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Protestantism and Capitalism: The Mechanisms of Influence (Sociology and Economics)

Protestantism and Capitalism: The Mechanisms of Influence (Sociology and Economics)

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Drawing on both new and underutilized older evidence on Puritan preachers and merchants, this book evaluates the impact of English Puritanism on the development of modern capitalism. Its point of departure, of course, is Max Weber’s landmark treatise, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), whose thesis has remained widely known, controversial, and influential as any work by a sociologist in the past century. Although Cohen’s careful reading and sifting of evidence supports Weber’s link only in qualified part, his critical testing of Weber’s hypotheses serves to clarify the argument and raise it to a nuanced level beyond the brilliant conjecture with which it was launched and pursued.

Each of the hypotheses that Cohen finds in Weber’s text represents a potential mechanism through which Puritanism could have exerted its economic influence. Behavioral mechanisms could have occurred as Puritan teachings influenced the economic behavior of Puritan businessmen; cultural mechanisms, as economic values in the Occident were shaped by Puritan beliefs. The aim of the book as a whole is to determine how Puritanism exerted its influence on capitalism, how many mechanisms were at work, and how powerful the impact might actually have been.

Weber’s ideas about these mechanisms—about the Protestant work ethic, about rational economic action and salvation anxiety, about the relationship of success in business to election for salvation, and all the rest—areheld up to critical and historical scrutiny. Cohen finds, in some instances contrary to expectation, that some of these Weberian mechanisms of influence are empirically validated, lending support to the Weber thesis, while others are disproven and dropped. A modified version of the Weber thesis survives this scrutiny, and that, perhaps, is the major contribution of the book, which will be used in courses in sociological theory, in methodology, and in the social history of early modern Europe and even of Colonial New England.