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May 1, 2018 / C H Thompson

Max Weber

Max Weber (1864-1920) argued modern industrial and capitalist societies are structured on rationalisation. This means the world is governed by rationality. Rationality are processes or decisions based on logic.

In the social world rationality becomes evident in bureaucratic structure, legitimate authority based on rational legal processes. This rationality is evident in the way Weber saw power operating in society.

Weber grew increasingly concerned that rationality would undermine the more human and unpredictability aspects of the social world.

The traditional or technical rationality model of science was linked with the general form of reasoning which Weber termed “zweckrationalitat” or “instrumental rationality” which is central to rationalisation.

Instrumental rationality is concerned with calculable expectations and, within the general sphere of instrumental rationality, the selection of the most adequate means to achieve a given end can be assessed in terms of its objective rationality – that is scientifically. Instrumental rationality is distinguished from “wertrationalitat” or “value rationality” which is oriented to consciously upheld values.

As instrumental rationality comes to dominate, in the process of modernisation, values and ends are effectively excluded from the framework of rationality.

Freed from the external constraint of values (historically the Protestant ethic’) productivity, the hallmark of industrial capitalism, coupled with scientific and technological progress, becomes an end in itself as opposed to a means whereby independently established human needs may be satisfied.

The overall effect is to construct a complex ‘iron cage’ of bureaucratic rules and regulations geared to calculable economic efficiency. At the beginning of the twentieth century Weber wrote:

‘No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, whether new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanised petrification, embellished with a sort of compulsive self-importance. For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart: this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved (1974, p. 182).’

Nowhere are Weber’s concerns more evident than in McDonaldisation of work as well as Fordism and Taylorism.


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