Theory and Society

, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 437–466 | Cite as

Language, ethnicity, and the nation-state: on Max Weber’s conception of “imagined linguistic community”

  • Mitsuhiro TadaEmail author


Methodological nationalism in sociological theory is unfit for the current globalized era, and should be discarded. In light of this contention, the present article discusses Max Weber’s view of language as a way to relativize the frame of the national society. While a “linguistic turn” in sociology since the 1960s has assumed that the sharing of language—linguistic community—stands as an intersubjective foundation for understanding of meaning, Weber saw linguistic community as constructed. From Weber’s rationalist, subjectivist, individualist viewpoint, linguistic community was a result of social actions, not a prior entity as assumed by German metaphysical organicism (and historicist holism). Indeed, Central Europe in Weber’s era was a battlefield of linguistic nationalism(s); in contrast to the national societies of the Cold War period, national borders were unstable and ultimately the multiethnic empires of the region were dismantled after World War I into ethnolinguistic nation-states. Experience of this contemporary reality brought Weber to the core of the relationship between language and politics: A language community is an imaginary one demarcated not by language itself but by conscious opposition against outsiders, with monolingual contexts within borders created artificially by homogenizing policies like linguistic standardization and national education—the first modernity of language. In this way, Weber felt, language can be a means to domination.


Anglicization First modernity Interpretative sociology Methodological nationalism National society Sociology of language 



An earlier version of this article was first presented under the title “Imagined Linguistic Community: Max Weber and His View of Language” at the July 2016 international conference of the Research Committee 08 (History of Sociology) of the International Sociological Association, held at Warsaw University, Poland. I appreciate the insightful comments of the participants at that conference, as well as those of the audience at my guest lecture at the University of Klagenfurt (Austria). In particular, I am much grateful to Dr. Christian Dayé and Dr. Matthias Duller for their kind support. In addition, I would like to thank Professor Dr. Hubert Knoblauch and my other colleagues at the Institute for Sociology, Technical University of Berlin (Germany). During my research stay there, they gave useful suggestions at my lectures at the Research Workshop of General Sociology, as well as in our everyday conversations. I also thank the reviewers and editors of Theory and Society for their advice on the article. This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 16K04035.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesKumamoto UniversityKumamotoJapan

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