Economists Disprove Weber?

The economics blogs are all a-twitter over a new research paper by Davide Cantoni that looks at the influence of protestantism on economic development in Europe, 1300-1900. Here’s Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution linking to it, and here is a short analysis by Simon Johnson of Baseline Scenario. Cantoni tests the hypothesis by comparing the growth in cities in Protestant vs. Catholic parts of Germany (this is from a quick skim). Cantoni finds no significant differences in city size that can be explained by religion.

So.. what do we make of this? Does it matter to us if Protestant cities did not grow faster than Catholic ones? Has Cantoni properly understood Weber’s hypothesis? One possible objection would be that Weber’s point is that Protestantism sets up the iron cage, but once it’s set up it doesn’t really matter whether or not you are a Protestant, and that this data might be too macro and with too big of gaps in time to see such trends. Although, Weber is also trying to understand why England takes such a lead in the industrial revolution (if I recall correctly). Hm.

Anyway, it’s interesting to me that economists are still reading someone like Weber at all, and trying to prove or disprove him. It’s also interesting to think about what the consequences of such empirical attempts to assess classical theories should be for the teaching of classical theory – how do you deal with contemporary accounts of historical phenomena that differ so strongly from those used to justify the theory itself?



  1. zach

     /  December 2, 2009

    Cantoni did not really bother to read Weber. Weber doesn’t make a mono-casual argument (in fact, he is writing against the orthodox base-superstructure Marxism), not to mention, the key argument is that protestantism conditions a culture which then takes off through the modern world. The spirit of capitalism is thus not uniquely protestant, but has its origins within Protestant individualism.

    For a different empirical treatment in which the authors actually bothered to read Weber and tried to test his thesis:

  2. J.Z.

     /  December 4, 2009

    As far as I’m concerned there is a wealth of work that has at least empirically contradicted Weber’s ‘protestant’ thesis of the growth of capitalism.

    I think the value of the work is more in its method of interpretive sociology…

  3. andrew

     /  February 22, 2010

    robert c. allen in his book “the british industrial revolution in global perspective” also mentions weber. it’s not so strange that people like weber still exert some influence over present-day economists – brad delong quotes marx on his blog all the time

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