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Max Weber’s Concept of Rationalisation

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Max Weber’s Concept of Rationalisation

Social Actions

According to Max Weber, sociology was a comprehensive science consisting of social

action and being a scholar in the field of sociology; he sought to observe human behaviors and

their relationship to cause and effect in the society. As far as he was concerned, an action

includes all human behaviors to which the actor can attach subjective meaning. He developed the

theory of social action under the belief that all actions have a social significance and by the

subjective meaning that the acting party attaches to it, it affects the mannerisms of other people,

and as a result, it is oriented in the cause. Weber’s main concern was on how social actors

conceptualize social actions in means-ends chains.

Rational Social Actions and Rationality

Weber defines a rational social action as the type of social action that is instrumentally

oriented which occurs when one action’s ends are seen as the means to a higher end that has

always been taken for granted. In his definition of rational social actions, he classified them into

four categories of rationality, which is considered as the driving force for any action. These

categories include; instrumental or purposive rationality which is related to the behavioral

expectations of other objects and people in the surroundings. Based on this rationality, the

expectations are a means for the actor to achieve particular ends that are “calculated, or rationally

pursued.” The second type is the belief/ value based rationality in which the action is taken for

the actor’s intrinsic reasons, some of them ethical, religious, aesthetic, or any other motive that

may or may not lead to success.

Thirdly, affectual rationality is guided by the actor’s particular feelings or emotions, and

according to Weber, this type of rationality formed the boarder-line of what he would call

“meaningful oriented.” Lastly, the conventional or traditional rationality was defined by

ingrained habituation. In his explanation, Weber claims that it is impossible to find any one of

these rationalities independently because combinations were the norm even though he considered

the first two rationalities as more significant and their last two as possible subsets. Weber’s

conceptualization of rationality shuns from a value-laden assessment such as considering certain

values irrational in comparison to others.


Weber defined the concept of rationalization as the replacement of values, emotions, and

traditions as the social motivators of behavior with reason, science-based ideas as well as

practical calculations. Weber’s rationalization theory claims that insisting on a highly

rationalized way of life is detrimental to the society because the values that were once embedded

in an ethical or religious context get lost in public life. Additionally, losing these values into the

public sphere leads to the fragmentation of all the previously known cultural values. The values

are now disparate and separated from each other, which then petrifies culture, turning it into an

abstract form of “Iron cage” over the people. The general idea in Weber’s theory is that the

aspect of rationalization dehumanizes the society and is disenchantment to the world such that

humanity gets ties fatefully to the mechanical world they have created for themselves.

Modernity and Modern Society

Weber’s Views on Modern and Pre-Modern Societies

Max Weber differentiates the modern industrialized society from the pre-modern society

stating that the pre-modern society was characterized by a state of traditional authority

dominating while the modern society is governed by a legal-rational authority. In the pre-modern

society, the traditional authority held that the people accept their ruler as legitimized by the

beliefs and traditions they hold about leadership. Contrastingly, the modern society runs on a

legal-rational authority that dictates the rules and procedures upon which a ruler’s dominance

rests (Whimster & Lash, 2014). According to Weber, the process of rationalization has

accelerated this metamorphosis where traditional beliefs have been replaced with rational

thinking. In this regard, the modern society depends highly on rational calculation placing much

importance on efficiency.

Examples of Weber’s Conception of Rationalization

Among the detrimental effects of rationalization are capitalism, bureaucracy and the

transformation of political authority from traditional to a legal-rational form of authority. In

Weber’s demonstration of these effects, he depicts rationalization in the spirit of capitalism as

well as the Protestant Ethic. The primary goal of protestant theologies such as Calvinism is seen

as having shifted towards a more rational method of economic benefits as a way of dealing with

“salvation anxiety.” Similarly, the modern society operates on a highly bureaucratic

administration caused by the weakening a people’s traditional beliefs triggered by rationalization

of thought. Weber says that today, the western Capitalist nations and their internal operations

depend on bureaucracy for them to run efficiently and in an orderly manner by allowing a

smooth chain of command to run from top to bottom.

Bureaucracy and rationalization can be seen in its modern form in the Nazi’s whose

insistence on calculability and rationalization transformed what were formerly men to robotic

machines. In the same light, the political orientation has gradually changed from the traditional

forms of authority to a more modern form of legal-rational authority. The traditional authority

has been gradually weakened by the rationalization of thought which in turn leads to the

formation of a legal-rational form of authority that operates on a bureaucratic administration


(Breuer & Maier, 1982). Weber claims that every society undergoes rationalizations and the

development of a bureaucratic system is inevitable, and in that case, the world needs to be ready

to break away from traditional authority.

Weber’s Theories

Weber’s theories are convincing in the sense that the society we are living in today has

been engulfed in a system of rationalization and every country seems to be operating on a legal-

rational system of leadership. The theory of rationalization can be applied in the world of science

where scientists and scholars are busy trying to find scientific solutions to every phenomenon in

the universe. For example, traditional magic, medicine and other activities such as rainmaking no

longer hold water in the modern society as there is a sensible scientific explanation about the

occurrence of different phenomena. Today, rain and other natural aspects can be explained in

scholarly geographical terms and biology can rationally explain the natural creatures and their

anatomy, leaving nothing to chance or traditional belief.

The types of evidence that Weber gives such as the revolution of machines against their

human makers is relevant to the modern society. It is evident that machines such as computers

have overtaken man’s thinking capacity and they are rapidly replacing the human resource as a

necessity in solving problems. Humanity has programmed machines to be more efficient that

man and the effects are felt in the contemporary world. This can be attached to the theory of

social action where the actions of one person are driven by a particular motive, which may

ultimately end up affecting other people. Rationalization has transformed man into an almost-

irrelevant creature as their importance is diminishing with the evolution of calculability and

rationality. As a sociological scholar, his method is suitable for his study because it is in line

with the study of human behavior and how it affects the society.

Comparing Weber’s Theories With Marx and Durkheim Theories

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim are three of the most critical sociologists

who have shaped the study of sociology to what it is today with their theoretical approaches.

Weber’s theories such as the theory of rationalization can be compared to the other scholars’

approaches because they each had a different perception of the society. For Karl Marx, the

society’s main reason for existing is to fulfill people’s needs and the process of material

production holds all societies together. Marx looks at the modern industrial society as a largely

capitalist entity that emerged from feudalism and comprises of two classes of people. The first

class is the bourgeoisie who own all the factors of material production and are the minority while

the second class is made up of the majority working class, proletariats, whose services are

purchased through wages.

Contrastingly, Durkheim believes that cohesion and division of labor, which define the

primitive and the modern societies, characterize the society. Essentially, division of labor entails

the breaking up of a large task into smaller units and allocating it to different specialized workers

to complete them. He argues that primitive societies have very little division of labor and as a

result, there is minimal differentiation in the types of tasks that people engage in. Conversely, a

maximum division of labor characterizes the modern society such that people’s interactions are

dictated by the functions they perform for each other. In this sense, mutual dependence or

organic solidarity unites the society bringing about the necessary cohesion. These theories

attempt to explain the nature of the society, but they are less convincing than Weber’s.

Using Weber’s definition, we are living in modern society because there are many

examples of his rationalization idea happening now. For example, most countries have adopted

the legal-rational authority in which the people elect their leaders, and only the legal laws

governing the nation can uphold their legitimacy as well as their leadership term limits. This is

unlike the traditional setting where kings, chiefs, and emperors ruled for many years, and their

leadership was hereditary with no term limits and they were communally accepted by the people.

Additionally, almost everything has been automated today, and people use computers and

machines for most of their tasks including transportation, food processing, and many others. It is

fair to say that rationalization has both its positive and negative aspects but in a broad sense, it is

not good for society. Weber was right for being pessimistic about rationalization because it is the

root of most of the problems the society suffers from today.



Breuer, S., & Maier, R. C. (1982). The Illusion of Politics: Politics and Rationalization in Max

Weber and Georg Lukács. New German Critique, 55-79.

Whimster, S., & Lash, S. (Eds.). (2014). Max Weber, Rationality and Modernity. Routledge.