Weber & Rationalization Research Paper Starter

Weber & Rationalization

(Research Starters)

An overview of Max Weber's concept of rationalization is presented. Weber made the historical movement away from institutional structures that engender actions based on the emotional, mystical, traditional, and religious to institutional structures that produce actions based on reason, calculability, predictability, and efficiency—the primary elements of his philosophy of history. Rationalization brings benefits to organizations while trapping workers in feelings of disenchantment. Despite the shortcomings of the process, Weber viewed it as efficient and necessary.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Efficiency; Fordism; Iron Cage; McDonaldization; Rationalization; Taylorism



Max Weber (1864–1920) is considered one of the founders of modern sociology. His work included studies of economics, the modern political state, and religion. At the core of Weber's work was a concern with the modern German state. He was a thinker situated in history between the positivist foundations of sociology, embodied in the works of Comte and Durkheim, and the rise of the anti-positivist movement. Weber was a contemporary of Wilhelm Dilthey, who argued that the social sciences were altogether different from the natural sciences and needed their own distinct but similarly scientific approach (Dilthey, 1989).

Weber embraced Dilthey's argument. In his last major lecture, "Science as a Vocation," he said that the natural sciences can only tell the answer to the question of what we should do if we want to technically master nature. It cannot tell us whether we want to or should master nature (Landmann, 1984). For Weber, rationalization was totally alien to value consideration (Gronow, 1988). His influence on sociology was such that both positivist and anti-positivist sociologists claim Weber as their own. Weber's contribution to sociological method is unquestioned. He refined existing concepts and introduced many more to the sociological approach to knowledge. He wrote at length about objective sociology and the subjective. To this end, he addressed concepts such as value-free research, social norms, ideal types, and social relations.

Perhaps Weber's most influential and enduring work was on rationalization. Rationalization is the movement over time away from institutional structures that engender actions based on the emotional, mystical, traditional, and religious, toward institutional structures that produce actions based on reason, calculability, predictability, and efficiency. It was in the light of his theory on rationalization that Weber viewed both the progress and the growing disenchantment of Germany.


H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1978) described rationalization as the most fundamental element of Weber's philosophy of history. The urge of religious teachers, artists, intellectuals, and eventually scientists throughout history has been toward comprehensive and meaningful interpretation of the universe. This constant drive away from institutional structures of magic, mysticism, and religion toward secular structures of rationalization has been at the center of the progress of history and what Weber called the "sociology of knowledge." Weber writes about the rise of bureaucracy and its presuppositions and causes in Economy and Society (1922). He sees the money economy as the primary presupposition of bureaucracy and gives as examples of the rise of historical bureaucracies the ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations, the Roman Catholic Church, modern Western states, and modern capitalism.

Once created, these bureaucratic machines take on a life of their own and are permanent in character. Rationalization in these structures comprises calculability, efficiency, technology, and control over economic goods, labor, opportunities, advantages, and even values. This control allows for bureaucracy to better predict probable outcomes and mitigate risk (Weber, 1978). Throughout his career, Weber continued to develop the idea of rationalization and, in doing so, identified four types of rationality:

• Practical

• Theoretical

• Formal

• Substantive (Kalberg, 1980)

Practical Rationality

Practical rationality is based on an individual's experience and context. By considering their observations in light of their desired ends, individuals weigh their options and pursue the actions that are most likely to bring about those ends. Practical rationality is pragmatic and assumes action. Weber believed, like Sigmund Freud and later Michele Foucault, that culture and its institutions of rationality shape practical reason (Ritzer, 1975).

Theoretical Rationality

Unlike practical rationality, theoretical rationality does not assume action will be taken. Rather, theoretical rationality attempts to understand and explicate the world. This does not mean that theoretical rationality cannot give rise to action; it simply means that the theoretical rationality does not necessitate action.

Substantive Rationality

Substantive rationality involves the consideration of numerous cultural, institutional, or personal values. It recognizes that people often find themselves caught between competing values, norms, or laws and must choose between conflicting values or rationalities. The fact that substantive rationality is necessary points to a significant dilemma of structures of rationalization.

Formal Rationality

Formal rationality typifies bureaucratic institutions. Formal rationality embraces the norms, rules, and laws of economic, legal, and scientific organizations. With the rise of the rational structures within the church, even religion has become subjected to formal rationality. Adherence to formal rationality is based on an impersonal bond. This bond, something Sigmund Freud (1989) called "guilt" and Michel Foucault (1979) termed "discipline," imposes adherence and action (Weber, 1989). Formal rationality is the most coercive rationality and the most prevalent in social structures.


Weber embraced scientific rationalization and its effectiveness in the natural sciences, though he remained wary of its limitations. His critique was directed towards the Kantian promise that reason would bring progress. Weber viewed Kantian reason, and Enlightenment thinking in general, as leading toward a rationalization of the economy that would limit individuals and lead to disenchantment (MacKinnon, 2001). Additionally, he often complained that the constant extension of rationality in bureaucracy through technology designed to emancipate eventually leads to an "iron cage" (Habermas, 1981).

Here lies the rub in Weber's work: Weber understood the value of rationalization and bureaucracy and the benefits it brought society. He did not see how history could march forward without it. However, he was deeply troubled by hegemony and the deep personal feeling of disenchantment that rationalization heaped on individuals.

He saw rationalized structures offering individuals...

(The entire section is 3144 words.)