Sociology/Max Weber – Ideal Type



“An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one sided emphasized viewpoints into unified analytical construct… In its conceptual purity, this mental construct… cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality.” – (Weber, 1903)


The ideal type is one of Weber’s best known contributions to contemporary sociology. Weber believed it was the responsibility of sociologist to develop conceptual tools, which could be used later by historians and sociologists. The most important such conceptual tool was the ideal type.

According to Weber, at its most basic level, an ideal type is a concept constructed by a social scientist, on the basis of his or her interests and theoretical orientation, to capture the essential features of some social phenomenon.

The most important thing about ideal type is that they are heuristic devices; they are to be useful and helpful in doing empirical research and in understanding a specific aspect of the social world. An ideal type is essentially a “measuring rod” or a “yardstick”. As Weber puts it, “Its function is the comparison with empirical reality in order to establish its divergences or similarities, to describe them with the most unambiguously intelligible concepts, and to understand and explain them casually”. For example, social scientists would construct an ideal-typical bureaucracy on the basis of their immersion in historical data. This ideal type can then be compared to actual bureaucracies.


Ideal types are not the product of whims and fancy of a social scientist, but are logically constructed concepts.

The ideal type has to be derived inductively from the real world of social history. Thus, in order to produce ideal types, researchers had first to immerse themselves in historical reality and then derive the types from the reality.

Ideal types should be neither too general nor too specific, so as to find a middle ground between nomothetic and ideographic knowledge. Ideal types are developed from intermediate phenomena such as Calvinism, Methodism etc.

Although ideal types are to be derived from the real world, they are not to be mirror images of that world. Rather, they are to be one-sided exaggerations of the essence of what goes on in the real world.

The use of the word ideal should not be constructed to mean that the concept being described is in any sense the best of all possible worlds. As used by Weber, the term meant that the form described in the concept was rarely, if ever found in the real world.

Ideal type should make sense in themselves, and they should aid us in making sense out of the real world.


  1. HISTORICAL IDEAL TYPES: These relate to phenomena found in some particular historical epoch. For example, the modern capitalistic marketplace.
  2. GENERAL SOCIOLOGICAL IDEAL TYPES: These relate to phenomena that cut across a number of historical periods and societies. For example, bureaucracy.
  3. ACTION IDEAL TYPES: These are pure types of action based on the motivations of the actor. For example, affectual action.
  4. STRUCTURAL IDEAL TYPES: These are forms taken by the causes and consequences of social action. For example, traditional domination.

Thus, we can say that an ideal type is an analytical construct that serves the investigator as a measuring rod to ascertain similarities as well as deviations in concrete cases. It is neither a statistical average nor a hypothesis; rather it is a mental construct, an organization of intelligible relations within a historical entity, formed by exaggerating certain essential features of a given phenomenon.