Tag Archives: The Birdcage

Breaking the bars….

Max Weber’s theories concerning sociology are intricate and variable. For these reasons, his ideas of society cannot be taken to be as black and white, as straightforward, as those of Marx, or several other sociologists. However, his concepts are similar enough, and universal enough, that they can be applied to a dialogue with theorists who came before him and followed after him. One such theorist is Marilyn Frye.

Marilyn Frye is a feminist sociological theorist who writes about oppression, through the lens of sexism, racism and other common issues. One of her theories, the Birdcage theory, is particularly relevant to Weber’s ideas. Relating Frye’s Birdcage Theory with Weber’s Iron Cage of Bureaucracy, for example, seems a fairly easy task. However, in sociological studies – soft sciences – very little is as easy as it seems.

While both theorists argue against the social and cultural traps in which people find themselves, they argue different causal factors. Frye argues that the cages which entrap people and groups are born out of oppression – that oppression is a method of social control and dominance. Weber argues that people and groups are trapped by bureaucracy; but that bureaucracy was, in essence, simply a method of efficiency and organization – that it was meant as a form of control but not necessarily dominance.

Control and dominance may seem synonymous, but in the capitalist bureaucratic societal foundations which Weber describes, control was more about ensuring lawful and moral behavior for and by the masses of large-scale populations and less about ownership of people. Still, Frye’s position that the birdcages – the stereotypes, abuses and unfairness to which a person or a people are subjected is a parallel to Weber’s theory; both argue that any single factor (Frye’s single wire or Weber’s ideal types of the bureaucratic personality) may be discounted once a person sees the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. Both Frye and Weber believe that these individual factors have created a cage from which people can only escape with great difficulty – and that they must be broken for individual freedom to return.

In a recent article by Fortune.com (http://fortune.com/2014/03/26/why-bureaucracy-must-die/), the casual reader can see more – and more easily understandable – examples of why bureaucracy is bad for society. However, while both Frye and Weber argue against the presence of entrapping social constructs on a platform more to do with human freedoms and creative expression, this article argues for the end of bureaucracy based on its obsolete nature.

The article focuses not on the lack of necessity of bureaucracy due to needs for moral or social order, or even its use as a method of control; but, rather, it states that bureaucracy simply no longer works – especially in the digitally modern world. The article does not take an ethical stance, but instead approaches it from a mostly logistical viewpoint.

The reasons for the obsoleteness of bureaucracy are the facts that lay people no longer need guidance from experts, or are unable to express themselves intelligently. While those controls may have been necessary – or once seemed necessary – because there actually were groups of people who knew more than the average person, and could use that advantage to secure their positions, the digital age (specifically the internet), has balanced the scales when it comes to the knowledge (even sometimes expert-level) that is readily available to nearly everyone.

As the common saying goes, knowledge is power, and with the internet being a mostly household tool, knowledge for the layperson increases, and therefore so does power. Simply put, Fortune argues that the digital age has given the common person more power over their environment and social interactions, and bureaucracy is now just a road block. While I am unsure how either Frye or Weber would feel about the approach (internet-based), they would likely approve of the end – no more bureaucratic constraint.