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In sociology, rationalization is the process whereby an increasing number of social actions and interactions become based on considerations of teleological efficiency or calculation rather than on motivations derived from custom, tradition, or emotion. It is regarded as a central aspect of modernity, manifested especially in Western society; as a behaviour of the capitalist market; of rational administration in the state and bureaucracy; of the extension of modern science; and of the expansion of modern technology.

Many sociologists, critical theorists and contemporary philosophers have argued that the spread of rationalization has a dehumanizing effect on Western society, moving modernity away from the central tenets of enlightenment.[1] Sociology itself arose primarily as a critical reaction to it:

Marx and Engels associated the emergence of modern society above all with the development of capitalism; for Durkheim it was connected in particular with industrialization and the new social division of labour which this brought about; for Weber it had to do with the emergence of a distinctive way of thinking, the rational calculation which he associated with the Protestant Ethic (more or less what Marx and Engels speak of in terms of those 'icy waves of egotistical calculation').

John Harriss The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century 1992, [2]


Rationalization, capitalism, and modernity

Rationalization forms a central concept in sociology, particularly in relation to the emphasis classical theory took (in contrast to anthropology) regarding the nature of modern Western societies. The concept is significant on three levels: "At the level Habermas calls empirical-theoretical, it asks if 'the modernization of society can be described from the standpoint of cultural and societal rationalization'. At a theoretical level, sociological action schemes have been mainly oriented to capturing the contrast between community and society (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft) and the rationalization of conduct in that sense. At a metatheoretical level, the understanding of rational action became the reference point for understanding all action orientations, and hence the cutting edge of verstehende sociology" [3]

Max Weber demonstrated rationalization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which the aims of certain Protestant denominations, particularly Calvinism, are shown to have shifted towards rational means of economic gain as a way of dealing with their 'salvation anxiety'. The rational consequences of this doctrine, he argued, soon grew incompatible with its religious roots, and so the latter were eventually discarded. Weber continues his investigation into this matter in later works, notably in his studies on bureaucracy and on the classifications of authority. In these works he alludes to an inevitable move towards rationalization.

Weber believed that a move towards rational-legal authority was inevitable. In charismatic authority, the death of a leader effectively ends the power of that authority, and only through a rationalized and bureaucratic base can this authority be passed on. Traditional authorities in rationalized societies also tend to develop a rational-legal base to better ensure a stable accession.

What Weber depicted was not only the secularization of Western culture, but also and especially the development of modern societies from the viewpoint of rationalization. The new structures of society were marked by the differentiation of the two functionally intermeshing systems that had taken shape around the organizational cores of the capitalist enterprise and the bureaucratic state apparatus. Weber understood this process as the institutionalization of purposive-rational economic and administrative action. To the degree that everyday life was affected by this cultural and societal rationalization, tradional forms of life - which in the early modern period were differentated primarily according to one's trade - were dissolved.

Jürgen Habermas Modernity's Consciousness of Time, [4]

Whereas in traditional societies such as feudalism governing is managed under the traditional leadership of, for example, a queen or tribal chief, modern societies operate under rational-legal systems. For example, democratic systems attempt to remedy qualitative concerns (such as racial discrimination) with rationalized, quantitative means (for example, civil rights legislation). Weber described the eventual effects of rationalization in his Economy and Society as leading to a "polar night of icy darkness", in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in an "iron cage" (or "steel-hard casing") of rule-based, rational control.

Jürgen Habermas has argued that to understand rationalization properly requires going beyond Weber's notion of rationalization and distinguishing between instrumental rationality, which involves calculation and efficiency (in other words, reducing all relationships to those of means and ends), and communicative rationality, which involves expanding the scope of mutual understanding in communication, the ability to expand this understanding through reflective discourse about communication, and making social and political life subject to this expanded understanding. Habermas' The Theory of Communicative Action blends the structural thought of Marxism with Weber's concern for the 'iron cage' of Western rationality. He is critical of Weber's agent-centered theory, however, reconciling the dilemma in a manner reminiscent of Talcott Parsons' action theory. For Habermas, rationalization is also significant with respect to the idea of "scientism"; that is, science as ideology.

It is clear that in The Theory of Communicative Action Weber is playing something like the role that Hegel played for Marx. Weber, for Habermas, must be not so much stood on his head (or put back the right way up) as persuaded to stand on two legs rather than one, to support his theory of modernity with more systematic and structural analyses than those of the (purposive-rational) rationalization of action ... Weber 'parts company with a theory of communicative action' when he defines action in terms of the actor attaching a subjective meaning to it. He does not elucidate "meaning" in connection with the model of speech; he does not relate it to the linguistic medium of possible understanding, but to the beliefs and intentions of an acting subject, taken to being with in isolation. This leads him to his familiar distinction between value-rational, purposive-rational, traditional and affectual action. What weber should have done instead was to concentrate not on orientations of action but on the general structures of the lifeworld to which acting subjects belong.

William Outhwaite Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers 1988, [5]


McDonald's has set the pace for rationalization in the fast food industry.

Consumption of food also has taken on some of these attributes. Where food preparation in more traditional societies is more laborious and technically inefficient, modern society has striven towards speed and precision in its delivery, particularly with the advent of fast food. Fast-food restaurants have striven for efficiency ever since their conception, and continue to do so. This has been accomplished in several ways, including stricter control of its worker's actions, the replacement of more complicated systems with simpler, less time-consuming ones, the use of unsightly furniture to discourage loitering, simple numbered systems of value meals, and the addition of drive-through windows.

Rationalization is also observable in the replacement of more traditional stores, which may offer 'subjective' advantages to consumers, such as a less regulated, more natural environment, with modern stores offering the 'objective' advantage of lower prices to consumers. The case of Wal-Mart is one strong example demonstrating this transition. While Wal-Marts have attracted considerable criticism for effectively displacing more traditional stores, these 'subjective' social-value concerns have held minimal effectiveness in limiting expansion of the enterprise, particularly in more rationalized nations.

The sociologist George Ritzer has used the term McDonaldization to refer, not just to the actions of the fast food restaurant, but to the general process of rationalization. Ritzer distinguishes four primary components of McDonaldization:

  • Efficiency – the optimal method for accomplishing a task; the fastest method to get from point A to point B. Efficiency in McDonaldization means that every aspect of the organization is geared toward the minimization of time.[6]
  • Calculability – objective are quantifiable (i.e., sales, money) rather than subjective (i.e., taste, labour). McDonaldization developed the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high quality product. [6]
  • Predictabilitystandardized and uniform services. "Predictability" means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product at every interaction with the corporation. This also applies to the workers in those organizations; their tasks are highly repetitive and predictable routines.[6]
  • Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies.


As capitalism itself is a rationalized economic policy, so is the process of commercialization it utilizes in order to increase sales. Most holidays, for instance, were created out of a religious context or in celebration of some past event. However, in rationalized societies these traditional values are increasingly diminished and the aim shifts from the qualitative aim of a meaningful celebration to the more quantitative aim of increasing sales.

In the United States, for example, most major holidays now are represented by rationalized, secularized figures which serve as a corporate totem. In more traditional environments, gifts are more often hand-crafted works which hold some symbolic meaning. This qualitative value of gifts diminishes in rationalized societies, where individuals often offer hints or speak directly about what present they are interested in receiving. In these societies, the value of a gift is more likely to be weighed by objective measures (i.e. monetary value) than subjective (i.e. symbolism).

Further objects of rationalization


Human body

One rational tendency is towards increasing the efficiency and output of the human body. Several means can be employed in reaching this end, including trends towards regular exercise, dieting, increased hygiene, drugs, and an emphasis on optimal nutrition. These allow for stronger, leaner, more optimized bodies for quickly performing tasks. [7] Another derivative of this is towards maintaining a certain level of physical attraction. Processes such as the combing of hair, use of a fragrance, having an appropriate haircut, and wearing certain clothes receive calculated use, that of giving off a certain impression to other individuals.

Another trend is in the bureaucratization of processes that formerly might have been done through the home. This includes the use of hospitals for childbirth and the use of doctors to identify symptoms of an illness and to prescribe treatment.


Rationalized education tends to focus less on subjects based around the use of critical discourse (for instance, philosophy) and more on matters of a calculated importance (such as business administration). This is reflected also in the move towards standardized and multiple choice testing, which measures students on the basis of numbered answers and against a uniform standard.

See also


  1. ^ Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press (1985), ISBN 0-7456-0830-2, p2
  2. ^ Harriss, John. The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century in Allen, T. and Thomas, Alan (eds) Poverty and Development in the 21st Century', Oxford University Press, Oxford. p325.
  3. ^ Outhwaite, William, 1988 Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Polity Press (Second Edition 2009), ISBN 9780745643281 p.68
  4. ^ Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Polity Press (1985), ISBN 0-7456-0830-2, p2
  5. ^ Outhwaite, William, 1988 Habermas: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Polity Press (Second Edition 2009), ISBN 9780745643281 p.76
  6. ^ a b c Ritzer, George (2008). The McDonaldization of Society. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press. ISBN 0-7619-8812-2.  
  7. ^ See Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality (subtitle: The Care of the Self, vol. 3), which identifies this rationalization as emerging from capitalist ideologies vis à vis control of workers (i.e., in this case, specifically, their bodies) for the rigors of commerce and the marketplace.

Further Reading

  • Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton, London: Routledge, 1973
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and The Holocaust. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1989. ISBN 0-8014-2397-X
  • Green, Robert W. (ed.). Protestantism, Capitalism, and Social Science. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1973.


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