Max Weber: Explaining the Tragedy of 1978

Introduction

Max Weber focused on major principles that governed human societies. He analysed theories concerning various phenomena which took place in human societies. Thus, he reconsidered Marx’s theory. However, his ideas concerning religion and the role of religion in humans’ life are quite exceptional. Weber’s theories can help to understand and, maybe, explain stimuli of people who lived in the notorious Jonestown. Weber’s ideas concerning domination and the Baptist Sects provide insights into the processes that led to the tragedy of 1978.

Domination

According to Max Weber people tend to organize (or be organized) into groups. It is necessary to point out that these groups do not interact on equal terms. This is where domination comes into place. Weber (1978) defined domination as “the probability that certain specific commands (or all commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons” (p. 212). There are many factors that affect people and make them obey.

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Weber (1978) pointed out three types of authority that made people obey: traditional authority, rational-legal authority and charismatic authority. This classification can be used to explain the phenomenon of Jonestown. Jim Jones became a charismatic leader and created a group of believers (Jonestown, 2006). Those people followed him as they believed in his “revelation, his heroism” and his personal qualities (Weber, 1978, p. 216).

However, it can be difficult to understand what made people believe in that (even charismatic) personality. Weber (1978) provided an answer to this question as well. The renowned sociologist suggested several reasons which could make people obey. One of these reasons is particularly important when considering the case of Jonestown. Weber (1978) stated that people could submit from their helplessness as there was no alternative for them.

This was precisely the case of people who left their homes to settle down in Jonestown (or just believe in Jim Jones). People found themselves in the hostile society where multinationals and corporations ruled the world, where racism and other forms of discrimination were still there (Jonestown, 2006). People longed for a new world where equality and peace ruled. Jim Jones promised them to build such a society.

Notably, Jim Jones did not simply create an ordinary organization; he created a religious organization based on major principles of Christianity. Admittedly, this was one of the main qualities of the organization that attracted so many people. Remarkably, some called the People Temple a cult, whereas some considered it to be a powerful formation that could change the world. Nowadays people see this religious organization as an example of the other side of religious beliefs.

Religious Constituent

Major Peculiarity of Some Religious Organizations

The fact that the Peoples Temple was a religious organization brings to the fore one more theory developed by Max Weber. Thus, he pointed out that

[a] strict avoidance of the world… were the results for the first Baptist communities, and this principle of avoidance of the world never quite disappeared so long as the old spirit remained alive. (Weber, 1930, n.p.)

In other words, Weber argued that numerous religious organizations (he used the word communities) were based on the principle of escape from the society they pertained to. The Peoples Temple was one of such organizations as people who joined it and followed Jim Jones did not feel safe in the contemporary society. They wanted to escape from various kinds of discrimination and they wanted to build a new better society (Jonestown, 2006).

Jim Jones gave people what they wanted. He portrayed a society where justice, equality and good ruled. He went further and called people to come with him to build a new place. Jones suggested a way to escape and many people followed. Thus, Weber’s theory turned out to be correct in one more case.

Ultimate Attempt to Escape

This theory is also manifested in the extreme way Jones’ followers chose. Weber (1930) noted that Baptist organizations largely relied upon the principle of salvation. Apart from mere avoidance of worldly life, many members of such organizations sought for salvation. Weber (1930) also stressed that those organizations were authoritarian.

In other words, leaders had a great power over members of their communities. Therefore, people were ready to follow their leader to the end. This was the case with Jonestown. More than 900 people obeyed and committed suicide as their leader claimed that they could not put up with the vicious world and had to leave it (Jonestown, 2006).

Legitimacy of Jones’ Organization

It goes without saying that such ideas sound like a kind of ideology. Some may say that Jones was trying to show the entire world that there was something wrong with it. However, if to take into account Weber’s theory it becomes clear that Jones pursued his own goals.

Weber (1978) claimed that the entire system is based on the idea of its legitimacy. When members of an organization do not obey, organization ceases to exist. Thus, organization can exist until there is authority and dominance. Basically, Jones’ organization was one of such examples.

The organization was a powerful entity at the beginning. People believed in their leader. Many people joined the organization as they saw a real way out. They obtained the necessary alternative to the hostile society. Nonetheless, soon people got disappointed in the organization and its leader. They started leaving the organization (Jonestown, 2006). This was the point when Jones understood that he was not the great authority anymore.

He understood that he would soon lose everything. People did not believe in the organization’s legitimacy. Jones found the way to prove he was an authority. It goes without saying that Jones’ way to regain dominance became a horrible tragedy. However, it is also necessary to note that the instance of Jonestown tragedy does prove Weber’s theory concerning dominance and authority. Jonestown is the example that an organization cannot exist without dominance.

Conclusion

On balance, it is possible to note that Weber’s theories on human society and religion are applicable in many cases. Thus, these theories can explain such events as Jonestown tragedy. Weber claimed that people were likely to form groups and societies which were governed by certain principles. According to Weber, one of the major principles of humans’ societies is dominance.

Thus, Jim Jones being a charismatic leader formed a religious organization which followed the basic principle of such kind of entities. The organization was based on principles of dominance, i.e. authority and individual desire to escape the hostile (worldly) society. It is important to note that the Peoples Temple should be regarded as an extreme as the leader of the organization used his authority to make people give their lives for some illusive objective.

References

Jonestown: The life and death of Peoples Temple. (2006). Retrieved from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/jonestown-the-life-and-death-of-peoples-temple/

Weber, Max. (1930). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/weber/protestant-ethic/ch04a.htm#d

Weber, Max. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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