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Weber's Concept of Rationalization

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1413 words Published: 4th Oct 2017

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Rationalization and Weber’s Possible Interpretations

Rationalization is not a term that Max Weber defined in his book Modernity and Society. However, it is possible to speculate that the most plausible interpretation for what Weber meant by rationalization is, the replacement of traditional ways of doing things with new calculated ways. Two examples of these calculated ways of doing things can be seen in his writings on capitalism and bureaucracy; in which he highlights that capitalism has changed the economic structure of the West and bureaucracy, has changed the organizational structure in the West. One alternative interpretation that can also be taken from his book is that rationalization is the advancement of scientific reasoning through empirical evidence; which is a shift from previous emphasis on just spiritualism and mysticism. This paper will demonstrate that his interpretation does not hold much foundation in Weber’s writing and in fact, the most likely interpretation is the one regarding a shift to more calculated ways of doing.

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For Weber, calculation of human actions comes up immensely in his writing, and this ability to calculate and move from old traditional norms can be seen in the rise of capitalism and bureaucracy. Human beings systematic shift from bartering goods to a more sophisticated and logical way created a capitalistic society. Weber’s claim that capitalism is the essence of rationalization can be seen when he states “Also capitalist businessmen, not only as occasional entrepreneurs but as persons oriented permanently to business, have been ancient, enduring, and highly universal figures” (Weber, p. 57). He is referring to the old ways business was done which was not sufficient enough to survive in a more progressive Westernized world in which capitalism replaced it because it is a more rational way of viewing the economy. This is quite significant because he touches upon the theme of calculating the market and using that to one’s advantage to better understand the economy. A supporter of the scientific interpretation might state that capitalism is not in fact a better way of organization because it causes many problems for individuals such as the inequalities that it produces. Thus might add, science through empirical evidence helps individuals unlike capitalism. While capitalism existed in places like China and in the Middle Ages it did not have the “spirit” as Weber describes it. This spirit that Weber speaks of is to have a duty to prosper through financial gains. When capitalism does prosper it is because individuals accept internal a certain way for doing things and realize that a capitalist society is right for them to achieve their goals and desires. He says “commercialisation would not have existed if capitalist-rational organization of work had not been there. One reason is rationalization is the enhancement of capitalism; it is the improvement of capitalist industrial firm.”(Weber, p.18). This illustrates his profound confidence in capitalism as rationalization, which is a shift to more systematic calculated ways of thinking about and doing actions.

Another example that can be used to support the calculated ways interpretation is Weber’s writings on bureaucracy. Bureaucracy’s ability to handle the tasks of an increasingly complex society with relative ease, has significantly changed the social life of individuals. Weber highlights the superiority of the bureaucratic system when he writes “the decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization”(Weber, p.198). In a sense, Weber is praising bureaucracy with the formulation of a structural hierarchy chain of command that makes time more efficient and individuals know what goals must be accomplished as opposed to the old ways of doing things where the structure was not as defined. One might say that Weber does not support this because he states “Bureaucracy both in business offices and in public service, promotes the rise of a specific status group, just as did the quite different officeholders of the past” (Weber, p.202). Weber is stating that bureaucracy is nothing different from the old ways of doing things because it creates a hierarchy where individuals are still at the bottom. At first glance this might present a reasonable challenge but after further analysis, its flaw is evident. This would not be a sufficient argument because Weber states “according to all constitutions he can be dismissed or resign at any time”( Weber , p.204), the “he” Weber is referring to is a high official in a bureaucratic system. He essential debunks the argument raised that bureaucracy creates a hierarchical society that individuals will always be able to retain their power. When in actuality unlike the traditional ways where power was secure and did not fluctuate, bureaucracies are deeply infringed in Western legal systems that inhibit people from keeping their power if that majority wants them out. The reality is that because of the effortless movement of ideals and people, bureaucracy enables individuals to cooperate in an efficient manner, which is a result of rational behaviour. Weber accepting the bureaucracy has had a tremendous impact on his entire writing because from a sociological perspective, it allows individuals to work together more harmoniously because of the constant flow of activity as previously described.

In a traditional society, human beings were focused on mysticism and spiritualism as a means of discovering everything in their surroundings and as a result they lacked comprehensive knowledge of their environment. An alternative interpretation to what rationalization might have meant to Weber is that it is the move from spiritual and mystical ways of seeing the world to a more scientific and empirical way of understanding our surroundings. A scientific interpretation might be seen as plausible because Weber’s admiration for science can be seen when he states “Every scientific “fulfillment” raises new “questions”; it asks to be “surpassed” and “out-dated“ (Weber, p.56). This is a very relevant reason for this interpretation because with scientific rise, one is able to ask more insightful questions than previously thought of. However, a disadvantage to an individual taking this interpretation is that although Weber supports scientific reasoning, he does not believe that it is only unique to Western society. “Empirical knowledge, reflection on the world and the problems of life, philosophical and theological wisdom of the deepest kind extraordinarily refined knowledge observation – all this existed outside the West” (Weber, p.53). This raises a huge flaw in rationalization with this interpretation because if rationalization is the move from better ways of thinking and more systematic calculable ways, then why would other individuals than the West develop it? A more unique perspective is to adopt the first interpretation where capitalism and bureaucracy are primarily found in the West. Weber, throughout the chapter entitled Scientific Vocation, makes reference to science not being able to answer the questions that govern a person’s regular life and it falls short in this area. Weber, a sociologist, would be primarily interested in the social aspects of rationalization – something that science does not offer an answer to. The scientific interpretation would not be a suitable explanation for what Weber meant by rationalization.

It is clear that Weber did not provide a direct definition for what rationalization meant. However, it is possible to conclude that because of his strong interest in capitalism and bureaucracy, he meant rationalization is the ability to calculate and systematically change the world. Although some might propose the alternative interpretation that Weber might have meant that rationalization is the transformation from mysticism thinking in the world of how religion used to be and towards more scientific knowledge. This interpretation would not be a substantive one to explain the other forms of rationalization that Weber describes throughout his book.


Weber, M. (2005). Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity. S. Kalberg (Ed.).

Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.


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