Iron cage

Iron cage

Iron cage is a sociological concept introduced by Max Weber. Iron cage refers to the increasing rationalization of human life, which traps individuals in an "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control. He also called such over-bureaucratized social order "the polar night of icy darkness". [Weber, Max. Weber: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Ed. Peter Lassman. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge UP, 1994. xvi. ]

The original German term is "stahlhartes Gehäuse"; this was translated into 'iron cage', an expression made familiar to English language speakers by Talcott Parsons [] in his 1958 translation of Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism". [] [] Recently some sociologists have questioned this translation, arguing that the correct term should be 'shell as hard as steel' and that the difference from the original translation is significant. [] , [] A more literal translation from German would be "steel-hard housing."

Weber wrote: "In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.' But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage." []

Weber became concerned with social actions and the subjective meaning that humans attach to their actions and interaction within specific social contexts. He also believed in idealism, which is the belief that we only know things because of the meanings that we apply to them. This led to his interest in power and authority in terms of bureaucracy and rationalization.

Rationalization and bureaucracy

Weber states, “the course of development involves… the bringing in of calculation into the traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.” [Weber, Max. General Economic History. Dover Publications, 2003. 356.]

Modern society was becoming characterized by its shift in the motivation of individual behaviors. [] Social actions were becoming based on efficiency instead of the old types of social actions, which were based on lineage or kinship. Behavior had become dominated by goal-oriented rationality and less by tradition and values. According to Weber, the shift from the old form of mobility in terms of kinship to a strict set of rules was a direct result of growth in bureaucracy and capitalism. [Weber, Max, Talcott Parsons, and Rh Tawney. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Dover Publications, 2003. ]

Effects of bureaucracies

Positive contributions

Bureaucracies were distinct from the former feudal system where people were promoted through favoritism and bribes [Morrison, Kenneth. Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought. 2nd ed. Sage Publications Ltd, 2006. 363. ] because now there was a set of rules that are clearly defined; there was promotion through seniority [] and disciplinary control. Weber believes that this influenced modern society [] and how we operate today, especially politically. [Kilcullen, John. "Max Weber: on Bureaucracy." Macquarie University, Australia. 1996. 7 Apr. 2008 ]

Weber’s characteristics of an ideal bureaucracy: []
# Hierarchy of authority
# Impersonality
# Written rules of conduct
# Promotion based on achievement
# Specialized division of labor
# Efficiency

Weber believed that bureaucracies are goal-oriented organizations that are based on rational principles that are used to efficiently reach their goals. [Hamilton, Peter. Max Weber: Critical Assessments. 1st ed. Routledge, 1991. 294. ] However, there are constraints within this bureaucratic system. [Ritzer, George. Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption. 2nd ed. Pine Forge P, 2004. 56.]

Negative effects of bureaucracies

Bureaucracies concentrate large amounts of power in a small number of people and are generally unregulated. [Kendall, Diana, Jane L. Murray, and Rick Linden. Sociology in Our Times. 3rd ed. Nelson Education Ltd., 2004. 190.] Weber believed that those who control these organizations control the quality of our lives as well. Bureaucracies tend to generate oligarchy; which is where a few officials are the political and economic power. [] Because bureaucracy is a form of organization superior to all others, [] further bureaucratization and rationalization may be an "inescapable fate". [Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978. 1403]

Iron cage of bureaucracy

Because of these aforementioned reasons, there will be an evolution of an iron cage, which will be a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society. [] The iron cage is the one set of rules and laws that we are all subjected and must adhere to. [Ashworth, Rachel, George Boyne, and Rick Delbridge. "Escape From the Iron Cage? Organizational Change and Isomorphic Pressures in the Public Sector." Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (2007). 7 Apr. 2008. ] Bureaucracy puts us in an iron cage, which limits individual human freedom and potential instead of a “technological utopia” that should set us free. [] [Benhabib, Seyla, and Fred R. Dallmayr. The Communicative Ethics Controversy (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought). The MIT Press, 1990. 29-32. ] It's the way of the institution, where we do not have a choice anymore. [Weber, Max. Essays in Economic Sociology. Ed. Richard Swedberg. Princeton UP, 1999. 110. ] Once capitalism came about, it was like a machine that you were being pulled into without an alternative option [Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: and Other Writings. Ed. Peter Baehr. Trans. Gordon C. Wells. Penguin Classics, 2002. 121.] ; currently, whether we agree or disagree, if you want to survive you need to have a job and you need to make money.

Laws of Bureaucracies: [Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978. 289]
# The official is subject to authority only with respect to their official obligation
# Organized in a clearly defined hierarchy of offices
# Each office has a clearly defined sphere of competence
# The official has a free contractual relationship; free selection
# Officials are selected through technical qualification
# The official is paid by fixed salaries
# The office is the primary occupation of the official
# Promotion is based on a achievement which is granted by a the judgment of superiors
# The official is subject to strict and systematic discipline within the office

Costs of bureaucracies

“Rational calculation . . . reduces every worker to a cog in this bureaucratic machine and, seeing himself in this light, he will merely ask how to transform himself… to a bigger cog… The passion for bureaucratization at this meeting drives us to despair.” [Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978. lix.]

* Loss of individuality; [Smart, Barry. Resisting McDonaldization. Sage Publications Ltd, 1999. 84. ] labor is now being sold to someone who is in control, instead of individuals being artisans and craftsmen and benefiting from their own labor. [Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. 1st ed. Routledge, 1991. 412. ]
* Loss of autonomy; others are dictating what an individual’s services are worth. [Boucock, Cary. In the Grip of Freedom: Law and Modernity in Max Weber. University of Toronto P, 2000. 65.]
* Individuals develop an obsession with moving on to bigger and better positions, but someone else will always be determining the value of our achievements. [Weber, Marianne. Max Weber: a Biography. Transaction Publishers, 1988. 427. ]
* Lack of individual freedom; individuals can no longer engage in a society unless they belong to a large scale organization [] where they are given specific tasks in return for giving up their personal desires to conform to the bureaucracy’s goals [Grusky, David B., ed. Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective. 2nd ed. Westview P, 2000. 825. ] and are now following legal authority. [Thompson, Grahame, Jennifer Frances, Rosalind Levacic, and Jeremy C. Mitchell, eds. Markets, Hierarchies and Networks: the Coordination of Social Life. Sage Publications Ltd, 1991. 119. ]
*Specialization; with specialization, society becomes more interdependent and has a less common purpose. [Baurmann, Michael. The Market of Virtue: Morality and Commitment in a Liberal Society. Springer P, 2002. 13-15. ] There is a loss in the sense of community because the purpose of bureaucracies is to get the job done efficiently. [Slipp, Samuel. Curative Factors in Dynamic Psychotherapy. McGraw-Hill Companies, 1981. 256. ]

Bureaucratic hierarchies can control resources in pursuit of their own personal interests [Andrain, Charles F. Comparative Political Systems: Policy Performance and Social Change. M.E. Sharpe, 1994. 162-164. ] , which impacts society’s lives greatly and society has no control over this. It also affects society’s political order and governments because bureaucracies were built to regulate these organizations, but corruption remains an issue. [Turner, Bryan S. "Max Weber on Individualism, Bureaucracy and Despotism: Political Authoritarianism and Contemporary Politics." Organizing Modernity: New Weberian Perpectives on Work, Organizations and Society. Ed. Larry Ray. Routledge, 1994. 122-124. ] The goal of the bureaucracy has a single-minded pursuit [Boucock, Cary. In the Grip of Freedom: Law and Modernity in Max Weber. University of Toronto P, 2000. 165. ] that can ruin social order; what might be good for the organization might not be good for the society as a whole, which can later harm the bureaucracy’s future. [Maheshwari, Shiram. A Dictionary of Public Administration. Sangam Books Ltd, 2002. 72-75. ] Formal rationalization [Mommsen, Wolfgang J. The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber: Collected Essays. University of Chicago P, 1989. 155. ] in bureaucracy has its problems as well. There are issues of control, depersonalization and increasing domination. Once the bureaucracy is created, the control is indestructible. [Hamilton, Peter. Max Weber: Critical Assessments. 1st ed. Routledge, 1991. 322.] There is only one set of rules and procedures, which reduces everyone to the same level. Depersonalization occurs because individual situations are not accounted for. [Hess, Beth B., Elizabeth W. Markson, and Peter J. Stein. Sociology. Prentice Hall, 1988. 91. ] Most importantly, the bureaucracies will become more dominating over time unless they are stopped. In an advanced industrial-bureaucratic society, everything becomes part of the expanding machine, even people. []

While bureaucracies are supposed to be based on rationalization, they act in the exact opposite manner. Political bureaucracies are established so that they protect our civil liberties, but they violate them with their imposing rules. Development and agricultural bureaucracies are set so that they help farmers, but put them out of business due to market competition that the bureaucracies contribute to. Service bureaucracies like health care are set to help the sick and elderly, but then they deny care based on specific criteria. []

Debates regarding bureaucracies

Weber argues that bureaucracies have dominated modern society’s social structure [Hyden, Goran, Julius Court, and Kenneth Mease. Making Sense of Governance: Empirical Evidence From Sixteen Developing Countries. Lynne Rienner, 2004. 21. ] ; but we need these bureaucracies to help regulate our complex society. Bureaucracies may have desirable intentions to some, but they tend to undermine human freedom and democracy in the long run. [Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. 1st ed. The Guilford P, 1997. 76.]

“Rationalization destroyed the authority of magical powers, but it also brought into being the machine-like regulation of bureaucracy, which ultimately challenges all systems of belief.” [Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. 1st ed. Routledge, 1991. xxiv.]

It is important note that according to Weber, society sets up these bureaucratic systems, and it is up to society to change them. Weber argues that it is very difficult to change or break these bureaucracies, but if they are indeed socially constructed, then society should be able to intervene and shift the system.


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