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The Iron Cage theory also rises out of the ever increasing rationalization of modern society. Weber defined ‘power’ as the “ability to realize one’s will despite and against the resistance of others. During Weber’s time, he saw an increasing power shift towards the ever growing bureaucracies, these formally rational, complex organizations. Bureaucracies are by nature highly formally rational. They are there for the purpose of organizing what would otherwise be very large or complex organizational tasks which wouldn’t be achievable if conducted by an individual.

These tasks often affect a large amount of people at any given time. Additionally, the people working within the bureaucratic system are often insignificant as individuals, despite the small contribution that they make. The end result is that bureaucracies have immense power over others. Weber sees an increasing problem in this, and is particularly concerned with the way that bureaucracies operate. The very nature of bureaucracies is to operate under highly impersonal rules and regulations.

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Weber’s Iron Cage theory

They seek to achieve their goals in the most efficient manner possible, so that resources are not duly wasted on particular individuals. The bureaucracy favours “precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files … strict subordination, reduction of friction and of the material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration”. When this power over others is coupled with this highly rational approach, Weber’s Iron Cage theory is realised. As people become subject to bureaucratic institutions, they will be subject to the will of these organizations.

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These organizations simply by their rational nature require control over as many factors as possible to ensure predictability. As a result, bureaucracies dehumanize and “functionalizes human beings”. The problem is exacerbated by the structure of these organizations. Since the bureaucracy is comprised of many individuals working in a small capacity, but contributing to the larger organizational structure, subordinates often do not get to exercise their individual moral conscience – they must follow the orders of the person higher in the chain of command.

These leaders then follow the rationalized norms of the bureaucracy. As mentioned earlier, modern society has the ability to separate different types of rationality complexes and distinguish between them. In this case, bureaucracies operate entirely within a cognitive instrumental sphere, without much regard to morality. Weber fears that the modern world “would be increasingly dominated by such amoral, small-minded, careerist bureaucrats dutifully obeying Caesarist demagogues”.

The domination of bureaucratic powers

The domination of bureaucratic powers over free will seems to run against the ideas of democracy, despite these democracies being the most bureaucratized. People are meant to enjoy ‘freedom’ within these democratic societies, not be subject to any overarching obligations. However, despite this, Weber’s theory seems to be true. I think that the domination of the bureaucracy is subtle and almost unrecognizable because of the way that it is presented and enacted. When people are brought up in modern society, you quickly realise that such things as “death and taxes” are an inevitable part of life.

Why? Simply because without paying taxes, submitting to the rule of law, participating in the political system, society would fall apart. The ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by people cannot be realised without these bureaucratic organizations. Thus, to enjoy freedom, people must also relinquish freedom. Weber predicts that as societies become increasingly rationalized, this submissiveness will become more prevalent. Although people can consciously break free, this choice is becoming increasingly unrealistic and remote.

If you opt to break away from bureaucratic domination, you run the risk of becoming ostracised from the rest of society. As we will see shortly, the law also plays a role in keeping people under the influence of bureaucratic power. “No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.

The rule of law

The rule of law can itself be seen as a type of domination. Despite the argument that people are only subject to the rule of law by consensus, the reality is that people must submit to it, whether they wish to be or not. Modern legal systems are rigid, codified in various statutes and regulations. This gives it a self-justifying mechanism that dictates that those people who do not wish to submit to law, and run against it, are in breach of the law and must be brought to justice back under the same laws.

This applies in a similar fashion to bureaucracies. They operate within the scope of the law, and to an extent this leads to the law supporting the power of bureaucracies. If people do not wish to be subject to these powers, it is once again difficult to escape, because law sets the outer boundary to which people can run. If they breach that perimeter, they are forcefully brought back inside to face the consequences. Law serves as a mechanism to ensure that the Iron Cage of bureaucracy is set firmly in place.

Cite this page

The Iron Cage. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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