Modernity, Citizenship and Occidentalist Epistemology in Max Weber and Beyond

by Manuela Boatcă

This article is part of the TRAFO Series “Provincializing Epistemologies”.

A growing number of Western states currently scandalize non-European, non-Western or non-white migrants’ claims to citizenship, denounce or block illegalized migrant paths to residence and increasingly restrict the rights and the duration of refugees’ presence on their territory. Such measures painfully reveal the rising importance of unequal citizenships for global mobility. Yet they (should) also alert us to the larger role that citizenship as an institution plays in constructing and maintaining the idea of a modern West, the integrity of which allegedly needs preserving, protecting, and shielding from the unfathomable non-Western Others. Provincializing the epistemologies behind this understanding is therefore a timely endeavor.

A first step towards such provincialization is to realize that we owe much of this understanding of citizenship to social sciences’ canonized classics, who upheld the notion of a uniquely innovative West that generated – and generalized – progressive institutions. Especially due to sociological conceptualizations, citizenship has for a long time been seen as an equalizing mechanism – an institution devised to counterbalance social inequalities by conferring universal rights to all individuals, regardless of particularities of birth such as ethnicity, class, or social origin. At the global level, the Western notion of citizenship has however been functioning as a selection mechanism on the basis of race, gender, literacy, and property status ever since its emergence in the context of the French Revolution (Boatcă 2015). Its juxtaposition with religion more generally, and with Western Christianity in particular, has served as a hotbed of racist gestures and practices of exclusion even before citizenship crystallized as an institution: from the expulsion of both Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula after the conquest of Granada in 1492 and the use of the “Christianizing mission” to justify European colonialism in the Americas, Asia, and Africa while denying rights to the natives; to the denial of citizenship rights to Jewish residents throughout most of Europe before 1848 and the Catholic-led initiative of inscribing the “Christian roots of Europe” into the European Union constitution in 2004; up to the exclusion of veiled Muslim women from naturalization ceremonies and citizenship in France in recent years and U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempted ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries in 2017.

photo: Courtesy:

In this context, revisiting the role that the classics of sociology have played in promoting a notion of Western modernity heavily linked to both Christianity and citizenship is particularly revealing. Charges of Eurocentrism, evolutionary determinism, and ignorance of non-Western contexts have repeatedly been directed at most and each of sociology’s classics. Yet it was with reference to Max Weber’s thesis of the “uniqueness of the West” that the notion of a Western sociology actively producing absences was first formulated.

To Max Weber, explaining the origin of the West’s uniqueness in bringing about modernity was central to excluding – or explaining away – any contributions of non-Western and/or non-Christian thought to what he considered to be modern achievements – in particular, scientific rationality. Thus, in his Prefatory Remarks to Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion (written in 1920), Weber begins by noting that, although scientific inquiry had existed outside the Western world and had given rise to such highly sophisticated developments as Islamic theology, Chinese historiography, Babylonian astronomy, and Indian medicine, systematic, rational science was unique to the West and could be traced back to “the Hellenic mind“, i.e., ancient Greece. In his view, a series of innovations in music, architecture, and art, such as the rational use of linear and spatial perspectives in painting, were unknown outside the West, as was the Western universities’ “rational and systematic organization into scientific disciplines“ and the Western modern state’s “organization of specially trained civil servants“ (Weber 2005: 55), only precursors of which could be found elsewhere. Similarly, only “rudimentary developments“ of the state as a political institution operating on the basis of “a rationally enacted ,constitution‘ and rationally enacted laws“ (ibid.) had crystallized outside the West, where these distinguishing features now characterized the modern state. The singularity of the West in all these regards could not be overstated, as Weber stressed in General Economic History:

“Only the Occident knows the state in the modern sense, with a constitution, specialized officialdom, and the concept of citizenship. Beginnings of this institution in antiquity and in the Orient were never able to develop fully. Only the Occident knows rational law, made by jurists and rationally interpreted and planned, and only in the Occident is found the concept of citizen (civis romanus, citoyen, bourgeois) because only in the Occident does the city exist in the specific sense of the word“ (Weber 1961: 232).

Weber thus offers a theory of Western exceptionalism based on what Johannes Fabian has called the “denial of coevalness: a discourse that consistently places those who are talked about in a time other than that of the one who talks“ vis-à-vis the entire non-Western world. In the statement that neither the modern state nor the concept of citizenship could have emerged elsewhere, the typical Orientalist gesture involved in the denial of coevalness functions at the same time as a rationalisation of the conspicuous absence of modern capitalist traits outside the West.

In keeping with Weber’s broader research agenda of documenting the uniqueness of the West, his analysis of the city uses the same Orientalist rhetoric of deficits grounded in non-Christian religions in order to explain that the Western concept of the citizen either never developed in the Orient or existed only in rudiments there (Weber 1978: 227). From among the five common features that Weber had identified as characteristic of the European city – fortification, market, autono­mous justice, associative structure, and autocephaly – many were present in India, China, Judea, and the Middle East, as Weber himself had acknowledged. Yet he considered that it had been the associational character of the Occidental city, modelled on and mediated by the Christian congregation that had brought forth the modern concept of the citizen (see Isin 2003, Domingues 2000). Since full membership in the ecclesiastic community was the prerequisite for urban citizenship, the fully developed ancient and medieval city of the West was first and foremost a sworn confraternity of individual burghers (Weber 1978: 1246). According to Weber, the decisive thrust toward confraterni­za­tion into a city corporation had come from Christianity and its unique quality of dissolving clan ties by replacing the ritual character of religious affiliation with a voluntary principle: “…by its very nature, the Christian congregation was a religious association of individual believers, not a ritual association of clans“ (Weber 1978: 1247). As Engin Isin notes, Weber thus traced the key element accounting for the rise of the modern citizenry as far back as early Christianity’s overcoming of ritual taboos between members of different religious communities: “For without commensa­lism – in Christian terms, with­out the Lord‘s Supper – no oathbound fraternity and no medieval urban citizenry would have been possible“ (Weber 1917: 37f., quoted in Isin 2003).

Conversely, in the case of Judaism, the absence of commensalism, alongside the ritual exclusion of connubium, or religious intermarriage, had effectively prevented fraternization between Jews and non-Jews in the medieval cities, resulting in the exclusion of the former from the developing burgher associations. Likewise, for Weber, the persistence of magical or animistic caste or sib constraints and of the corresponding taboos in “the Asian city“ had constituted systematic impediments to the development of cities as confraternities of free town-dwellers through­out Asia, and therefore to the emergence of the institution of citizenship there. In his com­parative studies, Weber did acknowledge similarities between all other aspects of city formation in the West on the one hand and Chinese, Indian, Japanese, or Near Eastern urban settlements on the other. Nevertheless, he repeatedly concluded that ritual obstacles to confraternization – stronger in the case of the Indian castes than for the Chinese and Near Eastern sibs – had accounted for the divergence between East and West in the long run.

For Weber, the main factor in the explanation of the West‘s uniqueness was that of accounting for the origin of the Western middle-class and its particular economic ethos, supported as it was (only) in the West by the rational structure of law and administration (Weber 2005: 59f.). Hence, according to him, the common denominator of the unique modern technological developments, state-building processes, capitalist organisation, calculable law and administration, and work ethic emerged in the West was the specific rationalism characterising Western civilisation as a whole. Against contemporary competing explanations that traced the emergence of capitalism to economic, technological or demographic factors or to an immanent process of social evolution, Weber argued that a work ethic based on ideas such as that of “a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself (Weber 1992: 17) and “[t]he earning of money [as] the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling” (Weber 1992: 19) was what lent Western European and U.S.-American capitalism its distinct rationality and what had been missing in earlier forms of capitalism. The notion that the “ethically-oriented maxim for the organisation of life“ that Weber traces back to the basic religious ideas of ascetic Protestantism constituted the very spirit of modern capitalism was thus explicitly formulated as a contribution to an understanding of  “the manner in which ideas become effective forces in history” (Weber 1992: 48). His emphasis on the ideas and values that went into the capitalist spirit was however not meant to promote an idealist theory of history (as opposed to a materialist one in the Marxist sense). Instead, he wanted to allow for multicausal rather than monocausal explanations of the rise of modern capitalism (Weber 1992: 125). Weber therefore considered the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the early capitalist institutions originating in the European cities to be a mutually favourable one, i.e., an “elective affinity“ between a type of religio-ethically motivated conduct and a mode of production, rather than a direct cause (Weber 1978a, Schluchter 2007: 82).

The logic of “elective affinities” between the religious conduct of Western urban middle-classes and the emergence of capitalism thus offers a basis for writing non-Christian religions out of the history of modernity. While Christianity and Judaism had in common an origin as specifically bourgeois religions, Weber argues, Islam and all Asiatic denominations emerged as religions of the ruling stratum and as such lacked the middle-class, urban character of the Western capitalist ethos. In particular, the innerworldly warrior ethic characteristic of Islam, upheld by a status-oriented military aristocracy, only promoted heroic self-sacrifice in times of war, but not the long-term vocational asceticism that had allowed Protestantism to overcome the spirit of traditionalism in the economic and political spheres (Schluchter 2007: 80). In Weber‘s view, if Judaism never transcended the economic ethic of early, “pariah capitalism”, Islam thus remained feudal, petty bourgeois, or booty capitalist at best.

The contrast between the feudal and the modern economic ethos frequently served as the basis on which Weber illustrated the emergence of modern Western rationalism. Just as feudal agriculture aimed at the mere acquisition of land as a means of entry in the nobility, diverged from the Puritans‘ engagement in agriculture, in turn geared toward productive and commercial farming (Weber 1992: 117), so the feudal knight‘s orientation to a code of personal honour clearly contrasted with modern economic man‘s rational calculation and “orientation toward a purpose [and] a common cause“ (Weber 1978: 1149). However, unlike any other, Weber held, the Occidental feudal ethic is characterised by fealty on the basis of a free contract as well as a feeling of honour. In turn, “Oriental feudalism lacks fealty, Japanese feudalism lacks a patrimonial foundation, and only Occidental feudalism combines both“ (Schluchter 2007: 99). Once again, the Orientalist rhetoric of lack actively produces absences in societies defined as non-modern. More importantly, however, the elevation of feudalism – a particular period in the history of some parts of Western Europe – to a universal stage in the history of world civilizations lends legitimacy to the search for structural absences outside the West and projects the postulated uniqueness further back in time.

This type of argument still dominates socio­logical scholarship on the emergence of modern patterns of social stratification as well as of democratic ideals in the West. As Isin has argued, Weber’s interpretation of citizenship as a distinctly Western institution “inaugurates a social science tradition where the origins of ‘city’, ‘democracy’ and ‘citizenship’ are etymologically traced to the ‘Greek”, “Roman’ and ‘medieval’ cities and affinities between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ practices are established and juxta­posed against oriental societies – Indian, Chinese and Islamic – as societies that failed to develop citizenship and hence indigenous capi­ta­lism” (Isin 2013: 117). Talcott Parsons, who translated Weber into English and drew explicitly on his work, famously referred to the institutionalisation of the basic rights of citizen­ship as an egalitarian tendency of modern societies, in which universa­lis­tic norms gradually replace earlier particularistic solidari­ties of ethni­city, religion, and regional origin. In Parson’s view, this tendency stood for a shift from societies based on ascriptive criteria to societies based on achievement criteria, and the decisive thrust for its implementation had come from the French Revolution. Parsons viewed the French Revolution as having furthered civil rights, many of which had already been institutionalised in English and American law, as well as political rights, which he, like Weber, dated back to the ancient Greek polis. In turn, social rights had become important only in mid-nineteenth century and had started being implemen­ted in the twen­ti­eth (Parsons 1971). At the same time, Parsons echoed Weber’s emphasis on confra­ter­nisation as a basis for claims to equa­li­ty when stressing that the French Revolution’s slogan “embo­di­ed the new conception of com­mu­nity. Liberté and Egalité symbolised the two foci of dissatis­fac­tion, political authoritarianism and privilege. Fra­ter­­nité referred primarily to the broader context of belonging, ‘bro­­ther­­hood’ being a primordial symbol of community” (Parsons 1971: 79f.). Again, both these accom­plish­ments and the disparities that they addressed were presented as internal to a minimally defined West.

At the end of the twentieth century, Bryan Turner’s critical synopsis of the scope of approaches to citizenship from Max Weber through T.H. Marshall, Michael Mann, and Talcott Parsons signalled the exhaustion of citizenship as a relevant concept in a world increa­sing­ly characterised by supra-national entities and allegiances. Despite having undertaken a comprehensive analysis of Weber’s Orientalism, to which he had later added a critique of Weber’s Orientalist conception of citizenship, Turner held onto the central components of Weber’s Occidentalist analysis. In his view, citizen­ship was “an essen­tially modern institution which reflects the profound changes which have occurred in western societies following the democratic revolu­tions in France and America and as a consequence of broader, more general social changes associated with the industrial revolution, such as urbanisation and secularization” (Turner and Hamilton, 1994, np). He there­fore envisaged an ideal-typical historical trajectory, whereby citizen­ship “evolves through the establishment of autonomous cities, deve­lops through the emergence of the nation-state in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and finds its full blossoming in the welfare states of the twentieth century” (Turner and Hamilton, 1994, np).

Besides cementing the Orientalist construc­tion of a binary opposition between East and West, Weberian analyses of citizen­ship amounts to inventing a unified and coherent tradition for each space: “a superior way of being political as ‘simple and pure citizen’ and an inferior tradition that never sorted out the contractual state or the citizen. For much of occidental social science as well as political and public discourse, such images are now such ways of seeing: that democracy was invented in the Greek polis; that the Roman republican tradition bequeathed its legacy to Europe and that Europe christianized and civilized these traditions” (Isin 2013: 117). In the process, not only are discontinuities and differentiations within the West overlooked or ignored, but, just as importantly, the necessary interrelations between the individual factors that had led to the emergence of citizenship in the Western context on the one hand and to different institutional arrangements for the concession of individual or collective rights in non-Western contexts on the other are left unaddressed. The separate elements leading up to the emergence of citizenship in the West – from the development of cities to the religious ethic of Protestantism and the rise of capitalist middle-classes – are not dealt with in terms of their relational significance for one another in their context of emergence, but as a universal to-do list for the non-West aspiring to similar results. Inevitably, such a pro­cedure systematically encounters incomplete assignments and rudi­men­­tary developments everywhere outside the West, where a whole dif­­ferent set of socio-political, economic and cultural elements was at play.

Ultimately, a Weberian conceptualiza­tion of citizenship focused on Western Europe’s pioneering role in forging a community of equal members channels attention to processes internal to that community and the fea­tures that make it unique in comparison to its counterparts else­where. Such a focus however prevents both an understanding of the interrelations – inclu­ding relations of power such as colonial conquest and religious and racial exclusion, which made the singularity of the original context possible – and precludes a global perspective on citizenship more generally. In the process, an inward-looking and self-sufficient West that needs to protect its borders from non-Western Others is being reproduced as legitimate, while religiously motivated, racially charged exclusion is disguised as universal epistemology.



Boatcă, M. 2015: Global Inequalities Beyond Occidentalism, Farnham: Ashgate.

Isin, E. 2013. Citizenship after orientalism. Genealogical investigations, in Comparative Political Thought: Theorizing Practices, edited by M. Freeden and A. Vincent. London: Routledge.

Parsons, T. 1971. The System of Modern Societies. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Schluchter, W. 2007. Hindrances to Modernity: Max Weber on Islam, in Max Weber & Islam, edited by T.E. Huff and W. Schluchter. New Brunswick, London: Transaction Publishers, 53-138.

Turner, B.S. and Hamilton, P. 1994. General Commentary, in Citizenship. Critical Concepts, edited by B.S. Turner and P. Hamilton. London: Routledge, n.p.

Weber, M. 1961. General Economic History, New York: Collier.

Weber, M. 1978. Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press

Weber, M. 1992 [1930]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge.

Zubaida, S. 2005. Max Weber‘s The City and the Islamic City. Max Weber Studies, 5/6, 111-118.


MANUELA BOATCĂ is Professor of Sociology and Head of School of the Global Studies Programme at the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany. Her work focuses on world-systems analysis, postcolonial and decolonial perspectives, gender in modernity/coloniality and the geopolitics of knowledge in Eastern Europe and Latin America. She is author of Global Inequalities beyond Occidentalism, Ashgate 2015 and co-editor (with E. Gutiérrez Rodríguez and S. Costa) of Decolonizing European Sociology. Transdisciplinary Approaches, Ashgate 2010.


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Ruth Streicher/Schirin Amir-Moazami (2016), Reflections on Hegemonies of Knowledge Production and the Politics of Disciplinary Divisions. Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ruth Streicher/Schirin Amir-Moazami (2015), New Discussion Series on TRAFO: Provincializing Epistemologies. Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Schirin Amir-Moazami (2016), Secular Power and the Predicaments of Knowledge Production on Muslims in Europe, Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ruth Streicher (2016), Imperialism, Buddhism, and the Secular in 19th-Century Siam – Notes on Provincializing Secularism, Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ulrike Schaper (2016), Universalizing the Province Europe in Early German Legal AnthropologyTrafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Omar Kasmani (2016), Fakir Her-stories. Women’s Spiritual Careers and the Limits of the Masculine in PakistanTrafo—Blog for Transregional Research.

Ruth Mas (2016), Notes on Christianity, Empire and Provincialising Secularism in the Study of Islam, Trafo—Blog for Transregional Research.



Citation: Manuela Boatcă, Modernity, Citizenship and Occidentalist Epistemology in Max Weber and Beyond, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.06.2017

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  1. 23. Juni 2017

    […] Soziologin Manuela Boatcă (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) hat für das TRAFO-Blog, das Kooperations-Blog der Max Weber Stiftung und des Forums Transregionale Studien, einen Artikel zum Thema „Modernity, Citizenship and Occidentalist Epistemology in Max Weber and Beyond“ geschrieben. Ihre Ausführungen darüber, wie Max Webers These zur Einzigartigkeit des Okzidents mit dem aktuellen Diskurs über Moderne, Bürgerrecht und Flüchtlingsproblematik zusammen hängen, lassen sich hier vollständig nachlesen: […]

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