Teaching empathy and understanding (with insights from Max Weber)

In my book, Teaching Sociology Successfully, I wrote a chapter on sociological theories and their possible application as pedagogy; or, rather, how they could aid our approaches to teaching, learning and understanding our students’ comprehension of what they are being taught. This included functionalism, feminism and Marxism. Here, I outline what Max Weber’s theories could tell us about pedagogy. Weber is often cited as one of sociology’s ‘founding fathers’, especially in relation to social action theories.

Social action

Weber sees social action as how an individual “attaches a subjective meaning to his or her behaviour – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence.” He goes on to say, “Action is social insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course” (1978, p. 4). In terms of pedagogy, it could be argued that Weber’s writings on understanding social action are a useful tool for conceptualising how we understand other people’s actions in social situations, especially as it treats students as subjective agents with individual perceptions, emotions and motives.

Weber identified two main ways in which sociologists (and, I would argue, students and teachers) should try to understand social situations. The first was aktuelles Verstehen, which is direct observational understanding, and the second was erklärendes Verstehen, which is often referred to as empathetic understanding. Building on the second type, Weber argues that sociologists should interpret the meaning of an act in terms of the thoughts, feelings and motives that have given rise to it. Many sociology textbooks simplify this as understanding social actions by “putting yourself in the shoes of the person you are studying” in order to comprehend their feelings and motives (Giddens, 2009, p. 6).

A Weberian pedagogy

However, what would a ‘Weberian pedagogy’ actually look like? Perhaps a Weberian teacher may endeavour to set up learning activities that get students thinking about others;for instance, exploring their own emotions and motivations towards situations that are similar to the people they are studying in order to reach some degree of empathetic understanding. This approach to pedagogy could be useful in the humanities as well as English and the creative arts; it could also be occasionally applicable to content in the sciences were purely empirical analysis overlaps with ethics or controversial issues.

Of course, this theory is not designed to engineer revolutionary sentiments amongst students, but should allow them to interpret what they see and make value judgements on this (say what they think). Essentially, one student’s feelings towards a particular issue may not be the same as another’s, but this will then allow for debate and evaluation of the subject matter. This is not purely emotive as the first type of understanding, aktuelles Verstehen, suggests the student needs to consider all the factors that could lead to the person or people being studied behaving in such as way. In this sense, there is still room for objective analysis of the facts.

Importantly, the teacher must let students decide to what extent they empathise with others and should remain impartial in order to retain some level of overall objectivity, especially in lessons where emotions may run high. For example, Weber stated that the role of the teacher in sociology is ‘to subordinate himself to his task and to repress the impulse to make an unnecessary spectacle of personal tastes or other sentiments’ (1978, p. 493). Therefore, Weber felt that the teacher should have an ethical neutrality, which would certainly put him at odds with advocates of critical pedagogy. Nonetheless, there is scope here for teachers to employ erklärendes Verstehen towards understanding their students’ circumstances. For example, we should try to empathise with how they learn, why they behave the way they do, or even – in a similar way to the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu – with their personal circumstances.

Weberian learning in practice

How would a Weberian learning activity work in practice? If we are to explore others emotions whilst remaining objective as teachers, perhaps there is room for us to act as a devil’s advocate in discussion so long as this is to give an alternative perspective. Furthermore, in class discussions and debate the teacher could also take the role of a neutral judge or a committed participant in role, but not as a ‘committed participant in a personal capacity’; the former type of participant adds points to discussion to further evaluation whereas the latter gives their opinion. I am sure a lot of politicians and parents would prefer the former types of teacher debate as the teacher’s views can unduly influence the students’ opinions on things and, perhaps, this runs counter to their freedom to make up their own mind on issues; see a previous blog on this and the law in England and Wales.

Empathising with students circumstances

In addition to erklärendes Verstehen, teachers can further benefit from Weber’s thinking by being aware of his concern with the rationalisation of modern society and, in particular, the overarching power of bureaucracy. In a society where critics of modern education often refer to schools as ‘exam factories’ or, in some cases, ‘sausage factories’, Weber’s work is particularly relevant to our understanding of how schools operate and the impact these operations have on our students.

For example, as schools’ test, set or stream and target students using statistical data and as our own approaches to pedagogy have to generally conform to others’ view of what Ofsted wants or what senior leadership deems the right way to plan, teach and assess, it often feels like we are placed in a bureaucratic straightjacket that saps all originality, creativity and flexibility from our own classroom practice.

Similarly, although Weber acknowledged the benefits of bureaucratic rationalisation, especially our ability to calculate results, he also looked into the dysfunctions of bureaucracy, including its inability deal with individual cases that do not conform to the norm (see Croser, 2003, p. 230). This is especially important if we take into account our students’ lives outside of school, their interactions with peers and other contextual and subjective elements of their day-to-day lives that cannot be calculated or factored into statistical predictions of their ability, potential and/or suitability for certain academic or vocational pathways.

Bearing this in mind, it is essential that we remain aware of our students’ feelings, individual situations and their own aspirations, in the sense that they are human beings and not learning machines, as well as our own understanding of their ability, potential and interests, regardless of what the bureaucracy (data and management) tell us. For an interesting and deeper discussion on this and how rationalisation can lead to depersonalisation and disenchantment in an educational context, see Halasz and Kaufman’s article ‘Sociology as Pedagogy’ (2008, pp. 303-304).


Croser, L.A. (2003). Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Giddens, A. (2009). Sociology (6th Edition), Cambridge: Polity Press.

Halasz, J.R. and Kaufman, P. (2008). ‘Sociology as Pedagogy: How Ideas from the Discipline Can Inform Teaching and Learning’ in Teaching Sociology, Vol. 36, pp. 301 – 314.

Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Oakland: University of California Press.

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