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The concept of rationalization is most often associated with the work of Max Weber and his followers. Weber’s thinking on rationalization is based on his analysis of the basic types of rationality. In Weber’s terms, practical rationality involves the utilization of pragmatic, calculating and means-ends strategies in order to pursue mundane ends. Theoretical rationality refers to the employment of abstract ideas and conceptual schemes to describe, elucidate and comprehend empirical reality. Substantive rationality is involved in decision making that is subject to the values and ethical norms of the particular society. Formal rationality involves decision-making in accordance with a set of universal rules, laws and regulations. It is only in the west that formal rationality emerged and became predominant. And it is that type of rationality that lies at the base of the rationalization process.
According to Weber, everyday life is rationalized and while that brings with it great advantages such as increased efficiency, it also leads to a variety of negative consequences such as disenchantment and alienation. Most generally, Weber feared the development of an ”iron cage” of rationalization that would increasingly enslave people and from which it would be increasingly difficult to escape.
Bureaucracy plays a key role in Weber’s sociology and can be seen as the paradigm of the rationalization process. The bureaucracy is an organizational form that is rationally designed to perform complex tasks in the most efficient way possible. Although Weber saw the ideal-typical bureaucracy as an efficient system, he did not fail to note the substantial irrationalities that are inherent in it. Bureaucracy, which is all but indissoluble once it is established, applies the same set of abstract rules to individual cases and limits the autonomy of the individual. Therefore, the domination of bureaucracy is likely to result in injustices. Moreover, as bureaucracy often suffers from inefficiencies, it often fails to accomplish the tasks that it exists to perform. Finally, of course, the bureaucracy can represent a clear case of the kind of ”iron cage” Weber feared.
Georg Simmel also theorized about rationalization. In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel (1907) sets out to deal with money as an abstract and universal system that provides a fundamental model of the rationalization process. Money, as the symbol of abstract social relations, exemplifies the declining significance of the individual in the face of the expansion of objective culture, which is associated with intellectual rationality, mathematical calculability, abstraction, objectivity, anonymity, and leveling.
Also of note is Karl Mannheim’s thinking on rationalization. Resembling formal rationality in his work is the concept of functional rationality which he sees as growing increasingly ubiquitous and coercive over people. Instead of substantive rationality, Mannheim deals with substantial rationality which fundamentally involves peoples’ ability to think intelligently. He sees the latter as being undermined by the former.
Inspired by the work on the rationalization of the modern western society, critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School criticized the consequences of the growth of rationality, or instrumental reason, for modern society. As elaborated by Adorno and Horkheimer, the rationality of capitalism is consolidated through the decline of individualism and that has made it more difficult to achieve the goals of the Enlightenment. Marcuse focused on the relationship between technology and rationalization. Marcuse contended that formally rational structures have replaced more substantially rational structures and capitalist society has become one-dimensional in the sense that it is dominated by organized forces that restrict opposition, choice and critique. Although there appears to be democracy, liberty, and freedom, society prevents radical change since it is able to absorb criticism and opposition, and to render these criticisms futile.
Habermas agrees with Weber that the development of modern society is driven by an underlying logic of rationalization, however, he maintains that this has a dual quality. Rejecting the pessimism of Weber, Adorno, and Horkheimer, Habermas argues that the development of both instrumental and communicative rationality can produce not only unprecedented technical achievements, but also the kind of humanity that can utilize those advancements to better itself rather than being enslaved by them.
The concept of rationalization has profoundly affected the direction of social theory, perhaps most notably theories of state formation, govern-mentality, organization, politics, and technology. The concept has also triggered debates regarding the central issues of the contemporary world such as the culture of consumption. Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis, in particular, illustrates the continuing importance of the Weberian notion of rationalization, as it extends it into many new domains, especially consumption, popular culture and everyday life.
- Habermas, (1971) Toward a Rational Society. London, Heinemann.
- Marcuse, (1964) One-Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Industrial Society. Sphere Books, London.
- Weber, M. (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Scribner’s, New York.