Herbert Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology|
Max Weber [1864-1920]
The Irrationality Factor (Part 1)
An excerpt from Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change
By Frank W. Elwell
Weber makes a distinction between zweckrational or “formal rationality” and wertrational or “substantive rationality.” Weber uses the term “formal rationality” to refer to simple means-ends rational calculation. You have a goal and you take rational steps—that is steps that are based on past experience, observation, logic, or science—to attain that goal. The concept of “substantive rationality,” on the other hand, refers to goal oriented rational action within the context of ultimate ends or values. “The concept of ‘substantive rationality,’ on the other hand, is full of ambiguities. It conveys only one element common to all ‘substantive’ analyses: namely, that they do not restrict themselves to note the purely formal and (relatively) unambiguous fact that an action is based on ‘goal-oriented’ rational calculation with the technically most adequate methods, but apply certain criteria of ultimate ends whether they be ethical, political, utilitarian, hedonistic, feudal (standisch), egalitarian, or whatever they may be against these scales of ‘value rationality’ or ‘substantive goal rationality’”(Weber 1921/1968, 85-86). Substantive rationality is holistic thinking focused upon problem solving within a system of values as opposed to the specialized, technical thinking that dominates the age. Bureaucratic organizations, whether of the corporate or the government variety, are very much based on formal rationality, their hierarchically ranked offices filled by officers of narrow specialty and authority guided in their decision making and actions by rules and precedent.
Weber’s rationalization process does not translate well to the American ear. The term “rationalization” itself is often confused in the American mind with the more common meaning of giving superficially plausible reasons or excuses to your behavior that serve to cover up the real causes. The German term “zweckrational,” defined as goal-oriented rational behavior based on observation and logic, does not have a good English equivalent. The same goes for “wertrational,” or goal-oriented rational action in relation to values or ultimate ends. Weber also used the somewhat simpler terms “formal” and “substantive” rationality to get at the same contrast in types of thought.
And so, sociologists like me clunk Weber’s terms into a sentence whole and continue to hope that we can reach a few. C. Wright Mills tried a different course. Ignoring Weber’s German terminology, Mills (1959) makes a simple distinction between rationality and reason. He asserts that by their participation in bureaucratic organizations individuals lose their ability to control their own actions and are forced to submit to the rational rules of the organization. The individual is thereby guided not by her conscious reason—with all its attendant human emotions, social traditions, and conflicting values—but rather by the prescribed rationalized rules and procedures of the organization itself. “It is not too much to say that in the extreme development the chance to reason of most men is destroyed, as rationality increases and its locus, its control, is moved from the individual to the big-scale organization. There is then rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom but the destroyer of it” (170). This middle-course of using colloquial English terms seems valuable to me, but I do not think Mills chose his terminology wisely. There is a better way of expressing Weber’s theory of the irrationality of rationalization in English.
I suggest that formal rationality is better translated into English as technocratic thinking, substantive rationality as critical thinking. Weber’s rationalization theory is that modernity promotes the growing dominance of technocratic thinking at the expense of critical thinking; as bureaucracy comes to dominate modern society, it becomes the dominant motivating force—a mode of thought that becomes part of our very being. Further, Weber maintained that even though a bureaucracy is highly rational in the formal sense of technical efficiency, it does not follow that it is also rational in the substantive sense of the moral acceptability of its goals or the means used to achieve them. Nor does an exclusive focus on the goals of the organization necessarily coincide with the broader goals of society as a whole. It often happens that the single-minded pursuit of practical goals can actually undermine the foundations of the organization or even of the social order. What is good for the bureaucracy in the short-term is not always good for the society as a whole--and often, in the long term, is not good for the bureaucracy either. As bureaucracy grows in power and scope around us, as the social world becomes ever more rationalized, that is as formal rationalization becomes more prevalent, substantive rationality takes less and less of a role in human affairs. But still, the precision and punch of Weber’s rationalization theory often seems to be lost in translation.
Higher education is fond of claiming that one of its major goals is teaching critical thinking. But critical thinking is tough to define—one of those qualities that you may know when you see it but difficult to put into words. I once had to attend a workshop on critical thinking at my previous university. They brought in a big-name philosophy professor from Vanderbilt University to run the workshop on a Saturday, and mandated that all faculty show up for the services. The professor was giving several definitions of critical thinking, none of which I really understood (he was a philosopher, after all). Finally, I asked him for an example of critical thinking and this is what he told us: “A man out in California invented a tomato picker. The picker was designed to cut tomato vines, shake the tomatoes loose, spray wash them, place them on a conveyor belt where the poorer quality tomatoes would be removed by hand and then the conveyor belt would drop them into a wagon that followed. However, there was a problem: to clear the machine the tomato had to withstand an impact of 15 miles an hour into the wagon. They tried several adjustments to the machine but just could not solve the problem. Finally, the Vanderbilt professor said, a critical thinker came along with the solution: he developed a tomato that could withstand a 15 mile an hour impact.” Even at the time I thought that this was a poor example. Rather than critical thinking it seemed to me to be more an example of problem solving, or what many would call “technocratic thinking.”
Since that time I have done a little research on the issue and found that the Vanderbilt professor made several errors. First off, it was not a tomato picker, the correct name is tomato harvester—though I still use the term picker because that is how I have come to think of it. He was also in error in that it was not simple problem solving, but a series of problem solving steps. In fact, the mechanical harvester was the result of work by “a team made up of an engineering group and a horticultural group, with advice and assistance from agronomists and irrigation specialists [that] developed suitable plants and an efficient harvester at the same time” (Rasmussen 1968, 532-533). To accommodate the mechanical picker the technologists not only had to develop a tomato that could withstand a 15 mile and hour impact, but it also had to be resistant to bruising. As traditional fields were harvested by hand several times as they ripened, all the tomatoes in the field to be picked mechanically had to ripen at about the same time as the machine cut the vines below the ground and would kill the plant with the harvest. As it is not easy to shake a traditional tomato from its vine the technologists had to develop a variety that could easily be shaken loose. For fresh tomatoes, rather than those used for canning or sauces, there were additional problems. Because they were to be shipped all over the country from California, they had to be picked green and then gassed in the packing plant so as to turn red during shipping.
It should also be pointed out that all this problem solving created additional problems for people as well. Because mechanical pickers replaced a lot of manual labor, thousands lost their jobs. Because the machine required large fields and economies of scale to own and operate a mechanical tomato picker, many growers had to sell out or go under. Finally, because California could now supply fresh tomatoes year round for millions of people, the growers entered into long-term contracts with grocery stores throughout the country, thus creating national producers and closing markets for local producers who could only supply tomatoes in season. In other words, simple problem-solving without placing this problem solving in the context of the whole, led to the production of year round tomatoes that have sacrificed a large number of farmers and workers, destroyed many local markets, and sacrificed the tenderness and taste of the tomato itself. Other than that, it has been a complete success.
While problem solving is invaluable, it must be done in a context of values, traditions, and emotions. Critical thinking attempts to analyze situations and solve problems within the context of the whole, within the context of the system. Critical thinking is not really something parents, educators, or religious leaders can teach directly, it has to be modeled, encouraged, and developed over time and experience. However, critical thinking is not conducive to the smooth operation of bureaucracies and is therefore not widespread in hyper-industrial societies.
Wendell Berry (1977) illustrates how the pursuit of technocratic rationality can often undermine the very goals of the bureaucracy itself. American agriculture, Berry writes, has become an extractive industry in which values of productivity and profit have replaced maintenance and care for the land and animals. Farms have progressively become rationalized operations throughout the 20th century. In crop production this rationalization includes a high degree of specialization of farms to the production of a single crop; the use of oversized and ever more specialized mechanical equipment that till, sow, irrigate, and harvest thousands of acres of land; the application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to increase productivity; the use of large amounts of water for irrigation; the scientific manipulation of seeds for their resistance against disease and pests and attributes that will increase yield as well as the profits of the seed companies themselves. For example, “terminator seeds” lead to plants that have had their genes altered so that they produce sterile seeds at harvest, thus preventing farmers from growing their own “seed corn.” This technology was developed by multinational agribusiness companies such as Monsanto based on research that was often funded by the U.S. government. Their marketing and widespread use worldwide would make farmers even more dependent upon agribusiness.
In the last 30 or 40 years rationalization of the farm has been extended into the area of animal husbandry in which animals are specially bred for desirable characteristics such as rapid maturity, heavy weight and large breasts on turkeys and chickens, or resistance to disease and pests. Raised in large concentrations—chicken sheds, intensive piggeries, and cattle feedlots containing thousands—the process is aided by mechanized feeding and waste removal, as well as the liberal administration of drugs to prevent the spread of disease. Further rationalization of agricultural practices can be expected as genetic engineering continues to advance.
This rationalization of agriculture has been done at the expense of farm families and their communities, as well as the wider society. Based on huge amounts of capital for machinery, land, chemicals, seeds, and fuel, industrial agriculture promotes the growing concentration of farmland in order to achieve economies of scale. As a result, those working the land have become a tiny percentage of the population of industrial societies and farm communities and small-towns have become almost nonexistent. The driving force behind this concentration has not been the individual farmer, but rather the collaboration of agribusiness, government bureaucrats, and agricultural scientists of higher education that have promoted this intensification. Consequently, it is their inte rests that have been served in the rationalization of agriculture: maximum productivity of the farm to serve the interests of manufacturers, oil producers, seed distributors, chemical companies, food processors, academic careerists, and bureaucrats.
It is the agricultural universities which perhaps best illustrate how the irrationality factor can sometimes undermine the very purpose of the organization itself. Berry (1979) points out that the Morrill Land-Grant College Act was specifically created to assist the farmer. “The land-grant acts gave to the colleges not just government funds and a commission to teach and do research, but also a purpose which may be generally stated as the preservation of agriculture and rural life” (155). However, university agriculture departments single-mindedly pursued the goal of increased productivity above all else. In doing so these institutions actually destroyed the very clients for which they were created to help.
For a more extensive discussion of Weber's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
©2013 Frank Elwell, Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Elwell, F. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Weber, M. 1903-1917/1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. (E. Shils, H. Finch, Eds., E. Shills, & H. Finch, Trans.) New York: Free Press.
Weber, M. 1904/1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (T. Parsons, Trans.) New York: The Citadel Press.
Weber, M. 1921/1968. Economy and Society. (G. Roth, C. Wittich, Eds., G. Roth, & C. Wittich, Trans.) New York: Bedminster Press.
Weber, M. 1927/2003. General Economic History. (F. Knight, Trans.) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Weber, M. 1946/1958. Essays in Sociology. (H. Gerth and C. Mills, Eds. And Trans.) In M. Weber, H. Gerth, & C. Mills, From Max Weber. New York: Oxford University Press.
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