Ideal Types and the Really-Existing

Ideal types don’t exist in reality. They are heuristics developed via abstraction from actual evidence and discernment of the structural logic explaining relationships in the data that are then used to explore the empirical world. There is only “actually-existing” or historical feudalism, capitalism, or socialism. There is no “pure this” or “pure that.” Purity is always an abstraction. 

Max Weber’s ideal types of authority

Moreover, an ideal type must never be applied to the data in a superficial manner, such as the way people talk about this or that thing or person being “fascist” on the basis of an appearance of a handful of (often highly selective and stretched) analogical points of contact. There is “actually-existing,” i.e., historical fascism, and there are sociopolitical systems that are fascistic in character but are not fascism actually-existing. 

Conceptual systems are never exactly the things they conceptualize (in part because things are always changing), but they come very close when they enjoy validity (such as in their predictive power) and their application is empirically sound (that is, supported by the facts). Still, we have to avoid reifying concepts such that they stand in place of the reality we are striving to grasp. 

To suppose that the ideal type of capitalism exists anywhere in the world is absurd. To suppose one may use this absurdity to defend or rationalize capitalism marks ideology. Capitalism is an actual concrete historical system that comes in many varieties. There are characteristics of capitalism that distinguish it from other social forms, and central to these are its social relations and mode of exploitation.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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