Essay on Weberian Ideal Types


One of the fundamental research questions for anyone wishing to represent logically what historians do conceptually is how to capture any conceptual model notion like the Idealtyp of Max Weber. Whether historians always recall Weber in their work, it is arguably the case that often their work can be understood in terms of Weber's ideal type, which captures a unified framework for explaining how information acquisition can be structured and modified under the impact of new understanding.

The Super Case

In the Weberian conceptualization, the ideal type respresents the super-exemplar; the case that has all the features that any of the known cases have. This compositional construction of the ideal type almost guarantees that the ideal type cannot exist; there may merely be instances that are particularly proximate and are therefore often qualified with the label "prototypical".

The story presumably becomes more difficult as the range of the possibilities within an ideal type begins to grow. There are in-commensurate categories that ideal types can belong to that will fracture the ideal type internally. For example, consider the ideal type of a city in the 19th century: Such a city can be either an old Medieval city, or a new industrial city; but there is presumably no city that covers both of these cases.

Prototypical Descriptions

Linguistically, the ideal-type description uses a "Golem Representation", that is, a representation that instantiates exemplars dependent on the overall exemplar of the ideal type instance. In English such modes of description cash out as definite descriptions, i.e. "the medieval city", "the walls", "the mayor", etc.

Inter-Ideal Type Relations

For the majority of the relations in an ideal type, several observations hold:

  • the relations tend to agentify the entities involved, e.g. making the city something that now has a "biography" akin to the way a human being does
  • at the level of the conceptualization of the ideal type, the relations are predominantly between roles, not actors.
  • Actors predominantly occur as prototypical instances that are tied directly to the prortypical instance of the ideal type, thereby functioning like "Golem terms".
  • The only case where the relations are with specific actors is when the larger historical context has already assigned a predominant role to one specific instance of a role-filler. For example, the Medieval Catholic city occurs within a specific religious context that imposes a ready pantheon of saints that can be called upon in the context of religiosity. Just as towns in Jacksonian America have Jackson as their president and the ideal type of the Limes settlement is related to the individual Limes, the very sub-structuring of the ideal type group enforces a specific binding for the conceptual template that the ideal type represents.

Over-Proliferation of Combinations

The difficulty with flexible description systems for the respective parts of an overall conceptual model lies with the possibility of permitting combinations that are in actuality not possible or at least have never been observed. This follows directly from the weak description of the linkage between the ideal types, if there is no sub-categorization to keep such forms of conceptual over-acceptance in check.

Ideal Type Acquisition

In a sense, actors are more realistic categories than roles; roles are functional abstractions, sometimes explicitly reflected in the legal (mayor, knight, …) or social culture (God-father, confidant), that split up the social domain into sub-domains. In the acquisition of ideal types, the problem of the sociologist and historian remains the correct attribution: Which of the many roles that the acting individual represented at the time of the event is the action taken attributable to? The problem is complicated by the fact that at times the plurality of the roles conveys advantage in situations where other roles should be active. (Thus, the vote of a departing president in the presidential election is not recorded in the media as the indistinguishable secret vote of an arbitrary individual, which it legally is.)

Relationships to other Narrative Forms

Relationship to the Analogy

Relationship to the Metaphor

Relationship to the Exemplar

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