Ann Arbor this week.  Scaff has written extensively on Weber in the past, and this current research is particularly intriguing and stimulating.  The book offers a careful reconstruction of Weber’s visit to the United States in 1904, and it then goes on to provide a brilliant interpretation of the “discovery” of Weber in the United States in the 1940s and forward.

Let’s start with the obvious: it is startling for those of us who are not Weber experts to learn that Weber spent time in the United States at all.  It’s weirdly dissonant for me to imagine this quintessentially German sociologist, wandering the streets of Chicago and the plains of Oklahoma.  What did he make of Chicago 1904?  How did it influence his development as a sociological thinker?

It’s even more eye-opening to learn that Weber met W. E. B. Dubois during his visit, and may have shifted some of his later thinking in fairly important ways as a result of his exposure to some of Dubois’ ideas about race in America.  (Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk appeared in 1903.)

Scaff also writes quite a bit about the intellectual connections between Weber and William James during this period.  He explores important parallels between The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  This is significant, because the first part of The Protestant Ethic was written and presented for publication just before the trip to America, whereas the second part was written after the visit.

Scaff seems to have done a great job of piecing together archival materials to arrive at a new telling of the story of the trip to America with Marianne.  So this addition to the biography of Weber is of great value all by itself.  (Marianne Weber’s biography of Max provides only limited information about the trip; Max Weber.)

But even more important is the effort that Scaff makes to get inside the developing sociological imagination of the thinker.  This is what is most intriguing about the book, and what makes me most eager to read it when it appears in early winter.

Scaff makes a point that I find really intriguing about the way in which “Weber” was constructed as the founding sociologist we now summarize in courses on sociological theory.  This falls generally into the topic of the sociology of knowledge: how did concrete historical and institutional processes influence the construction of “sociology” or “physics”?  Scaff argues that much of our current representation of Weber derives, not from Weber directly, but from the ways in which Weber was appropriated and “re-broadcast” by American sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s, including especially Talcott Parsons. (Ironically, Scaff argues that the “Weber” who became important in German sociology in the 1960s was this American version, not a systematic re-reading and re-thinking of Weber’s corpus.  Weber was more or less forgotten in German intellectual circles during the Nazi period.)  So this standardized version of Weber’s sociology reduces the rich sociological thought of the thinker over a long career to a few standard theses.

One of Scaff’s goals, then, is to “blow up” the sociology expressed across Weber’s writings and try to see how the parts might be fitted together in other ways. Can the canonical Weber be interpreted in significantly different and more nuanced ways? This is a particularly interesting and fertile question, and it contributes directly to the important project of trying to rethink the making of modern sociological imagination and frameworks.

Several members of the Ann Arbor seminar commented on the fact that there are some parallels between Weber’s interpretation of the “American difference” (chiefly a higher level of civic involvement than in Germany) and the main lines of Tocqueville’s observations of America in Democracy in America.  Scaff shared that two things are known about this question — first, that Weber never refers to Tocqueville anywhere in his corpus; and second, that he read Democracy in America in French at some point, since an edition of the book annotated in his hand is contained in his book collection in Heidelberg.  (Klaus Offe comments on this parallel in Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber and Adorno in the United States, based on the Adorno Lecture that he presented in Frankfurt in 2003.  Here is a limited Google Books view (link).)

This is all really important material for those of us who are interested in the contingent development of modern sociology.  So Scaff’s book is one that I’m eagerly anticipating when it appears in January.

Here is the table of contents for the book.


Lawrence A. Scaff


List of Illustrations




Part I. The American Journey


Chapter 1 Thoughts about America

Traveling to Progressive America

The Horizons of Thought

A “Spiritualist” Construction of the Modern Economy?


Chapter 2 The Land of Immigrants

Arriving in New York

Church and Sect, Status and Class

Settlements and Urban Space


Chapter 3 Capitalism

The City as Phantasmagori

Hull House, the Stockyards, and the Working Class

Character as Social Capital


Chapter 4 Science and World Culture

The St. Louis Congress: Unity of the Sciences?

The Last Time for a Free and Great Development: American


The Politics of the Arts and Crafts

Gender, Education and Authority


Chapter 5 Remnants of Romanticism

The Lure of the Frontier

The Problems of Indian Territory

Nature, Traditionalism, and the New World

The Significance of the Frontier


Chapter 6 The Color Line

Du Bois and the Study of Race

The Lessons of Tuskegee

Race and Ethnicity, Class and Caste


Chapter 7 Different Ways of Life

Colonial Children

Nothing Remains except Eternal Change

Ecological Interlude

Inner Life and Public World

The Cool Objectivity of Sociation


Chapter 8 The Protestant Ethic

Spirit and World

William James and His Circle

Ideas and Experience


Chapter 9 American Modernity

Strange Contradictions

Becoming American

Cultural Pluralism


Chapter 10 Interpretation of the Experience

The Discourse about America

A Way Out of the Iron Cage?

America in the Work


Part II. The Work in America


Chapter 11 The Discovery of the Author

Author and Audience

Networks of Scholars

Translation History

The Disciplines


Chapter 12 The Creation of the Sacred Text

An American in Heidelberg

Parsons Translates “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism”


Chapter 13 The Invention of the Theory

Gerth and Mills Publish a Weber “Source Book”

Parsons’ “Theory of Social and Economic Organization”

Weber Among the Emigrés

Weberian Sociology and Social Theory

Weber Beyond Weberian Sociology


Appendix I: The Webers’ Itinerary

Appendix II: Selected Correspondence with Americans, 1904-1905

Bibliographic Notes



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