Rationalization (sociology)

Rationalization (sociology)

In sociology, rationalization is the process whereby an increasing number of social actions and interactions become based on considerations of efficiency or calculation rather than on motivations derived from custom, tradition, or emotion. It is conceived of as a core part of modernization and as manifested especially in behavior in the capitalist market; rational administration of the state and bureaucracy; the extension of modern science; and the expansion of modern technology. Some (such as the Frankfurt School) have argued that the spread of rationalization based on calculation and efficiency dehumanizes society.

Max Weber began his studies of rationalization in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", in which he shows how the aims of certain Protestant denominations, particularly Calvinism, shifted towards rational means of economic gain as a way of dealing with their anxiety about whether they had been saved. 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.

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.

Rationalization in the post-modern world

Examples of rationalization in the modern world abound, and a comprehensive list would be infeasible. Following is a list of some of general rational trends.

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. [ 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. ] 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.


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.


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).

tructures of authority

Max 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.

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).

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.

Effects of rationalization

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.


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