China in Transition #2
Rationalization in Sociology…
In sociology, rationalization refers to the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society with rational,calculated ones. For example, the implementation of bureaucracies in government is a kind of rationalization, as is the construction of high-efficiency living spaces in architecture and urban planning.
Many sociologists, critical theorists and contemporary philosophers have argued that rationalization, as falsely assumed progress, has a negative and dehumanizing effect on society, moving modernity away from the central tenets of enlightenment. The founders of sociology were acting as a critical reaction to rationalization:
“Marx and Engels associated the emergence of modern society above all with the development of capitalism; for Durkheim it was connected in particular with industrialization and the new social division of labour which this brought about; for Weber it had to do with the emergence of a distinctive way of thinking, the rational calculation which he associated with the Protestant Ethic (more or less what Marx and Engels speak of in terms of those ‘icy waves of egotistical calculation’).”
— John Harriss The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century 1992
Rationalization formed a central concept in the foundation of classical sociology, particularly with respect to the emphasis the discipline placed – by contrast with anthropology – on the nature of modern Western societies. The term was presented by the profoundly influential German antipositivist, Max Weber, though its themes bear parallel with the critiques of modernity set forth by a number of scholars. A rejection of dialectism and sociocultural evolution informs the concept.
Weber demonstrated rationalization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which the aims of certain Protestant Theologies, particularly Calvinism, are shown to have shifted towards rational means of economic gain as a way of dealing with their ‘salvation anxiety’. 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.
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 underrational-legal systems. For example, democratic systems attempt to remedy qualitative concerns (such as racial discrimination) with rationalized, quantitative means (for example,civil rightslegislation). 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.
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.