Max Weber's series of two articles published in Germany in1904-5, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," is one of the few documents that is clearly seminal for the later movement. Weber was part of a German verin that debated the relative merits of 19th century Marxist economic determinism vs the idealist school of the same period. Marxist thinking established the proposition that most human institutions, including social ideas, were the product of economic forces ranging from class interest to the needs of capital. The idealists found other social values to be driving forces in social structure. Weber looked at the problem of laborers who were willing to sell their services for wages and to work hard in circumstances where their earnings exceeded their survival needs. At the turn of the 20th century this was still a recognized anomaly because many workers in well known parts of the world would only work until their daily needs were met. Weber argued that individual workers were willing to defer gratification and accumulate wealth as a result of  eligious-based ideas they held concerning the positive value of ascetic self-control. Weber saw ideas as driving forces in history. He spent the next and last five years of his life expanding his research into Islamic and other religions.

 A secondary root of Social Thought may be associated with the work of W.G. Sumners (Folkways) who worked in the U.S. at the same as Weber and found a hierarchic structure of ideas that shaped social customs and sanctions in everyday life.

Neither Weber nor Sumners stated the main proposition of social thought explicitly, but both worked on mechanisms that connected ideas to institutions. Weber's gigantic contribution to sociology was not recognized immediately. The 1910 Britannica does not mention him. The entry for sociology at the time derives from the work of Darwin, Marx, Bentham, J.S. Mill and Herbert Spencer.