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29th March 2008

Iron cage of rationality in modern society

Iron cage of rationality in modern society

Explain why and in what ways Weber believes that we increasingly live within an iron cage of rationality in
modern society.
In this modern era, we are experiencing rapid progression than ever before. Though the speed of progression
is overwhelmingly impressive, there have occurred a variety of serious downfalls. According to German
sociologist Max Weber, in modern society we, the mankind, live within an iron cage of rationality day by day.
People are being increasingly trapped by this development of rationality. However, the most pessimistic reality
is, there seems no way out of it. To explain the reason behind his argument, we need to investigate at first
what Weber actually meant by rationality. In addition with that, the essay will try to explain the different types
of rationality especially the formal rationality, the factors related to it such as bureaucracy, the process of
rationalization, disenchantment and so forth. Moreover, it will try to explore the article written by Andrew Marr
based mostly on the argument of formal rationality developed by Weber. He has used this term rationality
throughout his writings on economy, law, religion and social action, etc. Morrison (1997) provides a good
number of resources to explain rationality in Webers term. According to him, it refers to the capacity of social
action to be subject to calculation in the means and ends of action. On the other hand, it may be defined as a
standard of action whose substance lies in its weighing up of means and ends prior to action. He argues that
there are four types of rationality which Weber discussed in his work and these are formal; substantive;
practical and theoretical or technical rationality. (Morrison, 1997)
Though people practice different types of social actions such as affective or emotional action, traditional
action, it is the rational action which has become the dominant mode of action in modern industrial society.
(Haralambos & Holborn, 2000) In order to achieve the goals in life, formal rationality applies quantitative
calculation and accounting procedure to make a decision. To the extent that formal rationality imposes order
on the world through a system of measurement and calculation, it adheres to the norms of economic
accounting, proficiency and practical efficacy. (Morrison, 1997, 222) In simple words it can be said that it
expresses itself by imposing order on reality in strict numerical, calculable terms. As a result, measurement of
numerical values becomes the governing part of making decisions to reach to success. On the other hand, by
substantive rationality Weber meant the degree to which action is shaped by moral values, ethics. It involves
considerations of social justice, ethical standards and a concern for social equity. Weber believed that formal
and substantive rationality are totally different from each other. Another type of rationality included by Weber
is practical rationality. It refers to a way of looking at the world in which the meaning of an act is believed to lie
in its function or utility. In terms of practical rationality, no outside mystical causes affect the outcome of
actions. In contrast to practical rationality, theoretical rationality imposes order on reality by conceptual
reasoning. So, theoretical rationality acts by producing an image of the world by means of abstract concepts
and conceptualization. (Morrison, 1997)
These various kinds of rationality, the process of rationalization, bureaucracy- all are regarded as significant
characteristics of modern society. The term rationalization refers to the overall historical process by which
reality is increasingly mastered by calculation, scientific knowledge and rational action. (Morrison, 1997)
According to Weber, bureaucracy might be seen as institutions that closely control and direct human
behaviour or social actions. He believed that bureaucracies consisted of individuals carrying out rational social
actions designed to achieve the goals of bureaucracies. He saw the whole development of modern societies in
terms of a move towards rational social action. Bureaucratic organizations are the dominant institutions of
industrial society; departments of state, political parties, business enterprise, the military, education and
churches are all organized on bureaucratic lines. He referred to the increasing dominance of rational action as
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Iron cage of rationality in modern society

the process of rationalization. Bureaucratization is a prime example of this process as it has a clearly defined
goal. Bureaucracy is also a system of control. It involves a hierarchical organization in which superior strictly
control and discipline the activities of subordinates. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000)
The bureaucratic organizations produce an iron cage which imprisons and restricts people. It prevents
spontaneity, creativity; individual initiative. Weber foresaw the possibility of people being trapped in their
specialized routines, with little awareness of the relationship between their jobs and the organization as a
whole. He wrote, It is horrible to think that the world would one day be filled with little cogs, little men clinging
to little jobs and striving towards the biggest ones. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000)
Weber argued that modernity was about the triumph of narrow rationality over all other forms of action. In
modern capitalist society efficiency has become the dominant motive. It has turned out to be more important
than tradition, emotion or principles. It is the dominion of this sort of value measurement that Weber feared.
He wrote very pessimistically about the modern world. He despaired of a world in which humans were locked in
an iron cage of bureaucracy. For him, this was a world of spiritual barrenness; a world lacking mystery,
imagination and awe, in which enchantment was lost. (Bilton, 2002) In this stage, Weber mentioned about
disenchantment in modern societies. When everything becomes predictable and understandable, people
begin to lack enchantment in their life which makes life dull and uninteresting.
The future, as Weber could see it, would be grim, with rationalization and bureaucratization expanding
unchecked and becoming more and more oppressive upon the population. Then the sense of life would not
be of prosperity and freedom, but of containment within an iron cage. (Cuff, Sharrock & Francis, 1998)
At the beginning of the article, it has been clearly argued that the UK Cultural Sector is badly measured. The
factor considered mostly was the value-for-money. Here, the sector was judged by measurement of money,
data, profiles etc. In this respect we can see that Webers formal rationality has been used to a great extent.
Because of bureaucratic complexities such as judging official data, profiles, it has become difficult to figure out
the actual condition of the cultural sector. And that is why Sara Selwood is very much worried about. Andrew
Marr has argued that the dominance of numbers and data are destructive. It hinders the possibility to judge
the cultural sector accurately.
Art and culture are abstract and theoretical. Its difficult to judge the effectiveness of art policies just by
evaluating numerical data, profiles etc. Weber argued that formal rationality does not rely on values and
ethics to make decision to reach goals. It is the numerical calculation and measurement which dominate our
thinking and planning in that respect. It is totally different from what Weber argued about substantive
rationality. Thats why he argued that this two type of rationalities are opposite of each other and there may
occur clashes. (Craib, 1997)
In this modern world, we are increasingly ruled by rationality. Weber believed that the rationalization and
dominance of bureaucracy are an on going process. Though it is regarded as progressive but we are
practicing rationality at the expense of pleasure and relaxation of us. (Craib, 1997) Whenever we try to judge
any social institutions such as government, education sector, employment sector etc or our politicians or may
be any protest group as included in the article, we largely rely on the mathematical calculations, statistics or
things related with these to evaluate. We sense everything in value-for-money terms.
Another aspect of the article is - this modern society is forcing us to engulf with numerical languages. The
more we know about numeracy and statistics, the better rational people we become. To keep up with the rapid
progress of rationality we have to constantly update our self with numeric capabilities. In this way, in Webers
term we are being trapped by the iron cage of rationality. In addition with that, as a consequence of formal
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Iron cage of rationality in modern society

rationality, people are suffering from narrow perception. They are also suffering from discrimination caused by
manic numeracy as stated in the article. According to Weber, bureaucracy has the controlling power which
hinders humans greater capabilities of innovations and creativities. People are being forced to do whatever
the process of rationality suggests to do in a bureaucratic organization. The more we become rational, the
more we find our self as spiritless specialist trapped in iron cage of rationality. (Stones, 1998)
In pursuit of success, formal rationality becomes the driving force to make strategy in this modern society.
That is what happening in current various government sectors. Moral judgments, values are being
underestimated.
Moreover, another aspects of this article shows that people seems to use the different elements of cultural
sector less than ever before such as the museums, theatres, art galleries, the allegros and minuets, ballets
and so forth. According to Weber, the process of rationalization makes us to perceive everything around us
clearly. Very few things remain mystery or magical. Decline of magic and the rise of science and technology
have enabled us to make a clear and predictable view of most of the events in this modern era. (Stones,
1998) As a result disenchantment may occur and due to that process people may feel less enthusiastic to use
the art and cultural sector.
Rationality, the process of rationalization, bureaucracy and in overall modernity, are indeed very significant
and dynamic forces in our present society. Weber believed that the rise of modernity and the rapid success of
the contemporary societies are deeply based on these forces. However, it has created some problems too for
us. To some extent it has denied basic human abilities such as creativity, spontaneity, naturalness,
imagination and so forth.
Posted 29th March 2008 by Sumaiya Umm Imran
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SnOwWhItE505 11 October 2010 at 22:02


Great job. Ive been writing a paper about webers view of the modern world and I only wish I could have found
the beautiful descriptive words you seemingly effortlessly wrote. BRAVO!
Reply

Tina Marie 5 May 2011 at 13:58


I agree with SnowWhite! Good job. I had to write on the dominance of rationality and your essay gave me
some good ideas. Thanks!
Reply

Rob 12 May 2011 at 12:40


Very interesting essay, provided a really simple (I don't mean that as a criticism, it was actually very
refreshing!) and modern perspective on Weber. I can't find this article you mention that Andrew Marr wrote
though, can you post a link on here please?
Thank you.
Reply

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scoff 15 June 2012 at 01:07


This is a wonderful piece of writing. It gives me some ideas for my final exam. Thanks!
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