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Rationalization of society is a concept first explored by Max Weber. Learn more about the rationalization of society and see some examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Rationalization of Society

The rationalization of society is a concept that was created by Max Weber. Rationalization refers to the process by which modern society has increasingly become concerned with:

  • Efficiency: achieving the maximum results with a minimum amount of effort
  • Predictability: a desire to predict what will happen in the future
  • Calculability: a concern with numerical data, i.e.

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  • Dehumanization: employing technology as a means to control human behavior

Rationalization is a product of scientific study and technological advances in the Western world. By reducing tradition’s hold on society, rationalization led to new practices. Instead of human behavior being motivated by customs and traditions, rationalization led to behaviors that were guided by reason and practicality. Rationalization not only transformed modern society, it played an important role in the development of capitalism.

Though rationalization was first apparent in the creation of bureaucracies, it has spread to all aspects of society.

Types of Rationality

According to Weber, there are four types of rationality:

  • Practical rationality involves systematically deciding the best way to achieve a desired end based on what is practical.
  • Theoretical rationality involves understanding the world through abstract concepts.
  • Substantive rationality involves deciding the best choice of a means to an end as guided by all of your collective values. In other words, you are attempting to make your system of values and your actions congruent with each other.

  • Formal rationality involves making choices based on universal rules, regulations, and the larger social structure of your society. It involves calculating or quantifying the most efficient means to an end.

Formal rationality forces order on modern society through rigid, quantifiable terms by means of decisions that are based on rules and regulations that are universal. Formal rationality has contributed to the rise of bureaucracy, which is able to closely direct and manipulate behavior.Although the development of formal rationality was essential for the modern Western society to advance economically and develop corporate organization, Weber feared that formal rationality would become a dominant force in the modern Western society. Individuals whose choices were based on a system of values would have less freedom to exercise their substantive rationality. Instead of humans being treated as individuals with full autonomy and freedom, they would be forced into what Weber calls the ‘iron cage’ of modern society.

Examples of the Rationalization of Society

There are lots of examples of rationalization in modern society.

  • The current legal system is an example of formal rationality.
  • The decision not to have sex until marriage because it is something that you value is an example of substantive rationality.
  • Using logic and reasoning to gain an understanding of the concept of happiness is an example of theoretical rationality.
  • Trying to decide the best way to get home is an example of practical rationality.
  • Determining the quickest way to grill a salmon is an example of practical rationality.

  • Following your company’s sexual harassment policy is an example of formal rationality.

Lesson Summary

The rationalization of society describes the process by which society has become increasingly concerned with efficiency, predictability, calculability, and dehumanization. Rationalization developed from scientific exploration and the growing use of technology.

There are four types of rationalization: practical rationality, theoretical rationality, substantive rationality, and formal rationality.

Learning Outcomes

View this video lesson on the rationalization of society before going on to:

  • Analyze Max Weber’s concept of the rationalization of society
  • Enumerate the four components of the rationalization of society
  • Summarize the four types of rationalization and point out examples of each

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