The following lesson discusses how rationality is the defining feature of modern societies according to Max Weber. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.
Weber ; Modernity
Did you know that the ancient Greeks used to think the sun was drawn across the sky every day by a chariot? Or that lightning and thunder were a product of the Greek god Zeus, displeased with his people? People throughout history have had interesting theories of why things happen. Their ideas and beliefs are powerful things that affect how they behaved.As time progressed however, ideas and beliefs change.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution was one such event that brought about change. The Industrial Revolution is often considered the marking point where societies began to move out of their traditional social patterns and instead move towards modernity.One such sociologist spent much of his life studying the movement towards modernity. His name was Max Weber. In this lesson, we will delve into Weber’s theories of how ideas and beliefs led to modernity.
Weber ; Rationality
For Weber, modernity meant replacing a traditional worldview with a rational way of thinking. In pre-industrial societies, tradition acts as a constant brake on change.
Weber meant ‘tradition‘ to mean values and beliefs passed from generation to generation. Traditional people are guided by the past, and they feel a strong attachment to long-established ways of life. They consider particular actions right and proper, mostly because they have been accepted for so long.
In other words, ‘That’s how we’ve always done it, so let’s keep doing it.’ The adage ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ is another way to sum up this mentality. While tradition is not bad in and of itself, you can hopefully see how this mentality can prevent new ways of thinking and innovation.
On the other hand, Weber felt that that people in modern societies favored rationality, or a way of thinking that emphasizes deliberate, matter-of-fact calculation of the most efficient way to accomplish a particular task. In other words, sentimental ties to the past had no place in a rational worldview and instead, tradition just becomes one more piece of information to use when deciding the best way to do something. For a modern person, Weber saw them as constantly weighing present action and future consequences.
For example, if there was a person who was trying to decide where to go to college, a traditional person would probably pick the same school that his or her parents went to. But a rational person would use this piece of information, plus maybe such things as how much it costs, where it is located, what courses of study they offer, etc. Weber even categorized the types of rational people that exist in a rational world. There is the scientist, who is committed to the orderly discovery of truth; the capitalist, who is committed to the pursuit of profit; and the bureaucrat, who is committed to a system of rules.
Criticism of Rationality
On the surface, it seems like a rational worldview is a good thing.
I mean doesn’t it make sense to actively determine the most efficient way to do something? Rationality has led to many amazing things, like improved technology and medicine. However, Weber also felt that modernity and the increase in industrialization led to a sense of disenchantment. He felt that everything in life would now be whittled down to basic calculations of ‘yes’ or ‘no.’Weber felt that as rationality increased, societies were producing technological and organizational wonders.
However, at the same time, these societies were turning away from studying more basic questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence. Additionally, Weber feared that too much rationalization, especially in bureaucracies, would erode the human spirit with endless rules and regulations. This growing alienation of treating humanity as ‘numbers’ or ‘cases’ could lead to what he termed the iron cage, which he described as a social order so organized and rational that it traps people inside an invisible prison. People in this situation are like unfeeling robots who are devoid of a sense of humanity and individuality.Some sociologists go even further than Weber and argue that modern society isn’t rational at all; for if it was, it wouldn’t have failed to meet the needs of so many people. Weber warned against an overemphasis on rationality, whereas other more pessimistic sociologists now argue that while a modern society of scientists, capitalists, and bureaucrats have produced new knowledge, unparalleled wealth, and efficient systems, those things are concentrated in the hands of the privileged few instead of for the betterment of everyone. But again, Weber may counter this statement by reiterating that he does see the good that rationality can create but it should not come at the cost of losing the sense of humanity we have with one another.
For Weber, modernity meant increased rationality, or a calculated determination to increase the efficiency of a choice or action and a corresponding decline in tradition. In this process, the search for truth, profit, and bureaucracy increased as well. Weber was pessimistic and critical about the effects of modernity. He was concerned that rationalization would erode the human spirit and would eventually result in an iron cage, with a dehumanized, uniform society.
Vocabulary ; Definitions
Modernity: Modernity is the rational way of thinking.Tradition: Tradition is the values and beliefs that are past down through generations.Rationality: Rationality is the deliberate calculated way of thinking that is based upon fact.Iron cage: Iron cage is a term used by Weber to describe the outcomes of people bound by an excess number of rules and rationalizations that would trap people inside invisible cages.
Subsequent to watching this lesson, you should be able to summarize Max Weber’s perspective of modernity.