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ideal type

  A theoretical construction proposed by the sociologist Max Weber (1949) as a means of understanding the complexity and variety of social action. It provides a datum against which comparisons can be made to advance the appreciation of particular events. The necessity for ideal types was advanced by Saunders (1986, p. 30) who argued that

although all social events are historically unique, there is clearly a need for some means whereby social phenomena can be classified in general terms, for only in this way is it possible to understand typical motives and to recognize typical patterns of action. It is, in other words, necessary to generalize in order to explain unique events.Ideal types are thus mental constructs which isolate the theoretically most salient features of the subject being considered: they may be generic, and refer to ahistorical concepts, or individual, in Weber\'s terminology, limited in their scope to particular times, place and contexts, but individual types should be constructed on the basis of generic types \'which are taken to be timeless and spaceless\' (Saunders, 1986, p. 294).

Ideal types are created from empirical knowledge, and are necessary, according to Saunders (1986, p. 31) because:

Social reality is infinite, and we can never know all there is to know about a given phenomenon. When we come to study some aspect of social life, therefore, we are immediately confronted with a chaotic complexity of sense impressions, and the only way to impose order on this chaos in order to distinguish that which is relevant to our concerns from that which is not is through the application of conceptually pure types. Ideal types are the yardsticks by means of which empirical reality can be rendered accessible to analysis.They are not descriptions, and they are always partial. Different types could be constructed for the same phenomena depending on the reason why they are being studied: they are viewpoints, or diagnostic norms, constructed to aid analysis — \'Social reality does not possess a real essence because it is always capable of being constructed or represented in various different ways\' (Parkin, 1982, p. 28: cf. model).

Use of ideal types may involve dichotomies, as in the rural-urban continuum, or a set of \'pure\' categories, as with class, city and bureaucracy (three of Weber\'s main concerns); they may be employed ideologically, as in the concept of a \'free market\', which most critiques of capitalism suggest cannot exist.

According to some versions of phenomenology, ideal types are constructs which individuals use in the creation of their taken-for-granted worlds — they are means of simplifying reality in order to come to terms with it, as suggested in Sennett\'s (1973) work on stereotypes. (RJJ)

References and Suggested Reading Jackson, P. and Smith, S.J. 1984: Exploring social geography. London and Boston: George Allen and Unwin. Parkin, F. 1982: Max Weber. Chichester: Ellis Horwood. Saunders, P. 1986: Social theory and the urban question, 2nd edn. London: Hutchinson. Sennett, R. 1973: The uses of disorder. London: Penguin Books. Weber, M. 1949: The methodology of the social sciences. New York: The Free Press.



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