Work Motivation: Capitalism, Individualism, Institutionalism

Words: 863
Topic: Psychology

Every culture has a set of underlying social values and norms that not only motivate people to work but underpin all social interactions. In a community, some people are characterised by high levels of motivation to work while others hardly work due to low levels of motivation. One of the proposed responses to the question of why people work can be found in Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1976). Although it is not supposed to be the sole explanation of modern capitalism, it helps to uncover the normative underpinnings that characterise capitalist development (Weber 1976, p. 156). The key constituents, which are just for why people work are a calling, predestination and asceticism.

A calling as a basis for working implies that the work is subject to the will of God and all activities are done to please God. Therefore, under this premise, failing to use one’s talents would be squandering gifts that are bestowed to an individual by God (Weber 1976, p. 173). Predestination is when people assume that they were created with a purpose that they can only discover through carrying out good work throughout a lifetime.

Asceticism is based on the protestant belief that since wealth is tempting and often leads to immorality, individuals should accumulate it and spend it wisely (Weber 1976, p. 157). Weber proposed that the affinity of asceticism to capitalism and bureaucracy was elective (Weber 1976, p. 158). It implies that persons could choose whether to associate their wealth with capitalist or bureaucratic processes. This can be associated with the rise of the capital-driven western market and the rational-legal nation-state (Weber 1976, p. 156).

Thus, despite the fact that he does not propose religion to be a vehicle for economic change, he argues that asceticism and modern capitalism develop simultaneously and further each other’s development unintentionally (Weber 1976, p. 156). Instead of claiming that religion was a simple isolated cause of capitalism in the western world, he viewed it as a part of a more complex aspect that encompassed rational, scientific pursuits, the combination of observational principles and mathematical logic, rationalisation of the systematisation of governors and increasing bureaucracy (Weber 1976, p. 158).

Individualism vs institutionalism

The second justification for work is based on institutionalised individualism. The concept behind individualism is that individuals are obligated to work towards the realisation of institutionalised norms and values that are aimed at achieving many societal benefits (Weber 1976, p. 170). The definition of a good society, on the other hand, is considered to be a matter of individual choices rather than cultural or religious beliefs. According to the work principles, institutionalism and individualism are not really different from protestant work ethic with only slight distinctions in definitions of terms such as justice and human right (Weber 1976, p. 160).

Weber proposes that with time, protestant ethic was secularised and it was from there that capitalism sprung. In the contemporary setting, values under the normative structure tend to be contradictory with society, allowing people to do whatever they desire seemingly. In many ways, what one desires to achieve in his or her own duty and responsibility. In fact, the limits to which one can achieve his or her personal goals are determined by factors such as individual choice, upbringing, religion and exposure (Weber 1976, p. 159). Thus, the achievement of objectives in life varies from one person to another.


An individual would work towards specific goals because he or she is bound by cultural and societal norms to be independent and become self-reliant. Beck-Gernsheim posits that one is capable and indeed obligated to lead a life of independence without the confines of family attributes or other bonds such as nationality tribe or any other collective grouping. Individualism is understood not just as a sense of total freedom, but having the capacity and the ability to make choices.


Retrospectively, ethical and religious values have been secularised in the contemporary world such that people do not work or act for the sake of realising God’s will, but rather to fulfil commonly shared values (Weber 1976, p. 172). The overall values that motivate the behaviour of an individual are comparatively more general and less restrictive. Individuals tend to have more freedom with which to realise these goals, and basically, the action of an individual is driven by institutionalised individualism (Weber, p. 175).

As far as work is concerned, both what and how the concern of one’s choice is commonly referred to as self-realisation or individualism. Admittedly, this is something of a paradox of terms since it can be described as a situation where one has no choice, but to make a choice. The underlying implication is that people must lead their own life and be responsible for their actions and non-actions. However, there is a limit based on the norms and values in society that one lives in and the amount of freedom one has varied across different social settings (Weber 1976, p. 179). Ultimately, while capitalism may not appear to have very overt similarities with religion, one of its key tenets is based on the accumulation and reinvestment of wealth, which is clearly reflected in protestant ideology.


Weber, M, 1976, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge, London, United Kingdom, pp. 155-183. Web.