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Weber and Formal Rationality

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  • 0:01 Max Weber
  • 0:39 Tradition & Formal Rationality
  • 1:34 Formal Rationality &…
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

According to Weber, people in modern societies favor formal rationality, a way of thinking that emphasizes a matter-of-fact calculation of the most efficient way to accomplish a task. Let's learn more about this topic in this video lesson!

Max Weber

Max Weber is arguably the most influential figure in sociological theory. Born in Germany in 1864 to a middle class family, he was educated at the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg and was trained primarily in law. His influence is widespread: he contributed to the disciplines of economics, political science, and religious studies. From a sociological perspective, his two most celebrated pieces of work are the 'rationalization thesis' and the 'Protestant Work Ethic' concept. In this lesson we will examine his views on formal rationality.

Tradition & Formal Rationality

Max Weber's main interest was in why modern Western societies had developed so differently than other societies. He also emphasized the importance of cultural ideas and values on social change. Weber believed that preindustrial societies are bound by tradition, or those values and beliefs that are passed down from generation to generation. Certain things are considered to be right just because they have been accepted for so long. People in modern societies, however, were said to favor formal rationality, or a way of thinking that emphasizes a matter-of-fact calculation of the most efficient way to accomplish a task.

People in rational, modern societies calculate potential rewards and consequences of their choices, evaluating colleges, job choices, and even relationships. Weber pointed to the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution as evidence of the rationalization of society, or the change from tradition to rationality as the main type of human thinking.

Formal Rationality & Social Organization

Basically, Weber argued that rationality is the main driving force behind capitalism and industrialization. According to Weber, there are seven different characteristics of rational social organization:

  1. Distinctive social institutions
  2. Large-scale organizations
  3. Specialized jobs
  4. Self discipline
  5. Awareness of time
  6. Technical competence
  7. Impersonality

Weber argued that the first characteristic of a rational society is its distinctive social institutions. As societies become more modern, new institutions start to appear, such as hospitals, schools, banks, and so forth. Weber would argue that these institutions are a rational way to meet human needs.

Similarly, rationality can also be seen in the spread of large-scale organizations. In today's modern society, most people work for large formal organizations, such as corporations, governments, or non-profit associations. Within these large-scale organizations and throughout society, people are also more likely to have specialized jobs. There are hundreds of thousands of different jobs in modern societies, ranging from farmers and construction workers to video game designers and technology marketers to fast food cooks and grocery store clerks to industrial chemists and astrophysicists.

Modern societies put a premium on self discipline as well. Self discipline is emphasized and encouraged by our cultural values of success and achievement. In a modern society, time is money. Modern people schedule events by the minute, illustrating our growing awareness of time.

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