Ideal Type Essay

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Max Weber designed his use of the ideal type to solve the problem of comparison. All historical events are unique. Forcing these into some overall framework would do violence to the integrity of local detail. Capturing the general abstract qualities of a phenomenon in a mental model enables the construction of a refined and general version of the specific cases that might be met in reality.

What an ideal type captures is meaning: what counts for history is always the meaning of the people concerned in its production and interpretation. As Weber conceived them, ideal types were hypothetical ideational types that serve as a mental model that analysts can agree captures some essential features of a phenomenon. The ideal type does not correspond to reality but seeks to condense essential features of it in the model so that one can better recognize its real characteristics when it is met. It is not an embodiment of one side or aspect but the synthetic ideational representation of complex phenomena from reality.

For instance, Weber’s analysis took emergent terms and ideas that were current in actual bureaucracies at the time that he was writing and used them as the basis for theoretical construction of an ideal type of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was identified by Weber with its development by the nineteenth-century German state. Thus, a historical conception of bureaucracy defined the ideal type of bureaucracy.

Schutz (1967) took issue with one aspect of Weber’s approach to ideal types: were they a construct by the analysts or were they the analysts’ account of the constructs in use by the members of the research setting in question? He thought that the construction of types out of the concepts of everyday life should be such that they were grounded in the members’ usage.

Because any ideal type is a historically specific construct later, different realities will not correspond to it. When writers such as Gouldner (1954) investigated organizations, they compared the realities they found with the type that they had inherited. The type became reified, taking on a life of its own. Weber’s famous ideal type of bureaucracy, which he developed in the early twentieth century, was widely used much later, in the 1950s and 1960s, as the basis both for case studies, such as Gouldner (1954), as well as for the development of what were heralded as taxonomic approaches to organizations, that saw bureaucracy as a necessary and contingent organization structure that would vary with elements such as its size or technology – that is, it would be ”more” or ”less” bureaucratic. Both uses froze and reified a historically transitory phase of bureaucratic development into something without history. However, as Martindale (1960: 383) suggested, we should ”compare different empirical configurations, not empirical configurations and types” as any specific type is always historically bounded and ”destined to be scrapped.”


  1. Gouldner,    W.   (1954)   Patterns   of Industrial Bureaucracy. Free Press, New York.
  2. Martindale,    (1960)   The  Nature  and  Types of Sociological  Theory.   Routledge  and  Kegan Paul, London.
  3. Schutz, A. (1967) The Phenomenology of the Social World. Heinemann, London.
  4. Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

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