Working Paper 179

Max Weber’s ‘Spheres of Life’: a tool for micro-sociological analysis


Sylvia Terpe

Abteilung ‚Resilienz und Transformation in Eurasien’

Jahr der Veröffentlichung


Working Paper 179

In his Intermediate Reflection Max Weber famously discusses the idea of different spheres of life, representing their increasing separation and the tensions among them as the predicament of ‘modern men’. This paper aims to show that Weber’s idea of different spheres of life can be a useful heuristic tool (for sociologists and anthropologists alike) in researching everyday life perceptions of the world people inhabit. Instead of using the concept to describe historical phenomena on a macro level, the paper focuses on how it may guide empirical research on a micro level. In a first step, I outline what the term ‘sphere of life’ means from a methodological perspective that puts individual actors at its centre. I argue that – as Weber suggests with reference to ‘collective entities’ – spheres of life exist first of all as ideas and beliefs in the minds of individual persons. Against this background, I ask in the second part of the paper how many spheres can be distinguished and how they are best named. The secondary literature on Weber is indecisive in answering these questions. I suggest – with reference to Weber’s concept of ideal types – that they can only be answered empirically from the perspective of the actors themselves. Third, based on Thomas Schwinn’s reading of Weber, I introduce the distinction between value-spheres and life-orders as two fundamentally different modes of orientation to spheres of life. While the ‘inner logic’ of value-spheres is propelled by the interminability of value realisations (Hans Joas’s considerations on value commitments give further insight into this), I also emphasize that the inner logic of life-orders, to which people relate in a rather instrumentally-rational manner, can be understood as attributions to these spheres made by the actors. This difference is illustrated using the example of the economic sphere. In the final part of the paper, I outline the usefulness of Weber’s idea of different spheres of life for ascertaining various moral dimensions of everyday life. I argue that Weber’s concept of life-orders may be helpful in determining what Robert Wuthnow called the structure of moral orders. Furthermore, the idea of separated spheres of life may shed light on moral dynamics in everyday life. Finally, Weber’s distinction between value-spheres and life-orders is helpful in disentangling the various ways in which work and morality intersect.

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