Introduction to Sociology

Weber’s rationalization as an iron cage dominating all aspects of social life.’

The theory of bureaucratic management was given by Max Weber. According to this theory in order to effectively manage an organization it is important to have a clear line for exercising authority. This has to be accompanied by proper procedures, regulations and rules to control the operations of the business and human actions (Matheson, 2007). The term bureaucracy refers to the exercising of control on a group of people or activities through power, authority and knowledge. The main focus of this theory is to develop a hierarchical system in an organization and define clear methods, regulations, procedures and rules for carrying out business transactions and operations.

The focus of this theory of Weber was mainly the rationalization in the operations and expansion of the large enterprises in the private and the public sectors of the modern social spaces. Bureaucracy is referred to as a special case of the rationalization theory which is applied to the humans in organizations. This bureaucratic relations and coordination of the human action according to him is the distinct feature of the modern structures of societies. In the 20th century, the modernity was perceived as a pessimistic view and this was related to the classic expression of the theory of rationalization of Weber. According to him, modernity is featured by the increasing use of control and calculation in social life (Holmes, Hughes, and Julian, 2015). This trend led to what he termed as an ‘iron cage of bureaucracy.’

With iron cage he referred to the pervasiveness of the calculation and control over the human actions where human beings were enslaved with a rational order (Reed, 2005). This rationality treated humans as mere devices in the social machinery, as objects that can be controlled technically just like the raw materials and the natural environment. The social life owing to the rationalization is structured by these technically mediated businesses like state organizations and private corporations. The technical hierarchy had been associated with the political and social hierarchy to an increasing extent.

Modernity has been referred by Weber as a system of practices which is founded on the metaphysical worldly views of the western capitalism. This was seen as a quest of making everything in nature and in culture predictable, calculable and scientifically accountable started in the time of modernity (Holmes, Hughes, and Julian, 2015). This has extended to the human sphere of relationships in the form of bureaucratic administration. Enlightenment project has greatly influenced the modernity wherein the scientific understanding the physical and human worlds have increasingly regulated the social interaction. This enlightenment separates the morality, art and sciences with its own inner logic. Modernity depicted of social thoughts where the human actions were goal oriented, rules governed and ends-guided environment. Hence, they would be able to embrace ‘instrumental rationality’ which is the selection of best most effective means for attaining a predefined goal. There is no regards of morality and only the practical means of attaining the goals (Matheson, 2007).

The exact predictability and calculability in the social environment that has been brought about by the instrumental rationality dramatically enhances the individual freedom in one way. This is by helping the person navigate and understand through the complex mesh of institutions for realizing their ends as per their own choice. In contrast to it the agency and freedom of humans have been seriously reduced by the same forces in history when the humans were reduced to mere cogs in the social machinery or being trapped within ‘iron cage’ which the formal rationalization had spawned for achieving efficiency and this was owing to the substantive rationality (Morrissette, 2017).

The impact of bureaucracy is also evident on the educational level, degree hunting and social status of the individuals. Education imparted to the humans are made to develop them so that they are able to work in bureaucratic organization (Weber, M., 1978). Therefore, the increasing rationalization has been referred to as iron cage which trapped the people in the systems which were solely based on rational calculation, control and efficiency. This iron cage represented the set of rules and regulations which regulated and controlled the human behaviour in organization so as to achieve maximum efficiency (Benner, 2012). This iron cage then dominated the social life as human actions were regulated with rules in all the spheres of social life.

Rationalization and Bureaucracy

The process of rationalization is termed as a practical use of knowledge for achieving the desired end and its utilization helps to attain coordination, control and efficiency over both the social and physical environment. This rationalization has emerged from the technical differentiation and scientific specialisation which is a characteristics of the western capitalistic culture. Therefore, it becomes the main principle of bureaucracy and for the increasing use of labour division. On one hand it is linked to extraordinary increase in production as well as distribution of services and goods. While on the other hand it is associated with oppressive routines, depersonalization and secularization. Thereby, the human behaviour become guided by experiments, reason and observation for mastering the social and natural environment for achieving the desired ends.

Rationalization is the organization of life which is attained through the coordination and division of activities. This is done on the basis of the scientific study of relationship of men with each other, with their environment and with their tools for attaining greater productivity and efficiency (Elwell, 1996). The general theory of rationalization of Weber has a particular case of bureaucratization and is refereeing to the increasing mastery of humans over the social and the natural environment. In turn, these modifications in the social structures have led to changes in the human characters by changing their beliefs, values and philosophies. Such superstructrual values and norms as self-discipline, calculability, materialism, efficiency and individualism have been promoted by the processes of bureaucratization. The rationalization and bureaucratization were swiftly replacing all the other types of thought and organization. With bureaucracy the focus was made on the objective goals rather than on the subjective rights of individuals (Sharma, and Gupta, 2009).

Rationalization has been the most general element of the theory of Weber which identifies with an increasing labour division, mechanization and bureaucracy. He had associated it with oppressive routines, depersonalization and rising secularization as well as destruction of the individual freedom (Morrissette, 2017). While Weber identified bureaucracies in the rational-legal authority where the legitimacy is emerging from a legal regulation. Most of the modern political and bureaucratic leaders are representing this form of authority for practising control and coordination. However, in establishing bureaucracy as the best form for an organization to remain efficient is also threatening to the individual’s freedoms (Weber, 1978). According to him, the implementation of the bureaucratic processes in the government was a special type of rationalization where the traditional motivators for human behaviours were not focussed. Rational calculations were used by people to motivate people in bureaucratic organization instead of utilizing values, emotions and traditions.

The application of rational concepts for attaining organizational efficiency was used to develop the bureaucracy and thereby, there was a change from the older forms of kinship to newer forms like the legal rules, strict regulations which were a directly resulting from the increase in capitalism and bureaucracy (Baehr, 2001). Rationalization had shaped bureaucracies as it entails authority lies with the top people who make rules for the rest of the people performing as per their command. Rationalization was used to establish a scalar chain and for building authority and responsibility relationships which are important elements for practising bureaucracy in organization. The strict rules and regulations allowed the top officials to exercise control over the actions of their subordinates so that maximum efficiency is achieved in production and distribution of goods and services. Hence, the rationalization has been used for shaping the bureaucracy.

Rationalization describes the movement in the society whereby the traditional motivating agents of human behaviours like emotions, beliefs and values were replaced with the rational calculations and predictions (Morrissette, 2017). This was done to exercise more control over the social and natural environment. The increasing rationalization has been termed by Weber as an iron cage as put bars for the human actions and behaviours. This encaged the individuals in the bureaucratic systems which were based on efficiency, control, predictability and rational calculations. Further, the rationalization shaped the bureaucracy as the rational concepts originating from practicality of ideas rather than morality and traditions. This was mainly done as there was trend of enhancing efficiency in production and distribution which were the prime requirement of the capitalistic societies which have originated from the western culture.

References for Max Weber's Iron Cage

Baehr, P., 2001. The “iron cage” and the “shell as hard as steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse metaphor in the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. History and Theory40(2), pp.153-169.

Benner, J.J., 2012. From the Iron Cage to Eichmann: German Social Theory and the Critique of Rationalization(Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington).

Elwell, F., 1996. The Sociology of Max Weber. p.1999.

Holmes, D., Hughes, K. and Julian, R., 2015. Australian sociology: A changing society.

Matheson, C., 2007. In praise of bureaucracy? A dissent from Australia. Administration & society39(2), pp.233-261.

Morrissette, J.J., 2017. Glory to Arstotzka: Morality, rationality, and the iron cage of bureaucracy in Papers, Please. Game Studies17(1).

Reed, M., 2005. Beyond the iron cage? Bureaucracy and democracy in the knowledge economy and society. The values of bureaucracy120.

Sharma, A. and Gupta, A. eds., 2009. The anthropology of the state: a reader. John Wiley & Sons.

Weber, M., 1978. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology(Vol. 1). Univ of California Press.

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