Thinking Sociologically IV
The Iron Cage
Max Weber, a famous 19th century sociologist, warned that bureaucracies could take on a life of their own and become impersonal “iron cages”. What did Weber mean by this? What are some real-life examples that apply to this?
Although Weber was discussing bureaucracy as an organisational site which readily succumbs to the ‘iron cage’ of its own logic, rationale, purpose and need for continued existence, in truth we can see this phenomenon in many large-scale work systems.
Indeed, it could be argued that all such systems function within their own unique discursive space, populated by individuals who, whether ambitious or not, come to view the world from within their organisation’s ‘iron cage’ of reality.
Prime examples would be the armed forces, intelligence services, political parties (whether in government or not), special interest groups/movements, the police services, terrorist organisations, and criminal gangs.
These types of organisations are ‘totalising’ (Irving Goffman) in that they seek to subsume the identity (and independence of action) of the individual under their larger, powerful and usually historic, image, symbolism and identity.
So one doesn’t just work as a policeman, one becomes a policeman.
One doesn’t just operate as a terrorist, one becomes a terrorist.
One doesn’t just join the army, one becomes a soldier.
In this way, so does the organisation’s identity prevail. It may do so partly by physical threat and other sanctions, (as in the case of a criminal gang) but the main attraction for many individuals is the iron cage itself: it provides a ready-made identity and mask for the often otherwise ontologically ungrounded subject to invest themselves in.
Outsiders may well perceive the everyday operational characteristics of such organisations to be limiting if not oppressive, and wonder why members appear so committed to them. But this is the psychological iron cage at work on the subjectivities of the individual; limiting agency and replacing it with duty, routine and loyalty.
In short, the iron cage works precisely because humans within it prefer the security of the cage to the randomness and feeling of unwantedness - ennui, which otherwise exists for them outside it.
Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1000 followers.
Stephen’s latest book (International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide) is available via: teachabroad.ac.