Weber's Iron Cage of Rationality

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  • 0:01 Max Weber & Types of…
  • 1:29 The Iron Cage of Rationality
  • 2:48 Examples
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Anskat
Read about sociologist Max Weber's concept of the 'iron cage of rationality' and how it can be applied to modern society. Learn about Weber's four types of social action and how he described the results-driven world we live in today in this lesson.

Max Weber & Types of Social Action

Max Weber was a German sociologist and theorist during the turn of the 20th century. Weber focused on the subjectivity of our social experience and stressed the importance of the meanings and motivations attached to our social actions. In order to understand the motivations, Weber identified four ideal types of action: emotional, traditional, value-rational, and instrumental-rational.

  • Emotional actions are motivated by feelings; for example, losing your temper and screaming.
  • Traditional actions are motivated by custom or habits, such as cooking turkey on Thanksgiving
  • Value-rational actions are motivated by commitment to a particular value, such as loyalty or patriotism.
  • Instrumental-rational actions are based on a strategic, cost-benefit analysis. Working for a paycheck can be considered instrumentally-rational behavior.

It's important to note that these are ideal types. In other words, Weber understood that almost all actions fall into more than one of these categories. We work for a paycheck, not only because of the benefits we get and the needs we have but because traditions and norms dictate that we work for a living. Similarly, most teachers (hopefully) value education for its own sake, and don't work exclusively for the paycheck. You might cook a turkey on Thanksgiving because it's a tradition, but it also satisfies an emotional need to be around family and friends.

The Iron Cage of Rationality

Weber argued that society is increasingly dominated by instrumental-rational actions. He believed that an iron cage of rationality has formed. The iron cage of rationality is a symbol of the social pressure we feel from others and ourselves to act in a way that is strategically beneficial to us. Good examples are people who feel as though they are trapped in the rat race of always trying to get ahead in their careers or climb the corporate ladder. Individuals are expected to make decisions using the cost-benefit analysis of instrumental social action.

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