This is the term used by Max Weber to describe the distinctive concepts and models developed by economic and social theorists, and employed in the activity of empirical analysis. The term also defines the characteristic method which Weber saw as distinctive of the social sciences. Social life is infinitely complex and can never be exhaustively described or explained. In order to make sense of it, the social scientist uses artificially pure concepts, e.g. ‘natural economy’, ‘handicraft’, ‘capitalism’, which are intellectual constructs involving a high degree of abstraction from the actual world. They comprise the most typical elements which have been isolated from a historically repeated pattern of action, relationship or institution, as seen from a partial point of view (economic, political, etc.), and combined into an internally consistent and inherently intelligible unity. With the help of such constructs the social scientist is able to characterize a particular object of study, and make its complexity intelligible according to its degree of conformity to the stipulations of the relevant concept or model. Often a particular social complex will require a combination of such concepts for its elucidation, as for example the class structure of a given society can be understood as a combination of the analytically separable elements of property ownership (‘class’), social esteem (‘status’) and authority position (‘power’). Ideal types have nothing to do with ideals (though there can be ideal-type of ideals, e.g. ‘individualism’) and could perhaps less confusingly be called ‘pure types’.
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