Max Weber’s Theory in Social Work Practice

In the social work profession, integrating theory to practice can be argued to be as essential as the practice itself, for regular intervention with service users.

Oko (2008) observed that an understanding of theory produces insight into options to support service users in resolving practical issues and promoting their overall welfare.

Theory is not flawless, and so does not offer complete answers to all service users’ problems in practice (Thompson, 2010). Nevertheless, the social theory remains an important assessment tool for social workers in the analysis and understanding of service users’ problems (Trevithick, 2001).

Social theory also helps to analyse the complex nature of needs in different practice settings. However, there are fundamental issues which need clarification as to the circumstance under which the understanding of social theory helps social workers to maximise the welfare of service users.

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Max Weber’s Social Theory in Social Work Practice

max weber social work theory

This article is, therefore, a critical analysis of the proposition that an understanding of social theory combined with certain basic elements helps social workers to maximise the welfare of service users.

The article argues that these elements namely; socio-cultural perspectives, political ideologies, and policy contexts are relevant when applying any social theory during interventions with service users, and that the understanding of any social theory cannot in isolation maximise the welfare of service users.

Perhaps, and rightly so, that there are other factors not covered in this work that contribute to social workers’ use of social theory in intervention to maximise service user’s welfare. However, it will be difficult to cover a discussion of this magnitude in this limited article.

What is Max Weber’s theory?

social theories

To critically analyse the above subject, firstly, this article will review the general understanding of the key terms in the discussion; social theory, welfare, and service users. It will then critique the two key components of Max Weber’s Social action theory (SAT); the Interpretation of meaning behind behaviour and rationalisation.

In addition, it will analyse the relational link between these components of Weber’s SAT and social-cultural context, political ideologies and policy context in working with elderly service users to maximise their welfare.

The article will argue that SAT has to be applied within the above contexts, to effectively support service users to achieve a positive outcome. Finally, the article will examine the relevance of using social theory within the discussed contexts, to social work practice.

Furthermore, recommendations will be made for an understanding of Weber’s SAT to always be considered in conjunction with the impact of social-cultural context, political ideologies, and policy on the service user’s situation. This will help social workers to use the best method of intervention to maximise service users’ welfare at all times.

Theory is not an abstract hypothesis or data (Sutton & Staw, 2003), to put it simply, theory is a structure of ideas which attempts to analyse events or facts in a systematic way using a set of principles to provide a universal application (Harte & Sambrook, 2011).

Theory has a significant role in various fields of practice; however, there is no consensus among theorists on the ideologies behind the function of theory (Hobsbawm, 2012).


Secondly,  theory can be flawed in many diverse areas, including its function and essentialism  (Sibeon, 2004). Nevertheless, Henry (2008) views the theory as an intended explanation of a phenomenon prone to wrong prediction which can be tested and verified based on its scientific connection.

Social action is not as simplistic as to summarise in a single or a set of theories. In line with the above definition, social theory tries to study human social interaction with one another, and with the society, the inherent characteristic of human nature within the sociological context, and the resulting effects of this interaction on both the individual and the society (Jones, et al. 2011).

Since theory can be flawed, perhaps the use of social theory is not relevant to understanding everyday activities and social behaviour.

According to Jones et al., (2011), “… to explain human life simply by reference to natural impulses common to all, is to ignore the one crucial fact that sociology directs our attention to: human and behaviours varies according to the social settings in which people find themselves” (p.3).

We can, therefore, infer that without an understanding of the social-cultural context, the application of social theory will not achieve the maximum positive outcome for service users. Therefore, giving attention to understanding the individual service users’ lifestyle within their social- cultural and policy context, and how they can be supported with their individual needs, will help to maximise their individual welfare.

max weber theory in social work

There seems to be no single definition of what makes up welfare. According to Taylor (2011), the term ‘Welfare’ is often used interchangeably with ‘Wellbeing’, and is often said to be comparative. He refers to welfare as “doing well”, and wellbeing as “being well”. Taylor (2011), quoting other writers, states that whereas welfare only “focuses on economic utility”, wellbeing considers “a full-rounded humanity” (para 1).

Allin and Hand (2014) view wellbeing as the overall social development and people’s quality of life at a certain time regarding progress and sustainability, which in its entirety refers to welfare. Whereas Taylor tries to distinguish between these two terms, Allin and Hand believe that wellbeing is summed up in welfare.

It is, therefore, difficult to assign specific meanings to these two concepts, since they have varied meanings to different people in varied situations. The terms also have diverse meanings within different contexts, including economic, political and sociological settings. Therefore, the term ‘welfare’ is used in this article to refer to the overall quality of life to include security, good health, social development, wealth and relationship of service users within the context of the society.

The expression ‘service user’ refers to anyone or group of people who use health or social services. There seems to be a level of uncertainty around the best term to use for this group of people within health and social care, with other variations including patients, customer or clients.

In his studies, McNicoll (2012) observed that there is a divide in the preferred term. The term ‘service user’ undoubtedly categorises people, consequently causing stereotyping, it is impersonal and suggests this group of people are simply users of services without identity (McNicoll, 2012).

Patient sounds too medical, while ‘client’ and ‘customer’ though more professional, connotes business-like partnership. This does not reflect the professional relationship which exists between social workers and the people they support.

However, in this article, ‘service user’ will be used to represent the vulnerable people accessing any form of social care and support.

What is Max Weber’s theory?

theories in social work

Weber’s SAT is more concerned on the micro; it focuses on the particular individual, in relation to social situations (Giddens, 2009). Weber hence views social actions as the results of individual human actions and the motives behind them, the meaning and the interpretation that forms social structure (Best, 2002).

Social work practice, therefore, makes use of the theoretical framework and social theories based on logical evidence in their work with service users (British Association of Social Workers, 2014).

Spicker (2014) states that “welfare is inherently a social concept” (p. 24). The welfare of service users is important to social work practice and SAT would interpret individual behaviours within some contexts to understand their individual welfare needs. Given that neither old nor modern theories operate in a vacuum, evidence suggests that the dominant entity on which the social theory works is a dynamic world which changes so often and where change is seemingly the only certainty (Ritzer & Smart, 2003).

Social theory is consequently uncertain, constantly changing, and continually gaining new interpretations under the demands of new social contexts (Giddens, 1987).

It is, therefore, significant that the earlier research project, and the contemporary, agree that elements such as socio-cultural, political ideologies and policy contexts continuously affect the outcome of sociological theorising in interpreting the meaning behind any behaviour (Peukert, 2004; Warriner, 1969).

Consequently, an understanding of social theory needs to be supported by favourable socio-cultural, political and policy context to maximise service user’s welfare. In line with this, Weber’s SAT emphasises the need to relate perspective to life situations in the society (Dahms, 2013). In explaining further, Weber’s sociological work employs the concept he referred to as ‘Verstehen’
(Interpretation to meaning) to understand why people act the way they do (Rhoads, 2001).

Everyone is a unique personality in a social and cultural context within which individual’s communication, norms, identity, and values affect social action and interaction within the society (Thompson, 2010). This unique personality is often presumed to be largely inconsistent (Zelazo, 2013). However, Thompson (2010) explained that recent studies show that personality can change, thus the more reason to use Weber’s SAT within the social-cultural context.

In social work intervention with the elderly service users, for instance, Weber’s SAT would attempt to understand and interpret the meaning behind the individual’s behaviour within the socio-cultural context. This understanding is important for social workers, to ascertain what welfare means to the individual in line with core social work value, to provide appropriate support (Milne et al., 2014). Contrary to Marxist’s view, Weber closely associates culture with values, and views it as the basis of an idea formation in human behaviour (Swedberg & Agevall, 2005).

What did Max Weber believe in?

marx webber

For Weber, although culture may not be viewed as the central concept in his approach, it is one idea that other concepts relate to. Weber argues that human beings create a culture in accordance with their value-base, and therefore culture is a significant aspect of human existence and reality.

According to Gittleman (1974), Weber demanded ‘value freedom’ in socio-cultural society, stating that cultural sensitivity to peoples’ values was very essential. This, however, varies from person to person, and the immediate social-cultural context will affect each individual meaning and outcome. One can, therefore, argue that non-consideration of socio-cultural context may undermine social work function, even with a good understanding of social theory (Ferguson, 2003).

We can further illustrate the above argument using anti-oppressive practice, promotion of equality, diversity and choice in maximising service user’s welfare. For instance, an assessment of needs with an elderly service user in a nursing home will differ from another elderly service user that lives at home with the family, in line with their social environment.

Whereas welfare for the former may include support with feeding and personal care, for the later her choice of welfare may be some support with shopping and budgeting. Their welfare needs are different due to their different social context (Spicker, 2014). Similarly, the meaning behind a specific behaviour of an elderly Asian service user may differ from the similar behaviour of an elderly white British service user.

Interpreting their individual behaviour without considering the difference in their values or we may interpret cultural context as unfairness and non-promotion of diversity (Thompson, 2010).

max weber

A criticism of the above illustration is that it does not address situations where the policy or the available economic resources place a constraint on the service users’ culture-informed choice of needs (Bounds et al., 2010). Hence, Weber advocates for ‘value freedom’ where an individual can justify the rationale behind their cultural values or actions.

It is important to note that Weber’s advocacy for ‘value freedom’ did not consider those cultural values which may be oppressive, such as female genital mutilation and caste system.

A major criticism of Weber’s idea is that value-free concept is not essential and also unattainable (Ciaffa, 1998). However, Weber maintains that the rationalisation of culture and values promote personal accountability (Derman, 2010), and this may help to understand needs to maximise welfare.

Weber uses rationalisation and rationality in further explanation of his SAT.   According to Kalberg (1980), Weber’s rationalisation refers to a process where there is a continuous shift of the modern society from traditions and customs towards behaviour, led by rationale and realism.

Kalberg (1980), states that Weber identified four types of rationalities, namely practical, theoretical, substantive, and formal rationality. Whereas the formal rationality focuses on the ‘end’, rather than the ‘means’, the substantive rationality focuses on values, the value base or the belief system which underpins individual social action.

This is very significant in this discussion, as contemporary social work practice applies both substantive and formal rationality during intervention with service users to maximise their welfare. We can illustrate this in social work intervention with the elderly service users.

For instance, while substantive rationality helps social workers to recognise ethical conflicts and the need to preserve autonomy, formal rationality comes in when legislation, policy, and procedures stand in the way of service user’s choice (Ray et al., 2008).

Weberian state

An interpretation and understanding of this situation helps to maximise welfare for the individual service user. However, it is important to note that despite Weber’s best effort to explain the concept of rationalisation and rationality; many writers have challenged the lack of clarity in the concepts (Sterling & Moore, 1987; Kalberg, 1980).

Weber’s concept of rationalisation further views the function of the social world because of the individual’s rational relationships between one another, and how human beings construct meaning through their actions (Jones, et al. 2011). Marxism and functionalism do not agree with Weber, rather they believe that the various features of the social structure determine how the world functions.

Weber posits that social actions emanate from the meaning behind the individual’s life experience and action (Jones, et al. 2011). However, he did not address the ability of the societal structure to restrict the individual’s action (Thompson, 2011) impeding on their welfare. This structure includes political ideologies and policy context among other elements.

Social work practice is continuously guided by political procedures and the associated policy governing the society (Thompson, 2010).  In agreement with Thompson (2011), (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1996, cited in Ferguson, 2003) reveal that people do not live their lives independent of social guidelines. Similarly, social work interventions with the elderly service users are bound by the legislative framework (Johns, 2014).

There is also some evidence to suggest that the elderly are at the top of the major beneficiary of safeguarding because of their high level of vulnerability to abuse (Manthorpe et al., 2007). However, this does not exempt them from the affects of policies or the guiding legislative framework.

Over the years, various political ideologies and policies have transformed welfare and social work practice (Spicker, 2014). Although legislation and policies guide and stipulate the acceptable way of practice for social workers, they are not always without conflict with social work practice (Thompson, 2010).

Thompson explained the conflict could be in the area of marginalisation, stigmatisation, and alienation.

Some political perspectives which have affected service user’s welfare and social work practice over the years include Socialism, Marxism, Social democracy, Conservatism, Fascism and Liberal individualism. However, Weber argues that conflict is inevitable in social life (Derman, 2010), and rationalisation is needed to navigate them.

max weber

Weber takes what he refers to as ‘anti-utopian’ stance on politics and policy, stating that conflict in a political context can be explained, understood, and the underpinning arguments re-defined, but it cannot be completely removed (Dahms, 2013).

Weber’s anti-utopian stance has been highly rejected by his critics who view the position as an attempt to avoid social change which could not be clearly understood (Derman, 2010).

In his defence, Weber maintains that the reconstruction of the meaning of historic events creates social structures, including political ideologies and policies.

These structures create the environment and the context for assessment and promotion of service users (Spicker, 2014). He explains that each of the events is considered unique. In addition, habits historically directed societies; however, our daily life is increasing guided by rationalisation in the contemporary society (Lippmann & Aldrich, 2003).

According to Weber, the concepts of rationality and rationalisation process have a huge significance to policy, civilization, and in turn welfare. It touches inequality, class, and power. Hence, the understanding of SAT together with favourable political and policy context helps to maximise welfare for the elderly services users.

The Care Act 2014 (CA 2014) is one of the legislative frameworks used by social workers during intervention with elderly services users (Thompson, 2011). In using the CA 2014, the probability of oppression and discrimination in the application of eligibility criteria is high.

This is a dilemma for social work practice and contradicts social work values. The rationalisation process can play a significant role in social work practice to minimise this.

The understanding of Weber’s interpretation of meaning and rationalisation helps social workers show social work value by validating each elderly service user as a unique individual (Trevithick, 2005). In working with the elderly, social workers can use anti-oppressive and anti-discriminative practice to help maximise their welfare.

According to Thompson (2016), the anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice has to cover personal (individual), cultural (social context) and structural (organisational or policy context) level, to be seen as holistic.

It is important that social work practitioners apply a holistic approach, including an understanding of “self”, and the rationale underpinning their actions to help maximise the welfare of service users. Weber’s interpretation of meaning behind behaviour and rationalisation can support in achieving this.

max weber essay

Weber classified human actions into; affective action which results from an emotional response, and traditional actions based on embedded habit. He also has substantive rationality (value-oriented actions) from the value or ethical belief system, and formal rationality (goal-oriented actions) based on rational to achieve a set goal without considering the means used to achieve the goal.

All these are distinguished by motives or rationality behind them (Allen, 2004; Jones, et al., 2011).

These could help understand the meaning of welfare for individuals. Although Weber’s principal arguments on the connection of meaning to real-life situations, and the response in line with this interpretation of the meaning seem popular, his analysis on rationalisation met with much disapproval (Chalcraft, 2008).

Weber’s critics consistently argue that Weber himself does not understand the meaning of rationality or logical action within specific contexts (Peukert, 2004).

The relevance of the above discussion to social work practice is that Weber’s SAT provides a platform to show empathy and put oneself in peoples’ situation by attempting to interpret the meaning behind their behaviour. It also encourages reflective thinking and reflexivity in practice through meanings and interpretation.

Although there is no consensus on the definition of ‘Social Work’, most of the different definitions have a common reference to ‘Welfare’. Welfare summarises the core aim of social work practice, which involves improving the quality of life for service users (Higham, 2006).

Contemporary social work practice also uses elements of both formal and substantive rationalities in their intervention with service users. When this is combined with favourable socio-cultural, political and policy context, it goes a long way to help maximise the welfare of service users.


In conclusion, this article has attempted to analyse the proposition that an understanding of social theory is more effective when considered with other contextual elements.

Contrary to Marxism, Weber advocates that the logical way to explain social action is through reconstructing meaning to comprehend motives behind behaviour (Ekstrom, 1992).

This article, therefore, recommends for social workers to try reconstructing the meaning socio-cultural, political and policy context with an understanding of social theory.

This will help them achieve a positive outcome as regards the welfare of service users.


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