Max Weber's work has had a profound impact on sociology. In this lesson, we define and discuss his theory of rationalization and how it has changed social groups and society as a whole over time. We also discuss Weber's other related theories of Verstehen and the iron cage.
Note: For the purposes of this video, the instructor is using American pronunciations.
Max Weber and Verstehen
Why do people act differently in each of their social groups? How have social groups, formal organizations, and society as a whole changed with time? These are questions that Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, would ask. He thought of sociology as a science of social action. Weber believed that understanding why people do the things they do is the basic building block of sociology, a concept he termed Verstehen. He believed that sociologists should not just study a group of people but also try to gain an empathetic understanding for the individuals in that group.
I'm sure you've heard the phrase 'put yourself in his shoes' or 'walk a mile in each other's shoes.' This common sentiment illustrates what Verstehen is all about: gaining an understanding of social action from the insider's point of view in order to better understand the interactions within a group and the group's purpose. This, in turn, helps to explain how groups of people make sense of the world around them, how they fit into society as a whole, and how they've helped society evolve over time.
The rationalization of society is seen in scientific study, capitalism and government bureaucracy.
Think about the technological advances we've made just in the last decade. If you were to travel back in time and introduce the same technology hundreds of years sooner, the people of that time period would likely think it was magic. In fact, I'm sure you learned in history class - or even by watching TV - that many traditions of ancient societies were practiced because of a belief that everyday phenomena were supernatural occurrences. In our modern society, however, we attribute the same phenomena to simple science.
Weber introduced the concept of rationalization to explain how Western society has shifted from a mystic or traditional orientation to a more rational orientation. Rationalization is the process of replacing traditional and emotional thought with reason and practicality. Weber believed that most societies throughout history were governed by tradition and that the most significant trend in modern sociology is an increasing rationalization of every part of our daily lives. The rise of scientific study, the development of capitalism, and the introduction of bureaucracy into government over the last 200 years or so are all large examples of this trend.
We can look at additional evidence just in the last few generations. For example, how did you or would you choose which college to attend? If you chose a college for its ability to prepare you for a desired profession, you would be using rational thought to make your decision. On the other hand, if you were to choose a college simply because your parents and grandparents went there, you would be using traditional thought to make your decision. As rationalization continues to occur in our society, more and more college students use rational thought over the traditional thought of past generations.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to the continued rationalization of our society. Weber believed that a bureaucracy - a rigid, formalized organizational structure - was, for the most part, an example of an advantage or positive consequence of rationalization. According to him, the characteristics of an ideal bureaucracy made it the most stable type of organization. As a result, bureaucratic systems are capable of handling more complex operations than traditional systems, which has helped our society grow and advance.
We use practical rationality when deciding what to eat or what to wear.
A disadvantage or negative consequence of rationalization and bureaucracy is what Weber termed the iron cage, which he described as a social order so organized and rational that it traps people inside an invisible prison. In other words, society is continually rationalized until it prohibits individual freedom, expression, and potential. If you've ever seen 'Doctor Who,' you can think of the iron cage as the society the Cybermen try to create. Everything about the world is uniform, and there is no tolerance for individuality.
Types of Rationality
Weber identified four types of rationality that we all use: practical, theoretical, substantive, and formal. Practical rationality is used to complete daily tasks and activities in a practical way. It helps us decide on the best course of action for each event in our lives. You use practical rationality when deciding what to eat for each meal and what to wear every day.
Theoretical rationality is more abstract and involves logical deduction. It is used to conceptualize and understand the world around us. You use theoretical rationality when learning a new, abstract concept and when using deductive and inductive reasoning.
Substantive rationality is used to make choices between right and wrong, based on our own values. You use substantive rationality when opening the door for someone and volunteering for a nonprofit organization.
Similarly, formal rationality is also used to choose between right and wrong. However, instead of basing the decision on morality and values, it is based on rules, regulations, and laws. You use formal rationality when obeying the speed limit and paying taxes.
Formal rationality is what we use when following rules, regulations and laws.
It is on this last type of rationality that Weber's concept of rationalization is based. His fear was that formal rationality was becoming more and more dominant in our society and substantive rationality was declining in importance. For example, formal rationality tends to be impersonal, and rules are frequently followed for their own sake. Weber feared that this would become so common that people would assume it always made the most sense to follow the standard procedure. This would choke innovation and individuality and result in the iron cage.
In summary, Max Weber believed that Verstehen, which is the method of understanding why people act the way they do, is the building block of sociology. Studying motivation helps us to understand the action of people in their social groups, which then helps us understand how and why society has changed over time.
One of the biggest changes that Weber identified was the continued rationalization of society. Rationalization is the process of replacing traditional and emotional thought with reason and practicality. The rise of scientific study and the development of capitalism and bureaucracy provide evidence of this trend. Although rationalization has resulted in technological advances and more efficient operations, Weber feared that it would eventually result in an iron cage, with a dehumanized, uniform society.
Once you have finished this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Identify Max Weber and describe Verstehen
- Summarize the concept of rationalization as well as its advantages and disadvantages
- Name and define the four types of rationality