Relevance Of Weber’s Theories Of Societal Output, Bureaucracy And The Risk Of The Iron Cage In Modern Society

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1 Introduction

Max Weber (Weber) was a philosopher through the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. He wrote several books and is best known for his thesis of the ‘Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’. Weber argued that the greater the bureaucratic hierarchy, the greater the profits would be for companies; however, he became concerned of the risk of workers getting stuck in the ‘iron cage’ and not furthering their own creativity or expand their roles.

This report will firstly articulate the foundations of Weber’s life, as these experiences heavily shape his thesis. Secondly, it will articulate his Rationalisation Thesis, followed by the third section which will critique his thesis, whilst also questioning some of Weber’s overall philosophical points. Finally, this report will identify the key learnings which managers can obtain from this philosopher.

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2 Biography

Growing up, Weber suffered an ideological turmoil due to his parents’ dissimilar beliefs. Weber’s mother believed in Calvinist orthodoxy, with Weber’s aunt Ida Baumgarten also being responsible for creating his Calvinist bias during his stay with her, whilst studying at university. Weber’s father was an aspiring liberal politician; he adopted a traditionally authoritarian manner at home and demanded absolute obedience from wife and children. This environment formed the basis for Weber’s dominant intellectual interest in politics and religion. However, Weber’s exposure to conflicts between his parents, while so young, contributed to his haunting inner agonies.

After his marriage with Marianne, a distinguished sociologist, he followed a compulsive work regimen in 1884. Weber believed that only through disciplined labor could society avoid the natural tendency of self-indulgence and laziness, which could lead to an emotional and spiritual crisis. This marked the beginning of his research in ‘Rationalisation’ – a meta-historical analysis of western dominance in modern times. Another most celebrated contribution was the ‘Protestant Ethic thesis’, a non-Marxist genealogy of modern capitalism. His book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ made him one of the founding theorists of modernity. Further, his curiosity in politics led to a new pathway of political realism comparable to that of Machiavelli and Hobbes.

In 1894, he was appointed to the faculty at Berlin University, before later becoming a full professor in political economy at Freiburg (1895). In 1897, the mounting trauma from the fall out with his father resulted in a mental breakdown that left him unable to work for five years.

Later in life, he volunteered for service at the outbreak of World War 1 but became one of the most vocal critics of the Kaiser’s war policy. After his failed attempts to create his own political party, he returned to teaching at universities in 1919. He died of the Spanish Influenza in 1920.

3 Weber’s Rationalisation thesis

Weber sought to understand the meaning individuals attached to their actions where he described sociology as “a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects” (The Theory of Social and Economic Organisations, 1947) Weber’s exploration of this key theme was most prominent in his thesis on rationalisation. Below is a broad overview of what rationalisation meant to Weber – highlighting its most clear manifestation in the form of his bureaucratic theory. Followed by an overview of his thoughts on ‘disenchantment’, a result of when rationalisation is taken to its ultimate limit, epitomising an ‘iron cage’ for humanity.

Weber considered that rationalisation takes place in all areas of human life from religion, law, music, and architecture where he said, “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (Weber, Science as a Vocation, 1919). A key example of this is modern capitalism, where this economic way of life depends on the calculable process of production (Max Weber, 2017). Weber identified four types of rationality (Kalberg, 1980) where formal rationality was his major focus – considered as increasing in dominance as the world industrialised. Formal rationality facilitates the selection of choices guided by formal structures such as modern law, the capitalist economy and the bureaucratic systems that surround us within governments, organisations and across society. Where people previously had to work through such decisions on their own, the development of formal rationality in society, through bureaucratic rules and regulations, meant that the optimum process is already. The concept of mass-production made popular by Henry Ford in the early 20th century is an example. George Ritzer popularised the concept of the McDonaldisation of society (Ritzer, 1993) whereby Ritzer argued that McDonalds had led the charge on rationalisation. Ritzer argued that McDonalds demonstrates a high degree of focus on ‘calculability’, for example, quantifying every aspect of production from the temperature of the ovens to the precise quantity of lettuce in a Big Mac. Reason and emotions of the staff are not considered, as a strict set of procedures is enforced.

Weber developed his bureaucratic theory as a key manifestation of formal rationalisation where he defined bureaucracy as ‘Precisely defined and organised competencies…Underpinned by rules, laws, or administrative regulations’ (Weber, The Nature, Conditions and Development of Bureacracy, 1968) made up of 6 key factors:

  • Specialisation – where tasks are divided into simple routine categories on the basis of core competencies;
  • Hierarchy/chain of command – hierarchical layers define manager’s areas of responsibilities for staff and performance;
  • Rules and regulations – which provide explicit rules and procedures for how an organisation is to function;
  • Impersonality – where the system does not consider human values or emotions;
  • Formal selection – where emphasis is placed on selecting the right people for each role;
  • Career dedication – where people are singularly focused on their jobs.

Weber postulated that “the fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organisations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical modes of production” (Weber, The Nature, Conditions and Development of Bureacracy, 1968). Weber argued that bureaucracy provides “technical superiority over other administrative forms – efficiency, precision, speed, clarity, continuity, confidentiality, tight co-ordination”.

However, Weber was concerned that as formal rationalisation continues, increasing specialisation, and highly constrained by specific rules and regulations people are likely to become trapped in an ‘iron cage of rationality’. Indeed, Weber said, “the fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation, and above all the disenchantment of the world” (Weber, Science as a Vocation, 1919). All focus is then on calculation and not on ‘reflecting’. Weber argued that lives will become a series of interactions based on rationalised rules – with no personal meanings. In his words, formal rationalisation creates “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart” (Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 2013).

4 Critique of Weber’s bureaucratic theory & Holistic Philosophies

There is a lot of evidence today to suggest that Weber was considerably accurate in his view that the concept of bureaucracy would pervade society. Considering the public and private arenas of the economy, bureaucracy is ever present. The example of Henry Ford’s mass-production and the key aspects of bureaucracy can be seen clearly in many high-volume production businesses today. Call centres are another contemporary example, displaying the impersonality and lack of connection to the overall process involving the customer. McDonalds continues to dominate the fast food landscape. However, below points challenge his theory:

  • Weber underestimated humans’ ability to subvert bureaucracy – the bigger the organisation the greater the opportunity to disrupt the rules (Jenkins, 2000);
  • Even the most efficiently rationalised bureaucracies are affected by irrational dimensions of life and influence organisation behaviour 2 (Jenkins, 2000);
  • Romanticism is alive and well – such as the example with the meteoric success of Apple and Steve Jobs, where Jobs was famous as saying “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards” (Isaacson, 2011), in other words, businesses cannot run on formal rules and procedures alone.

Bureaucracy is a dominant theme in today’s economy, but it is only one of many aspects that propel businesses forward.

As a holistic critique of Weber’s theories and to investigate their strengths and weaknesses, his theories would struggle to stand the tests of other philosophers. For example, his theories would fail the test of Plato’s cave. Weber’s thesis on the Protestant Ethic review the superiority of Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, over all other religions, however there is no evidence of Weber having ‘turned to the light in the cave’, ‘left the cave’ or ‘investigated other caves’ or religions. He took his upbringing at face value and did not ‘doubt it’ as Descartes would have done. This leaves Weber at risk of fundamentally missing key points in his philosophy.

5 Weber and Management

Today the rise of science and technology has created a society that is increasingly dependent on efficiency and predictability. Every organisation wants to surpass its KPI’s. This shift has given rise to bureaucracy as the means of organisation. If we neglect Weber’s mention of disenchantment, then it is evident that his theory of bureaucracy is the optimal system to use in an organisation. However, one could also argue that this system finds its fit only in organisations such as the US military or manufacturing SBU’s. Conversely, it might not be relevant in organisations that thrive on innovation and continuous learning, such as Apple or other media agencies, because bureaucracy constrains them from growing and traps them in the Iron Cage. A bureaucratic organisation will leave our societal world empty of emotions, tradition and effective human relations.

Successful sustainable organisations follow a trend of constant adaptation to stimulus, leadership, employee growth and cultural development. In such companies the managers are leaders and not delegators. They shape the system in such a way that the employee is able to crack the efficiency targets as well as maintain their ‘work-life balance’. For example, in Google, the employees are given a chance to upskill by devoting 20% of their time in working on passion projects outside the purview of their job roles. The organisational structure must be responsive to the internal and external environment. The managers should exercise flexibility and choose between the leadership styles for respective assignments. Like Weber later mentions, the ‘static’ nature is detrimental to an organisation’s vision. Having said that, it does not imply that bureaucratic organisations are completely irrelevant.

We cannot imagine an organisation that does not have a structure and only emphasizes on innovation and creative liberty. For example, a banker, car maintenance specialist or a daily wage construction worker, need to follow a set of restrictive guidelines or responsibilities to become an asset for the organisation. However, Weber adds that in such organisations “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (Samier, 2002). It is hence important to invest in the employee’s growth because if the employee breaks out of the iron cage, the organisation is sure to surpass its own cage. Weber’s theory might be perfect for some form of businesses but could be very problematic for others. This constant fashion of trying to break the cage through innovation and breaking rigidity could also be another circle of getting into the cage again as this can later become a mundane process. We do not know who will live in the iron cage of the future.

6 Conclusion

In conclusion, Weber’s theories of societal output, bureaucracy and the risk of the iron cage have relevance in modern society. Weber makes the key point that to ensure the success of businesses, job roles must become bureaucratic to gain the efficiencies from individual employees. However, as with most things in society, operations done in moderation are sustainable, but to take it to an extreme can be detrimental on the employee – creating their iron cage – and then ultimately the company. This is due to the loss of creativity and ingenuity which would provide future efficiencies in the roles.

This report finds that a modern company should have in place levels of bureaucracy to maintain efficiency but ensure that it is not so regimented as to stifle employees growth. Finding a balance between both sides is the most efficient position for businesses.


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