Weber & the Rational Society Research Paper Starter

Weber & the Rational Society

This article provides an overview of German sociologist Max Weber's (1864–1920) work on human rationality and social organization. In his study of social change, Weber identified two primary ideal types of societies, traditional and rational, the former based in value-rational (Wertrational) authority and the latter in rational-legal (Zweckrational) authority. Traditional societies, said Weber, are organized around the customary practices of a social collective that are handed down, reenacted, and reproduced, with minor deviations, from one generation to the next. Rational societies, in contrast, are organized around making reasonable choices among ends and between means to accomplish those ends. Rational social organization, for Weber, is a significant mark of modernity. Paradoxically, Weber both examined and contributed to the rise of modern, rational society. Moreover, Weber's methodological "value-free" approach to social science is relevant to contemporary discussions of professional versus public sociology.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Capitalism; Charismatic Authority; Customs; Ideal Type; Instrumental Rationality; Legitimate Authority; Modernity; Mores; Norms; Postmodernity; Rational Societies; Rationality; Rational-Legal Authority; Traditional Societies; Value-Free; Value Rationality; Value-Rational Authority



German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), more than any other early sociological theorist, is associated with the term "rationality." The phrase "the rational society" is used to represent a trend in philosophical and social thought in which examination of humankind's place in the universe proceeded through contemplation and analysis of the human mind and the human ability to anticipate and form expectations about the future.

Philosophical, social, and religious thinkers had long contemplated the idea of rationality and the possibilities of a society organized according to reason as opposed to emotion, especially those emotions considered most dangerous and damaging to human interactions and interrelationships (see Becker, 1968; Levine, 1981; Latour, 1991; Genov, 1991; Shalin, 1992). Weber's thought was particularly influenced by the work of philosophers Immanuel Kant and G. F. W. Hegel (Levine, 1981). Like other social thinkers in the same time period, Weber concentrated his work on the social implications of the human faculty of reason, a concept that is more convoluted than casual inspection might reveal (Levine, 1981).

Considered a master in the application of the historico-comparative method, Weber made extensive use of this technique to conduct thorough investigations into the organization of human affairs. His studies concentrated not only on Western civilizations but also on the cultures and societies of the Eastern world (Mitchell, 1968). His works are extensive; the study and analysis of his work alone have provided a lifelong occupation for some more contemporary sociologists.

Weber is credited among sociologists with coining the term "ideal type," which is a theoretical construct consisting of a hypothetical set of characteristics or attributes. Weber provided a sophisticated explanation of the ideal type, making systematic use of this concept in the comparison of the social organization of human affairs in differing times, cultures, and civilizations (Mitchell, 1968). In his studies, he makes use of two now-well-recognized ideal types of social organization to examine social change: the traditional and rational. Traditional societies, posited Weber, are organized around immeasurable values situated in the customary practices of a social collective that are handed down, reenacted, and reproduced, with minor deviations, from one generation to the next. Rational societies, in contrast, are organized around making reasonable choices among ends and between means to accomplish those ends. Rational social organization, for Weber, is a significant mark of modernity.

In summarizing Weber's use of the traditional and rational ideal types of social organization, to say that one type is more rational or reasonable than the other would be a gross oversimplification. The two ideal types mentioned above carry labels in English that are somewhat misleading. All social collectives, traditional and modern, are gathered around the rational pursuit of ends or goals. Weber's concentration, rather, is upon differing modes of rationality and the quality and quantity of human social relationships and forms of social organization associated with each one.


Weber's Analysis of Rational Society

Modes of Rationality

In constructing his "ideal type" of modern, rational society, Weber distinguished between two primary modes of rationality based upon the ends or goals of human activity: value rationality (German: Wertrationalität) and purposive rationality (German: Zweckrationalität). Today, the latter is more often called instrumental rationality and is sometimes also called formal-procedural rationality (Levine, 1981; Woods, 2001; Parsons 2007). While we concentrate here on these two primary modes of rationality, we must keep in mind the compound nature of the concept of rationality; Weber recognized this, and his investigation and understanding of rationality was not limited to these two modes (see Levine, 1981; Genov, 1991).

Value rationality directs human activity toward the realization of immeasurable but overarching principles or beliefs. Human interactions and interrelationships under value rationality are guided and patterned by customs and norms that have developed and persisted over time in pursuit of these overarching principles or beliefs. Religious, ethical, and even artistic or aesthetic pursuits are guided by such principles or values. Such principles are considered ultimate ends that must guide individual and collective behavior, regardless of the consequences (Mitchell, 1968).

Formal-procedural or instrumental rationality, in contrast, is directed more toward specific, measurable outcomes or consequences rather than immeasurable, overarching principles or values. Value rationality is considered more substantial, in that the principles or values are the substance or foundation of the reasons for action, having some intrinsic or internal meaning, often attributed to human affectivity or emotionality. Instrumental rationality is more formalized than value rationality in dictating behavior, with deliberative, written codes for human interaction as external guides for human conduct (Mitchell, 1968). It is the later mode of rationality, Weber observed, that predominates in modern society.


Authority is granted to an individual, or groups or classes of individuals, by the very act of submission to authority. When individuals submit to the authority of others, that authority is legitimate; that is, the authority exercised is recognized as proper or correct on the basis of some commonly held social agreement, whether implicit or explicit. Thus, for example, those of the Catholic faith submit to the authority of the Pope, peoples of a nation submit to the authority of their leader, and children submit to the authority of their parents.

In his research, Weber paid particular attention to the differing bases of legitimate authority, relating these bases to differing modes of rationality. Through a detailed historical investigation and analysis of legal systems, both Western and Eastern, and the changes in those systems over time, Weber concluded that authority in modern society is increasingly granted on the basis of formal, written, codified law. Moreover, legitimate rational-legal authority, based in instrumental rationality, is vested not in individuals but in offices described in codified rules or laws, in which specific duties, responsibilities, and powers are detailed. Authority is intimately connected with an individual's social position and economic means. The transition away from traditional value-rational authority toward instrumental-rational bases of authority brought a pronounced change in everyday social life.


Weber paid special attention to the organization of human affairs under differing forms of economic exchange throughout his work. Capitalism, especially the form of capitalism seen in the Western world, was of particular interest. He noted the complexity of modern Western capitalism, in which profit-seeking enterprises were founded on contractual jointly held interests, or corporations, mediated by monetary valuation of interests through organizations such as stock and monetary exchanges (Levine, 1981; Jagd, 2002).

The facet of modern, Western capitalism that most interested Weber was its Geist (spirit), the attitudes and beliefs that led modern capitalists to endlessly pursue the accumulation of capital far beyond a mere interest in providing for economic necessities of the present and near future. Modern Western capitalists, noted Weber, are not motivated by a desire to acquire new territories with their accompanying natural resources. Capitalists are no longer adventurers on missions to conquer new worlds, which was the prevailing form of capitalistic acquisitiveness in earlier times. Modern Western capitalists seek ever-expanding authority to control capital assets through trade, usury (the lending of money for interest fees), and innovation in bringing new products to market as well as conquering new consumer markets for products (Mitchell, 1968; Campbell, 1987).

This new spirit of capitalism, concluded Weber, was as much a break from past economic organizations as was Protestant Christianity from Roman or Orthodox religious organizations. In fact, Weber noted, the rise of the new capitalism was concurrent with the rise of Protestantism, both of which shared some common attitudes, such as asceticism, orderliness, efficiency, and individualism (Mitchell, 1968).


Weber contended that social organization in modern society, operating under instrumental rationality, becomes increasingly legalistic and bureaucratic. In a bureaucracy, work is divided into bureaus, offices, or departments based on specific functions and hierarchical positions of authority. Those holding such positions of authority exercise that authority on the basis of written rules or laws. The positions are hierarchic in that more authority is granted to specific positions, such that the organization of authority can be detailed in ever-decreasing ranks or grades.

The trend in business and governance to organize on the basis of...

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