“May the social sciences avoid amalgamations”

Chronic. Current nationalist resurgences readily feed on cookie-cutter statements about the inferiority of a culture or religion, sometimes in the name of their incompatibility with modernity. The social sciences themselves are not always immune.

Among the most famous works of Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, is Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism, published (in German) in 1905 and intensely debated since. We retain, while simplifying a lot, that the ethics of Protestantism leads believers to accumulate wealth through savings and investment, unlike Catholicism more prompt to enjoy wealth. A recent article re-examines Weber’s empirical argumentation, which notably compared the incomes of Protestants and German Catholics to demonstrate his thesis (“Weber revisited: the protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism”, Felix Kersting, Iris Wohnsiedler and Nikolaus Wold, Journal of economic history, n ° 80/3, 2020).

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Anxious to highlight the processes by which religion could affect income, the authors include, among their variables, the level of literacy and the savings rate, data available at the level of the 434 Prussian counties for several years, between 1875 and 1904.

First, the authors show that a rigorous analysis does not confirm Weber’s thesis. The differences in income, savings and literacy between Catholics and Protestants are not significant. In contrast, populations of Polish culture and language (“Polish ethnicity”, write the authors), many in the East and overwhelmingly Catholic, are significantly less rich than those of German culture and language. If one variable affects income negatively (as well as savings and literacy, for that matter), then it would be Polish national affiliation.

Suspect “culturalist” explanations

These results must be understood in the context of the construction of the German national state by Bismarck following the Prussian victories of 1866 and 1870 against the Austrian and French “Catholic” empires. Citing the cultural threat posed by the Catholic “enemy of the interior” (which dominates in Bavaria, the Rhineland and former Poland), Bismarck led, from 1871, a Kulturkampf (“Combat of cultures”), which results in the secularization of education, the expulsion of religious congregations and the confiscation of their property, as well as discrimination in the public service and in land policy, and, finally , by the forced Germanization of linguistic minorities. If the Kulturkampf is attenuated from 1881 thanks to an agreement with the papacy – Bismark needs the support of the Catholic party vis-a-vis the socialist rise -, some of its elements persist in the east of Germany.

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