Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part II- Formal Rationalization

One stream of my current research in environmental sociology is the examination of the formal rationalization of bee management and its possible effects on the health and ongoing sustainability of the honey bee population. This stream of research is informed by the thought of Max Weber, 19th century social scientist and German jurist, as well as the work of Raymond Murphy, who has adapted Weber's ideas for his own work in environmental sociology.

My research uses Weber's concept of formal rationalization. (Weber 1968:85-6).The concept refers to action guided by calculability, efficiency, predictability, technological manipulation of the biophysical sphere and human control oriented toward the goal of producing a surplus or increase in goods or profit. (cf Ritzer 2007) Weber found such action the basis of the modern bureaucracy.

Weber argued that the increasing formal rationalization of modern society would inevitably lead to irrationalities, unforeseen consequences that actually contradict the ongoing rationality of the rest of society. Weber was concerned that the growth of bureaucratic organizations, techniques and actions characterized by formal rationality would place human beings in a situation that robbed individuals of many of the qualities (e.g. creativity, mercy) that made them human. In Weber's terms, formal rationalization would place people in iron cages, enclosing them with bars made of bureacratic rules and techniques which would keep them from full human potential.

Sociologist Raymond Murphy has applied Weber's ideas to issues of the environment and sustainability. Murphy contends that formal rationality does not simply produce irrationalities that harm human beings directly, but also irrationalities that do harm to the ecosystem as well. Underlying formal rationalization are two assumptions: [1] that nature exists for the purpose of fullfilling human needs and wants, and [2] that nature is totally plastic allowing human beings to manipulate nature in any fashion that benefits us, without any serious negative consequences. It is these two assumptions of formal rationality that produce the irrationalities detrimental to the biophysical realm. To quote Murphy (2002:81),

Machines and technology in general, are the means by which humans manipulate the processes of nature in the course of their purposive action, often disrupting self-regulating mechanisms nature has constructed, thereby unleashing unexpected processes of nature. Machines do not imply nature mastered. Their development can, if it disrupts the ecological equilibrium constructed by nature, lead to the iron cage (italics are mine) of a degraded ecosystem incapable of sustaining human society.

The biophysical environment finds itself in an iron cage where its own self-regulating processes are interfered with.

Over the last 150 years apicultural has become increasingly rationalized to the detriment of the honey bee in many ways. The goal of beekeeping has always focused on either increasing honey production or increasing the pollination of some of the food crops human beings consume. The long-term survival of honey bees as a species takes " a back seat" to these "primary" goals. (As one 1970s beekeeping manual reminds the budding apiculturalist: "Honey is Money".) The attitude has been that honey bees exist simply for the benefit of human beings.

The rationalized means toward these goals follow the bureaucratic ethos of efficiency, and cost-effectiveness especially for the commercial beekeeper. The technology, and management techiques developed over the last century and a half are often concerned with the beekeepers' convenience and profit, and only secondarily with the sustainability of the honey bee. But what is efficient and cost-effective for the beekeeper may not healthy or sustainable for the honey bee. In a sense, these rationalized management techniques place the honey bee in an iron cage where the bee cannot live healthy within its own biophysical environment.


Murphy, Raymond. 2002. "Ecological Materialism and the Sociology of Max Weber." Sociological Theory and the Environment. Edited by Riley E. Dunlap, Frederick H. Buttel, Peter Dickens, and August Gijswijt. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ritzer, George. 2007. The McDonaldization of Society 5. New York: Pine Forge.

Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society- An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Volume I. New York: Bedminster.

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