Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Protestant Ethic in 2009

It's more than 100 years since Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I'm told that it is a long time since economic historians took the essays seriously, but that hasn't prevented the text being a mainstay of sociological theory reading lists. The main reason for this, I suspect, is probably the wilful obscurity of the text itself. Not being entirely clear about what exactly it is that you are claiming is great for the secondary and tertiary level exegetical works that flourish on the corpse of a masterwork. Usually I'm bored by this kind of thing but I was recently intrigued to see an article in a German newspaper reporting work done by a pair of economists examining the relationship between religious confession and economic success in late 19th Century Prussia. Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann use county (Kreise) level data from the 1871 Prussian Census together with a couple of similar sources to investigate whether level of economic development in Weber's time was related to the proportion of Protestants residing in a county. The answer is yes, but the relationship is spurious and disappears once level of literacy is controlled. They make the argument that whatever Luther and Lutherism may have done to theological and ultimately popular notions about 'the Calling' and the ethics of economic behaviour, a more fundamental consequence of the reformation was Luther's stress on literacy. Luther argued that Germany's Protestant princes should encourage the schooling of their subjects so that they could read the word of God. Protestant's built more school's than Catholics and Protestant's were more motivated than Catholics to become literate because salvation came not through the intercession of a priest but through understanding God's written word in His book. Literacy was, of course, also pretty useful in economic life and gave Protestants the edge over Catholics. All in all Becker and Woessmann tell a pretty convincing story, but I'm left with an uneasy feeling. After a century of worrying over Weber's text sociologists have remarkably little of real value to show for it. Two economists come along, do some spade work, unearth some relevant data, extract a remarkable amount of information from it, and without much fuss produce an answer to a very basic question. How come sociologists aren't capable of doing this?
Becker and Woessman's article will appear in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. A working paper can be found at: http://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/1366/1/weberLMU.pdf

No comments: