Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?

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Aug. 29 2013 1:06 PM

Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?

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The oldest House in Kimberley and the first church to be built there, the Lutheran Church of St. Martin stands in Kimberley, South Africa, on Nov. 9, 2009.

Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904 and today considered one of the foundational texts of modern sociology, Max Weber argued that European industrial capitalism had its origins in the Protestant Reformation. More specifically, he made the case that Protestant theology developed the idea of work and economic activity as a God-given “calling,” which caused people in Protestant societies to develop a strong work ethic, leading to the development of European capitalism.

The thesis remains controversial, and several studies looking at the relationship between Protestantism and economic growth have suggested there’s little empirical basis for it. But a recent paper (via HBR) by economists Andre van Hoorn and Robbert Maseland of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands takes a different approach, looking not at the outcome of work ethic but at the actual value people placed on work.

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Using data from the European and World Values Surveys—global studies in which people are asked to describe their economic circumstances and subjectively assess their own well-being—they examined a sample of 150,000 individuals from 82 societies to see how people felt about unemployment. They found that while unemployment reduces well-being regardless of religious denomination, "it has an additional negative effect for Protestants of about 40 percent the size of the original effect.” In other words, “the individual level unemployment hurts Protestants much more than it does non-Protestants.”

The effect also applies for people living in predominantly Protestant societies, even if they are not Protestant themselves. When they examined self-reported happiness ratings, as opposed to well-being as a whole, they found the “negative effect of unemployment … to be twice as strong for Protestants compared to non-Protestants.”

Obviously, the years since the book’s first publication have demonstrated that capitalism can easily take root in non-Protestant societies (Weber’s ideas about why Confucianism had inhibited the development of capitalism in China haven’t aged as well), but the study does bolster Weber’s case that the ethic exists. Whether it was as instrumental as he believes is another question.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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