Max Weber in his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism elaborates a thesis that relates the development of the capitalistic system is a result of the work ethic that emerged from Reformation.

From an historical point of view, and given that capitalism has expanded with time to many countries where no Protestant ethic is present, is this thesis consistent or not? is there a consensus in the historians' community on the issue?

I'm thinking in capitalism in Asiatic countries, or even inside Germany, nowadays the richest region is Bayern, which is Catholic; or the development of Austria. It is considered that the Protestant ethic permeated other cultures or that the thesis is not accurate? Or that maybe other cultures had to introduce a moral mechanism to be able to successfully apply the capitalistic system?

Is a wide question, but I'm interested in to know which is the status of the hypothesis among the scholarship. Has it been revised critically? Are there scholars that built theories on top of it?

  • 2
    It has been 30 or more years since I last read Weber, but I believe you're stating the thesis a bit more broadly than intended. The Protestant ethic enabled people to defer satisfaction which resulted in the rise of capitalism in Northern Europe; once capitalism exists, it isn't necessary to recapitulate Protestantism. Capitalism is like an invention; difficult to originally develop, but easy to adapt or adopt.
    – MCW
    Apr 19, 2015 at 19:42
  • Capitalist methods existed before there were Protestants. Weber posited that the Protestant ethic tended towards Capitalism and enhanced it, not that it created it. Apr 20, 2015 at 2:49
  • Good question, but needs more focus IMO. How Webers theory is regarded today and wether there have been updates is a question on sociology. As for capitalism permeating into catholic or non-christian dominated areas, see the comments above but maybe something can be learned by asking (for example) who (social/religios group) adopted practices like safing money first in China or Indonesia or Sub-Saharan Africa ...
    – mart
    Sep 11, 2015 at 6:34

1 Answer 1


Admittedly, it has been many years since I too read Max Weber's, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism".

Although I do not have the exact date of its original publication-(if my memory is correct, it was around the first decade of the 20th century, approximately 110 years ago), Max Weber wrote an important sociological work that was very much for his time. Even though Weber was attempting to justify or validate the nexus between centuries old Protestantism and Capitalism-(or really the correlation between the centuries old Protestant ethos and the Capitalist system), he was still writing within his contemporary cultural framework-(and when looking at Weber's time, he may have been quite accurate in his description). Protestant countries, such as The Netherlands, Britain-(both England and Scotland) and even the United States-(which during Weber's time, was still a predominantly Protestant country), were either historic or burgeoning Capitalist economies who helped found the Modern Corporation, as well as having planted the seeds of the Industrial Revolution, thus underscoring and validating Weber's thesis.

However, in Germany's case, it is a bit more complex and paradoxcial, due to the fact that a sizable percentage of Germany is Roman Catholic-(especially in Bavaria, as well as the Western Rhineland, to some extent). Yet, Germany was also the historic birthplace of Protestantism-(specifically, in Northern Germany) and much of Northern and Central Germany is Lutheran. So the German historic example may have limited Max Weber's thesis.

I won't necessarily say that Weber's "Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" is an anachronism, though I would suggest that Weber's famed work, was very much of and for his time. The reason, is that Capitalism, since Weber's passing, has morphed into a Global phenomena and continues to expand. The Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lampur, Tokyo and Dubai skylines rival the Frankfurt, Berlin, London and even the NYC skylines, thus proving, through time and Globalization, that what began in mostly Protestant lands, has successfully evolved into parts of the world that are not even religiously Christian. Therefore, the old "Protestant ethic", is reaching beyond The North European Protestant economic horizon.

Overall, Max Weber's, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" is a Landmark work in the History of Sociology and Culture, though it is largely confined to his time.

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