The world is experiencing a dramatic increase in a culture of individualism and consequently people’s interactions have become impersonal and detached. A number of social and institutional factors contribute to this. This essay will attempt to uncover some of these reasons highlighted by the theories of Max weber, George Simmel and Talcott Parsons. Each of whom offer unique interpretations of this shift in society. Weber’s theory centres around the influence the rise in Bureaucracy and the power of money has on society. Simmel’s focuses on the belief that society consists of a web of multiple relationships between individuals who are in constant interaction with one another. While Parson’s looks at the family as a social factor of change and delves into the concept of a social system and socialisation to explain the impersonality’s experienced in society.
When considering the culture of personalisation, we will consider Weber’s concept of “Verstehen” which analyses the structural and institutional constraints on actors questioning why do social actors act in the way they do.
When looking for an institutional factor to explain the behaviours of social actors within Weber’s theory we must consider the implications of a system of bureaucracy on society. Bureaucracy can be understood as a legitimate structure of domination in modern society designed to ensure that impersonal standards rather than personal values determine outcomes. Bureaucracy can be seen as the best technical solution to the problem of organising large quantities of information. Bureaucracy emerged as a new “iron cage” which threatened to restrain the very individualism that had led people to reject dogmatic religious authority liberating them in the past. Bureaucracies support certain forms of power which are not usually concerned with the individual but at society as a whole. Social actions motivated by one kind of social order lead to a fundamental transformation in other domains such as social interactions (Calhoun et al., 2012).
Society knows three different types of authority; Traditional, legal and charismatic. Legal authority demands obedience to the legally established impersonal order which in this case can be understood as bureaucracy. The distribution of power is directly influenced by the structure of every legal order (Lemert, 1999). We understand ‘power’ as the chance somebody has to realise their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others and they are awarded with a sort of ‘social honour’ (Lemert, 1999). However, those who don’t hold the power; the majority, are vulnerable. When relationships hold an element of control they become distrustful, distanced and thus impersonal.
Bureaucratic organisations have resulted in the levelling of economic and social differences (Lemert,1999) however as a result society has experienced an erosion of social values resulting in our social actions being based on a cost – benefit analysis. This growth in rationality marked by the formalization of social institutions such as states and corporations to increase efficiency and fairness has resulted in the determination of class situation by market situation (Calhoun et al., 2012). Actions are no longer based on ties of family or community nor are they based on traditional values but are geared towards efficiency and the achievement of specific goals and the desires of the individual are subservient. People are viewed now more as machines in a profit turning wheel resulting in a culture of dehumanisation (Calhoun et al., 2012).
Weber’s Protestants Ethic Thesis provides us with a social understanding of how society came to be so individualistic. Illustrated in weber’s work on the relationship between religion and capitalism is the idea of rationalization. The religious valuations of restless, continuous systematic work in a worldly calling or vocation trapped in society by this rational way of life. Weber thought that modern