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Patriarchalism in imperial China and Western Europe

A revision of Weber's sociology of domination


My analysis suggests that Weber's typology of domination - the cluster of patriarchalism, charisma, and law - does not fit Chinese history as it does European history. The typology has particular relevance in Europe because Weber purposefully developed types of domination that reflected and synthesized essential elements of Western historical experience: the struggles between kings and nobles, between popes and priests, between leaders and followers of all types. Deeply aware of the patterns of Western history, Weber understood that his concepts of analysis constituted “historical summaries,” not simply ideas and abstract beliefs but distillations of patterns of actions and of the justifications supporting and channeling those patterns.Footnote 1 Although Weber fashioned these ideal types from his knowledge of Western history, he wanted to make them genuinely “trans-epochal and transcultural” so that he could test, through “comparative mental experiment and imaginative extrapolation,” causal explanations about the course of Western history.Footnote 2 That the generations of students of Western society continue to learn from and struggle with Weber's concepts and historical theories demonstrates that Weber was hugely successful in his work.

But are Weber's typologies as useful in the analysis of non-Western societies as they are in that of Europe? I have only dealt with Chinese society, but for this society my analysis suggests that the answer to this question is no. As Weber defined them, patriarchalism, charisma, and law do not apply to China in the way that they apply to Europe. They do not represent summaries of Chinese history; they do not distill the debates and struggles of two millenia; they do not tap those shared understandings that informed Chinese patterns of action. And because they do not gain an equivalent grasp of Chinese as they do of Western history, they are less useful and often very misleading when one uses them to analyze and explain the course of Chinese history. If those concepts do not get at the same reality in China, what is the logical status of the conclusions drawn from using them to analyze China? As I have attempted to show in this paper, they can be used to indicate through comparison what configurations are absent from China. But they are less useful in developing a genuine understanding of Chinese history. Therefore, to understand China, and perhaps most non-Western societies, Weber's typology of domination and particularly his analysis of traditional domination, should not be used directly as a summary of an underlying reality. Weber's warning about the “perniciousness” of Marxian concepts and theories when “they are thought of as empirically valid or real ‘effective forces’” should be applied with particular vigor to Weber's own concepts and theories when applied to non-Western societies.Footnote 3

But, by equal measure, if one assumes that Weber's typology of domination misrepresents non-Western societies in some regard, it still provides an example of the sort of conceptual framework needed to analyze the historical development of state structures in any society. Weber championed comparative research, because he believed without comparisons it was impossible to examine rigorously the course of history and to develop theories of historical change. Weber rightly believed that comparisons were only possible with generalized historical concepts. But to Weber, historical research does not lead to better or more general sociological theories. Instead, sociology, as Weber put it to a noted historian, “can perform ... very modest preparatory work” to an adequate historical analysis.Footnote 4 Concepts must lead the way to historical explanations and not the reverse. Similarly, Weber's analysis of the West provides the preparatory work for a better understanding of non-Western society. In this sense Weber's concepts are indispensable for the analysis of non-Western society, not because they are the last word, but because, along with other products of Western sociology, they are the first word, words that are used only to have their meanings altered by subsequent research.Footnote 5

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  1. 1.

    Roth, “Introduction,” xxx.

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Science (Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1949), 103.

  4. 4.

    Economy and Society, lviii.

  5. 5.

    This, too, is the conclusion of Wolfgang Schluchter (Max Webers Studie über Konfuziasmus und Taoismus) 17: “Weber did not understand his terminology as a final one. This does not mean that it is unsystematic or only useful to specific problems, but the sequence of terms is not always obvious in its ramifications, and therefore it sometimes needs an explication or interpretation. A critically productive evaluation of Weber's work has to include a clarification of terminology and the investigation of the historic content.”

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Hamilton, G.G. Patriarchalism in imperial China and Western Europe. Theor Soc 13, 393–425 (1984).

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  • Preparatory Work
  • Chinese History
  • Equivalent Grasp
  • European History
  • Historical Concept