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The Iron Cage or the Cult of the Individual? Compare Weber and Durkheim’s alternative understanding of the idea and role of the individual in modern life

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  1. Introduction
  2. Compare Weber and Durkheim's conceptions
  3. Alternative understanding of the idea and role of the individual in modern life
  4. The Iron Cage or the Cult of the Individual?
  5. Analysis
  6. Conclusion

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, social studies were conducted by founding fathers of sociology in order to understand both the role of the individual and the role of the society in a new epoch called modernity. At macro-sociological level, this period is characterized by general changes in western societies: the industrialization, the advent of democracy, the secularization of societies.

At micro-sociological level, modernity is defined by a new conception of the individual who believes in progress and who is rational. Both Weber and Durkheim were interested in the role of the individual although they did not have the same conception. Indeed, Durkheim considered the individual was limited by the society whereas Weber thought the society was created by social actions of individuals.

Paradoxically, Durkheim was optimistic about the advent of modernity because it would lead to the emergence of individualism. On the other hand, Weber was pessimistic: he argued that modernity would crash the individual because of processes of rationalization and bureaucratization. Hence, there is an opposition between both thinkers (although they have also similar ideas) about the future of the individual in modernity: either the individual would be at the core of a humanist religion, or his freedom would end with modernity.

Hence, we may wonder how these authors understood in different ways the role if the individual in modernity and which analysis is the more relevant to understand modern life in our contemporary societies. After an explanation of both theories, we will demonstrate that Weber's pessimistic approach seems (unfortunately?) very relevant to understand modern life, although Durkheim also developed convincing arguments about the future of the individual

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