The ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucracy: a Brief Definition of Weber’s Metaphor and Criticisms on It

Cartoon sketched by Kevin Moore, at

In this article, my aim is to clarify Max Weber’s ideas on instrumental rationalization of bureaucracies and transformation of ‘iron cages’. Furthermore, for accurate understanding, I will try to conclude several criticisms of Weber’s theory. First mart of my essay includes definition of the given proposition and second part inherits criticisms about it.

Part I: Definition Of Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’

‘Iron cage’ is translation used by Talcott Parsons for Weber’s metaphor of ‘stahlhartes Gehäuse’. By articulating this metaphor, Weber tries to tell dilemma of modern humans who have been entangled in a structure which constructed by human itself (Baehr, 2001, p. 153). This structure coerces us to live in an ‘inescapable’ and ‘external’ prison (Ray & Reed, 2002, p. 16) of bureaucracy which based on instrumental rationality. Lifestyles of modern people are constituted by relations of modern material culture. This culture, according to Weber, cannot simply reduced not only to economic manner, it is also an endorsement of Protestantism, which stresses the work (Ray & Reed, 2002, p. 17-18). Protestant culture of hardworking and rise of modern capitalism caused the construction of iron cage of instrumental rationality, which is kind of humiliation of mankind. To understand ‘iron cage’ metaphor, we should look why Max Weber put forward this idea.

The Rationalization of the Social Action

Weber contributed the term of ‘social action’ to the literature. Social action can be identified briefly as ‘an act which takes into account the actions and reactions of individuals’ (Wikipedia, 2017). In his work, Economy and Society, Max Weber enlisted four types of social actions; traditional, affectual, value-rational and instrumentally rational (Benner, 2012, p. 40). Traditional one regards habitual and customary nature of social actions. Affectual social actions are emotionally-oriented actions. Value-rational type is centred religious and ethical-cultural values. The last one, which is instrumentally rational social action, as explained by Weber himself:

” This type [self-interested action], with its clarity of self-consciousness and freedom from subjective scruples, is the polar anti-thesis of every sort of unthinking acquiescence in customary ways as well as of devotion to norms consciously accepted as absolute values. One of the most important aspects of the process of ‘rationalization’ of action is the substitution for the unthinking acceptance of ancient custom, of deliberate adaptation to situations in terms of self-interest. “

(Weber, Roth, & Wittich, 1978, p. 30)

Through this description, Weber says that instrumental action focuses on the goal that is independent from customs and ethics, which does not need any kind of thinking (Benner, 2012, p. 40). Rather unthinking-based manners or superstitions, rational social action based on the value judgement of actors by their selves. Rational social action not only affects institutions, but also regards individuals. According to Benner, technology and science made lots of contributions in the world, but it also caused to obedience. Rather learning with discussion based on rational manners, modern people started to adapt “in what consensus terms the correct way” (Benner, 2012, p. 41). Weber gives money as an example of this circumstance. The user of money does not need to know background philosophy of modern economy, he or she simply need to follow the rules of it.

Weber and Bureaucracy

It is possible to see Weber’s brief identification of bureaucracy          with the quotation from his work, Economy and Society:

” Once fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures [Gebilden] which are the hardest to destroy. Bureaucracy is the means of transforming social action into rationally organized action. Therefore, as an instrument of rationally organizing authority relations, bureaucracy was and is a power instrument of the first order for one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus. “

(Weber et al., 1978, p. 987)

Weber tries to tell instrumental rationalist aim and framework of modern bureaucracy. This kind of bureaucracy is a durable structure. This durability stems from its rationality based nature, which directly effects servants of these body, bureaucrats. The professional bureaucrats is chained to perform a specialized, described task which dominates his entire economic and social life, because bureaucracy focused on to increase its instrumental rationality (Benner, 2012, p. 30). This domination establishes ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy, which focuses instrumental rationality. Weber, however, does not imply a need for a change or an end to domination of instrumental rationality in bureaucracy. He describes it as a beneficial and necessary quality of modern bureaucracy.

Instrumental rationalization of bureaucracy makes individual as a part of machinery of a huge bureaucratic system, thus it disenchants the individuals from the world. Depersonalization of the individual mainly caused by high professionalization of bureaucratic agents. Bureaucracy becomes more dominated and controlled by the cautious and impersonal values of instrumental functions and decisions, which are duty, punctuality, reliability respect for hierarchy, etc (Kalberg, 2001, p. 180).Thus, individual became trapped in the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy.

‘Iron Cage’ metaphor

‘Iron Cage’ metaphor used by Weber in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, refers to his analysis and assessment of modern life, especially implication of rationality in the modern life and bureaucratization (Ray & Reed, 2002, p. 16). Protestantism and more specifically Calvinism, according to Weber, helped to rise of the notion of ‘vocational calling’. The main source of capitalism stems from the protestant work ethic and money collection. In modern age, rise of capitalism resulted implementation of more sophisticated type institutions focused on increase of rational social actions and the demand of functionality. These institutions are technically superior bureaucracies (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 178–179). According to Weber:

The bureaucratic organization, with its specialization of trained skills, its delineation of competencies, its rules and hierarchical relations of obedience…is…in the process of erecting a cage of bondage which persons —lacking all powers of resistance—will perhaps one day be forced to inhabit, as the fellahs of ancient Egypt. “

(Weber et al., 1978, p. 1402)

Technically superior bureaucracies are bodies which are caste of functionaries and civil servants who holds the power. Societies are transformed in feature that are ‘as austerely rational as a machine’ (1978, p. 1402). Impersonal and functionality-based values make bureaucracy an ‘iron cage’ and society bounded with this ‘iron cage’.

Part II: Criticisms on Iron Cage

Criticism by Jürgen Habermas: Communicative Action

Jürgen Habermas is one of the most important German philosopher of after ‘50s. As being one of the second-generation member of Frankfurt School, he made notable contributions to philosophy with his critical social theory. He made improvements on the issues like social criticism and public debate. He constructed new-fashioned analyze of modern society and issues related freedom within societies (Matustik, 2015).

Habermas and Weber In his book, The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas generally criticized the social theories which states instrumental and strategic motives of rational action, and reflections of this type of action on the bureaucratization. Pressures of instrumental rationality, which stressed by Weber, makes bureaucratic machine ‘more specialized, rulebound, hierarchical and closed off to feedback’ (Kelly, 2004, p. 40), thus, modern society becomes trapped in the iron cage of instrumental rationality. Habermas’ criticisms based the nature of rationality of modernity. He concluded that instrumental motives do not represent main background of rationality. Rather, communicative reasons are main source of rationality. Individuals aimed to seek communication between each other and this forms rationality based on consensus rather than solely efficiency and instrumental concerns (Kelly, 2004, p. 41). Habermas named this communicative rationality.

Communicative Rationality According to the Habermas’ communicative theory, all actions have a social characteristic. Main aim of the individual is proper mediation to the modern, objective world. Success of this mediation depends on the assertion ability of individuals. Language is main medium of interaction, which helps rationality with providing motive to express (Niemi, 2005, p. 519). Habermas expresses that communication via language entails concerns about validity and this concerns can only be answered or discussed through discussion (Dews, 1998). Through discussion, individuals can reach consensus. Peter Dews’ definition can be helpful to state all of these sentences located above in a frankly sense:

Communicative rationality refers to the capacity to engage in argumentation under conditions approximating to this ideal situation, with the aim of achieving consensus. “

(Dews, 1998)

System vs ‘lifeworld’ Notwithstanding to his rejection of Weberian analyze of modernity, Habermas and Weber has common points at administrative manner (Kelly, 2004, p. 41). The administrative framework of the bureaucracy has a respective instrumental nature, which can cause manipulative and undemocratic effects on development of society. Habermas makes distinction between system and ‘lifeworld’. System represents a space of interaction which is clustered around non-communicative mechanism, by which individuals or agents act instrumentally (Kelly, 2004, pp. 41–42). In lifeworld, center of the interaction is culture, society, etc., which is mainly communicative structure and reduplicated via actions which have a argumentative and narrative quality. Rather being predictable like system, ‘lifeworld’ has actions which cannot be easily predicted.

Habermas’ contributions and critique of Weber, which characterized with intersubjectivity has respectable effect on conceptualization of bureaucracy and politics (Breen, 2004, p. 33), especially after claustrophobic nature of WWII, and still has an importance on projection of bureaucracy, especially in Western/European democracies.

Criticism by Hannah Arendt: Duality of Worlds

Hannah Arendt is German born American political theorists, whose work mainly based on the nature of power, subjects of politics, direct democracy, authority and totalitarianism. As being a Jew within the horrific Nazi period, she lived in different European countries to escape Nazi suppression. She has an eighteen books and numerous articles, on topics based different issues, which makes Arendt notable in political philosophy of the twentieth century (d’Entreves, 2014).

Arendt’s Duality of Worlds Arendt’s main concerns clustered around political life, which resembles worldly culture. For Arendt, worldly culture has a political and aesthetical manner, which are meaningful rather than instrumental (Breen, 2004, p. 118). The source of this conceptualization stems from her dual concepts of the ‘world’. The first one represents the human artifice which are objective characteristics. Second ‘world’, according to Arendt, has an intersubjective nature which covers the human-made, objective ‘world’ (2004, p. 118). Intersubjective nature of the second one inherits “web of relationships generated by the convergence of innumerable perspectives through speech and action” (Arendt & Canovan, 2013, pp. 183–184). As a result, politics is not a constituted by instrumental rationality, instead ruled by numerous and different ‘conflicted’ thoughts which lies between political poles of radicalism and conservatism, previous one resembles the change and latter represents the moderation and politics, therefore has a fragile nature, rather than stable nature of Weber’s charismatic rule (Breen, 2004, p. 111).

Arendt and ‘Iron Cage’ Hannah Arendt describes the trial and of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, who considered as main organizer of the Holocaust. Her portrayal of bureaucrat has many similarities with the one who is in the Weber’s ‘iron cage’ bureaucracy. Specialization of work caused division of labor and creativity become less important than “qualitative equivalence of all single activities” (Arendt & Canovan, 2013, p. 123). This effort to increase qualitative rationality and function or profession based measure made bureaucrats more unsighted and unable to judge or criticize broader clichés of iron cage surrounding his or her (Breen, 2004, p. 124). Weber does not critic this process, rather he described this paradigm as a requirement of modernity, however, Arendt criticized this like that:

…the essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them. “

(Arendt, 1994, p. 289)

With combination of all of information given above, we can say that Arendt’s critique of modern bureaucracy based on humiliation and hinderance of individual within ‘iron cage’, nature of this hinderance contains undermining of political word, while favoring the objective, material, instrumental world.

Re-visitation by DiMaggio and Powell: Institutional Isomorphism

In the article named The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality In Organizational Fields, Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell makes a kind of a re-description of ‘iron cage’ based on the motive or cause of bureaucratization. It cannot be theoretical criticism as like as Habermas and Arendt does, but it has criticism based on cause of bureaucratization, which motives me to explain that under the part two of my article.

Is Instrumentalism the Reason? According to DiMaggio and Powell, major reason of bureaucratization has changed. Weber stressed three causes of massive rationalization within organizations, these are competition in market, competition among states, rulers want to increase tutelage over citizens. However, cause of rationalization has changed. In our century, rationalization is not motived by efficiency or let’s say, instrumental concerns. Rather, bureaucratization stems from isomorphic rationalism.

What is Isomorphic Rationalism? In 21st century, there is a homogenization between organizations. Differences between organizations decreases because the emergence of “interorganizational structures of domination” and “patterns of coalition”, which enables information transfer between bureaucracies. Isomorphism makes accurate theorization of this process. DiMaggio and Powell, with quoting Hawley describes isomorphism as a constraining process which forces one organization to imitate others because of pressures of the environment (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 149).

Types of Isomorphism In their article, DiMaggio and Powell distinguishes three kinds of isomorphism: coercive, mimetic and normative (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 150). Coercive isomorphism is consequence of both formal and informal pressures executed by organizations by other organizations. Universal legal environment effects bureaucratic structure. There are same legal procedures executed in ‘different’ bureaucracies, for example budget cycle (1983, p. 151). Mimetic isomorphism stems from uncertainty within organizations, which caused by environment. To eliminate this, bureaucracies imitate others (1983, p. 151). Tanzimat and Islahat periods within late-Ottoman history and Turkish Revolution in ‘20s can be examples of mimetic isomorphism, because in both periods, bureaucracies take role models (especially France) for institutional and bureaucratic development, not by Weberian, ‘instrumental’ motives. Normative isomorphism, as final one, is caused by professionalization. Professionalization caused from formal education and professional network (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 152). These two sources of professionalization produce agents who share same qualities and manners. When they take role within bureaucracy, because of their common acknowledge, organization transform in a way which stated by formal education and professional network. Vocational education programs in Turkey, which subsidized by European Union can be given as an example of that kind of isomorphic effect.

Part III: The Conclusion

In this article, I have tried to clarify the meaning of given proposition, which tells Weberian concept of instrumental rationalism, and ‘iron cage’ which is the result of this type of rationality. With concluding several criticisms of Weber, including Habermas, Arendt and DiMaggio and Powell, my aim is to show different perspectives, which encourages capability of looking from different perspectives.


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