Rationalization (sociology)

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In sociology, rationalization or rationalisation refers to the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society with rational, calculated ones.


  • It is above all the impersonal and economically rationalized (but for this very reason ethically irrational) character of purely commercial relationships that evokes the suspicion, never clearly expressed but all the more strongly felt, of ethical religions. For every purely personal relationship of man to man, of whatever sort and even including complete enslavement, may be subjected to ethical requirements and ethically regulated. This is true because the structures of these relationships depend upon the individual wills of the participants, leaving room in such relations for manifestations of the virtue of charity. But this is not the situation in the realm of economically rationalised relationships, where personal control is exercised in inverse ratio to the degree of rational differentiation of the economic structure.

Sung Ho Kim, "Max Weber" (2012)


Sung Ho Kim, "Max Weber", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

  • At the outset, what immediately strikes a student of Weber's rationalization thesis is its seeming irreversibility and Eurocentrism.[...] Taken together, then, the rationalization process as Weber narrated it seems quite akin to a metahistorical teleology that irrevocably sets the West apart from and indeed above the East. [...] It was meant as a comparative-conceptual platform on which to erect the edifying features of rationalization in the West. If merely a heuristic device and not a universal law of progress, then, what is rationalization and whence comes his uncompromisingly dystopian vision?
  • On a more analytical plateau, all these disparate processes of rationalization can be surmised as increasing knowledge, growing impersonality, and enhanced control. [...] First, knowledge. Rational action in one very general sense presupposes knowledge. It requires some knowledge of the ideational and material circumstances in which our action is embedded, since to act rationally is to act on the basis of conscious reflection about the probable consequences of action. [...] Second, impersonality. Rationalization, according to Weber, entails objectification (Versachlichung). Industrial capitalism, for one, reduces workers to sheer numbers in an accounting book, completely free from the fetters of tradition and non-economic considerations, and so does the market relationship vis-à-vis buyers and sellers. For another, having abandoned the principle of Khadi justice (i.e., personalized ad hoc adjudication), modern law and administration also rule in strict accordance with the systematic formal codes and sine irae et studio, that is, “without regard to person.” […] Third, control. Pervasive in Weber's view of rationalization is the increasing control in social and material life. […] Weber saw the irony that a modern individual citizen equipped with inviolable rights was born as a part of the rational, disciplinary ethos that increasingly penetrated into every aspect of social life.
  • Weber envisions the future of rationalization not only in terms of “mechanized petrification,” but also of a chaotic, even atrophic, inundation of subjective values. In other words, the bureaucratic “iron cage” is only one side of the modernity that rationalization has brought about; the other is a “polytheism” of value-fragmentation. At the apex of rationalization, we moderns have suddenly found ourselves living “as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons” [Weber 1919/1946, 148]. Modern Western society is, Weber seems to say, once again enchanted as a result of disenchantment. How did this happen and with what consequences?
  • It makes sense that Weber's rationalization thesis concludes with two strikingly dissimilar prophecies — one is the imminent iron cage of bureaucratic petrification and the other, the Hellenistic pluralism of warring deities. The modern world has come to be monotheistic and polytheistic all at once. What seems to underlie this seemingly self-contradictory imagery of modernity is the problem of modern humanity (Menschentum) and its loss of freedom and moral agency. Disenchantment has created a world with no objectively ascertainable ground for one's conviction. Under the circumstances, according to Weber, a modern individual tends to act only on one's own aesthetic impulse and arbitrary convictions that cannot be communicated in the eventuality; the majority of those who cannot even act on their convictions, or the “last men who invented happiness” à la Nietzsche, lead the life of a “cog in a machine.”
  • To summarize, the irony with which Weber accounted for rationalization was driven by the deepening tension between modernity and modernization. Weber's problem with modernity originates from the fact that it required a historically unique constellation of cultural values and social institutions, and yet, modernization has effectively undermined the cultural basis for modern individualism and its germinating ground of disciplinary society, which together had given the original impetus to modernity. The modern project has fallen victim to its own success, and in peril is the individual moral agency and freedom.

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