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Weber in Singapore

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Imagine that Max Weber has been resurrected and is on a visit to Singapore. How would he interpret the various facets of Singapore society in relation to his theories and prognosis about the future of modern society?

As we begin the twenty-first century, there is a growing recognition that Max Weber is our foremost social theorist of the condition of modernity. His pre-eminence stems from the scope, the depth, and the intensity, which he brought to this project. In short, Weber sought to explain the place of the modern individual in the world. Behind this deceptively simple foundation, lay a gigantic enterprise. Precisely so then, the beginning of this essay is devoted to underlining and illustrating the principal themes of Weber's sociological investigations, especially those that would be used in interpreting the various facets of Singapore society. Next, this essay attempts to show how a resurrected Weber would interpret the various facets of Singapore society in relation to his theories and prognosis about the future of modern society. The concluding part offers criticisms, if any, and asks the importance of Weber in this modern age.

Weber, it is often said, conceived of sociology as a comprehensive science of social action. As such, Weber distinguishes between four major types of social action. In zweckrational action, or action in relation to a goal, the individual rationally assesses the means to attain a particular goal. An engineer who builds a bridge as the most efficient way to cross a river often exemplifies it in the literature. A more relevant example would be the modern goal of material sought after by many young people today. Many recognize that the most efficient way to attain that success is through higher education, and so they flock to the universities in order to get a good job. Wertrational action, or

rational action in relation to a value, is characterized by striving for a goal which in itself may not be rational, but which is pursued through rational means. The traditional example would be the brave captain who goes down with his ship. More relevant then is a person who attends the university because he or she values the life of the mind - a value that was instilled in them by parents, previous teachers, or chance encounter. Affective action is anchored in the emotional state of the individual rather than in the rational weighing of means and ends. Attending university for the community life of the fraternity, or following one's boyfriend's choice of school would be examples. Finally, traditional action is action that is dictated by customary habits of thought. Many students attend university because it is traditional for their social class and family to attend - the expectation was always there, it was never questioned.

Weber's classification of types of action provides a basis for his investigation of the social evolutionary process in which, behavior had come to be increasingly dominated by goal-oriented rationality (zweckrational), less and less by values, emotions, or traditions. In fact, a major thrust of his work deals with this "rationalization" of modern Western civilization. The rationalization process is the practical application of knowledge to achieve a desired end. It leads to efficiency, coordination, and control over both the physical and social environment. As such, observation, experiment, and reason (zweckrational) to master the natural and social environment to achieve a desired end increasingly guide human behavior. The rationalization process has led to the unprecedented increase in both the production and distribution of goods and services. However, it is also associated with secularization, depersonalization, and oppressive routine.

Weber also distinguishes between formal rationality and substantive rationality. The formal refers to the calculability of means and procedures, whatever the end pursued, while the latter refers to the assessment of outcomes in terms of a particular value standpoint. The relationship between the spread of formal rationality and the attainment of substantive rationality is problematic. Modern rational capitalism, measured in terms of substantive values of efficiency or productivity, is easily the most advanced economic system which man has developed. Yet, the very rationalization of social life which made this possible, contravenes some of the most distinctive values of Western civilization, such as individual creativity and autonomy of action. According to Weber, this cannot be resolved.

Weber's focus on the trend of rationalization led him to concern himself with the operation and expansion of bureaucracy in both the public and private sectors of modern societies. For him, bureaucracies are goal-oriented organizations designed according to rational principles in order to attain their goals efficiently. Offices are ranked in a hierarchical order, with information flowing up the chain of command, directives flowing down. Operations of bureaucracies are characterized by impersonal rules that explicitly state duties, responsibilities, standardized operating procedures, and conduct of office holders. Offices are highly specialized, where appointment to them are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascribed criteria. All of these ideal characteristics have one goal, to promote the efficient attainment of the organizational goals.

Weber warned that the impersonality of bureaucracy tends to undermine both human freedom and democracy in the long run. Yet, bureaucracies are necessary to provide the coordination and control so desperately needed by our complex society and its huge populations. More importantly, bureaucracy and rationalization were rapidly replacing all other forms of organization and thought. This leads to what Weber calls Entzauberung der Welt, the disenchantment of the world:

Science has accustomed us to regard external reality as so many blind forces, which we can make

use of, but nothing remains of the spells, the mirages, the gods, and the fairies... in the world stri-

pped of its charms, robbed of meaning and personality, human societies are developing towards a-

n organization that is increasingly rational and bureaucratic.

For Weber, further bureaucratization and rationalization may be an inescapable fate due to their superiority over all others. As such, he wrote of the evolution of an iron cage, a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society.

The idea of status groups also necessitate some discussion here as it is very much relevant to Singapore society. Weber felt that Marx's stress on class and economic factors had led him to underestimate the importance of status factors.



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