Friday, March 25, 2005

Weber Making the Rounds

I started this post as a response to Drek's post on Weber. Brayden also posted on Fukuyama's unsurprising and highly debatable, this is being very nice, analyis of Weber's work. So I figured, Weber deserves some love here on the Prairie, since he's been to the pub, finding himself in the trash shortly thereafter. I know, I'm sorry I couldn't resist; I'm so Katie Couric with humor. Anyway...

A few ideas that I'd like to raise with regard to Weber and education:

First, while Weber is often taught as an "idealist" as opposed to a "materialist" like Marx, I don't think this is accurate; it's way oversimplified. Weber has a much more nuanced analysis of capitalism that incorporates both materiality and immateriality. While he was trying to critique the focus of Marxist analysis on the mode of production, he didn't negate materiality, but rather added another dimension of how materiality is produced. I also, think his stance on "objectivity" and "value-free" sociology deserves a more nuanced discussion. It reads more like a version of self-reflexivity to me.

A Weberian analysis adds some interesting points to the commodification of education.* Students seem to increasingly see education with themselves as consumers of the product of education, resulting in a degree that will get them a job. We've all heard the argument that they are paying for our services and that because of this we owe them whatever it is they are asking for. This is all too "rational" and utilitarian for my taste. Where is the simple joy of learning and the challenge of wrestling with some ideas until you get it? followed by a euphoric feeling of accomplishment! Alas, I'm too romantic.

Seeing education as a commodity, students don't want/need knowledge that will cause the discomfort of stretching one's mind, or the trauma that comes with the realization that their preconceived notions were based on an ideology of consumerism, for example. As educators, this outlook is depressing. However, we can't forget the students who are there to learn for the challenge and joy of learning as well as the obvious rewards of getting a degree. And we can point out this paradox to our students who are the resistant consumers of education, at the very least.

Back to Drek's example. What fascinates me about "rational choices" is how irrational they can be. To be clear, I do not typically subscribe to "rational-choice" theory. There was a clear irony - the iron cage- in Weber's analysis that doesn't get enough press, in my opinion, in that the very "rationality" of ration-choices are so irrational. While it may be "rational" politically, which may lead to a justifiable economic rationale, for the science theater Drek mentions not to show films on the "Big Bang" or Darwinian theory of evolution, it is irrational in that it is a science theater not showing well-known and currently fundamental scientific theories. We rationalize ourselves into metaphorical cages that can materialize into actual physical traps!

So I disagree with Drek's application of Weber and his use of religion for explaining today's "rational" choices. I disagree in that he takes Weber's analysis of religion out of the historical context in which it was intended to describe the historical process of the development of capitalist culture. The historicity of religion is fundamental to the socio-historical analysis of Weber's theory. Using a Weberian analysis for todays historical context offers an interesting discussion on the irony of rationality as I see it.

*See the premise of University, Inc. by Jennifer Washburn.


At 3:39 PM, Blogger Brayden said...

Erin, I think you make a good point about the tension between rationality and institutions in Weber's work. In some instances Weber wrote that political, religious, and economic institutions made it possible for rational calculation and means-ends driven behavior to exist. On the other hand, he seems to say that once that behavior becomes institutionalized, members of society become trapped by the logic of rationalization. Rationalized means become an end in themselves (see Selznick).

I think modern institutional theorists deal with this though simply by recognizing that rationality is itself a construct created embedded in culture and instititutions. We seem to take a much more constructivist interpretation of Weber than the early organizational theorists did, who were intent on finding the most effective means-to-ends. Now, most organizational sociologists find the idea of creating completely rational institutions to be fanciful and pointless. It's all about enacting cultural rules, scripts, and meanings anyway.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Erin said...

I've only recently started to get familiar with sociology of institutions and organizations. But generally, I think a lot of it is in sync with Bourdieu, the neo-Weberian I most subscribe to.

I think Weber was very adept at finding the paradoxes in our behavior. That is the Weber that would be so great to show consumerist students (i.e. how the university treats them as a commodity as well) or self-censoring science theaters (that stop showing science movies).

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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