Weber’s Iron Cage and Frye’s Bird Cage

Max Weber used the metaphor of the iron cage of bureaucracy to communicate how he thought bureaucracies would transform society. As these highly efficient bureaucracies took hold, Weber asserted that they would control and constrain the population indefinitely, because bureaucracies would last forever. This is strikingly similar to Marilyn Frye’s metaphor of the bird cage, which symbolizes the double binding nature of gender inequality – the bird may believe that it is free or able to escape because the bird’s field of vision only allows it to see one bar at a time, but in reality there are so many bars that the bird will always be constrained in its cage.

Modern experience suggests that bureaucracies are not bird cages. Presumably neither consumers nor bureaucrats would describe their perception of themselves as “free” when interacting with bureaucracies. If one’s first reaction to being denied their driver’s license application is to try to find a loophole or another way to drive instead of conforming to the bureaucrat’s expectations, that person will probably not get a driver’s license.

However, that is not to say that the two metaphors are completely incompatible. Presuming the two metaphors are similar in a meaningful way, one may be able to apply Weber’s thinking about bureaucracies to gender inequality. Weber defines six characteristics in his ideal type of bureaucracies:

1. An explicit division of labor with delineated lines of authority.

2. The presence of an office hierarchy.

3. Written rules and communication.

4. Accredited training and technical competence.

5. Management by rules that is emotionally neutral.

6. Ownership of both the career ladder and position by the organization rather than the individual.

These attributes also apply to gender inequality:

1. The division of labor – the distinction between what is perceived as women’s work and men’s work is integral to the idea of gender roles.

2. The presence of an office hierarchy – male privilege virtually guarantees an unfortunate but self-evident hierarchy of gender.

3. Written rules and communication – rules supporting gender inequality exist as laws in many instances, but in the absence of legal discrimination one doesn’t need to look much further than classic religious texts to find formal religious rules of gender discrimination and inequality.

4. Accredited training and technical competence – as bureaucrats are trained for their work, socialization serves to train people in gender, and, in this way, to perpetuate gender inequality.

5. Management by rules that is emotionally neutral – there is no greater example of this than society. Everyone in a given society understands their rules of masculinity and femininity and feels similar discomfort and displeasure when they are not being followed.

6. Ownership of both the career ladder and position by the organization rather than the individual – one cannot be exceptionally masculine or feminine on their own, instead they need others with a shared definition of masculinity or femininity to achieve this.

While it not necessarily meaningful to reduce phenomena to these simplifications, compare them and try to find new knowledge, there may be something to this example. It is unlikely that gender inequality arose for the same reasons that bureaucracies did (for example, I fail to see anyway that gender inequality increases our proficiency of completing complex tasks, or any particular way it is more economically efficient), but perhaps they endure for similar reasons. Both bureaucracy and our perception of gender are extremely rigid, uncompromising and enduring. Borrowing from another one of Weber’s ideas, it is perhaps somewhere in these shared terms that both concepts have found such a high degree of legitimization in modern society.


Privacy Statement