Alienation and Control

Activity Description:

Purpose: Exploring the relevance of Weber’s concept of the “iron cage” in modern work contexts and work-family relations


Consider Weber’s famed critique of modern capitalists at the conclusion of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (“sensualists without heart, specialists without spirit” condemned to labor in the “iron cage” of modernity). Scenes from Chaplin’s Modern Times (the assembly line) or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (the clock crucifixion, for example) might stimulate class discussion on the “iron cage” metaphor.

This commentary might be a helpful point of departure for class discussions of the symbolic organization of the modern workplace, perhaps supplemented by Ritzer’s (1993) analysis of the “McDonaldization” of modern society or Leidner 1993 on high-speed service industries.

Do Weber’s fundamentals still apply in an era of customization, participative self-managing teams, and fast capitalism? (Barker, 1993; Gee et al., 1996; Bauman, 2000)

Writing in the early 20th century, Weber argued that the modern business ethos (founded on “worldly asceticism”) is a transformation of the medieval monastery, cloistered away from the domestic economy and processes of biological and family reproduction. Students might discuss the extent to which, a century later, modern work experiences still are shaped by this fundamental contrast between “work” and “family” concerns.

Activity Source:

Content contributed by Mark Auslander.