Rationalization in Sociology: 15 Examples & Criticisms

rationalization in sociology examples principles

Rationalization refers to society’s shift from reliance on traditions and emotions towards reliance on rationality and science.

The process of rationalization is closely linked to Enlightenment and modern capitalism.

In sociology, this concept is developed by Weber, who identified rationalization as a key element of modern Western societies, guided by the ‘Protestant Ethics’ valuing hard work and reward for effort (Weber & Kalberg, 2013).

Another sociological concept related to rationalization is McDonaldization, referring to the homogenization and standardization of society (Ritzer, 2008).

Rationalization Definition (Weber)

Rationalization is one of the key concepts of sociology, which was significant in Max Weber’s works (Weber & Kalberg, 2013). It refers to the process of transition to rationality, built on the principles of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control.

Weber described rationalization in the context of changes that the Western society went through.

As a result of modernization, the society moved from traditional models of thinking and leadership to a rationalized organization of society.

This process, which is named rationalization, went hand in hand with the society’s disenchantment: A related concept which means shifting from magical and spiritual ways of thinking towards rational thoughts and acts (Weber & Kalberg, 2013).

According to Weber, disenchantment and rationalization in the Western society are the results of the Protestant Ethics.

As the society shifted from Medieval Catholicism to Calvinism (a branch of Protestantism), it started to value hard work and financial wealth instead of a religious salvation (Kalberg, 1980).

At the same time, legal-rational authority (power of bureaucracy and leadership of democratically chosen politicians) replaced traditional authority (power and leadership of religious elites or kings).

Therefore, rationality replaced traditions and dominated the Western modern capitalist society and social organization (Weber & Kalberg, 2013).

Rationalization Examples

  1. McDonaldization: McDonaldization refers to the process through which the world becomes homogenized and standardized and loses its diversity in favor of efficiency (Ritzer, 2008).
  2. Rationalization of Education: With modernization, education lost most of its traditional and spiritual aspects and became globally standardized.
  3. Rationalization of Work and Employment: In modern capitalism, the concepts of work and employment are seen as predictable, calculable, and controllable, in accordance with the principles of rationalization.
  4. McDonaldization of Journalism: As a result of rationalization and McDonaldization, journalism increasingly prioritizes sensationalism and maximization of views instead of moral values.
  5. Rationalization of Housing: The rationalization and McDonaldization of housing refers to the prioritization of efficiency and predictability instead of aesthetics.
  6. Rationalization of the World Order: The dominance of homogenized, capitalist values (McWorld) over traditional and religious values (e.g. Jihad) is known as the Jihad vs. McWorld theory (Barber, 2010).
  7. Rationalization of Law: As a result of rationalization, laws and policies are based on efficiency and control.
  8. Rationalization of Medicine: Unlike traditional medicine which was based on spiritual values and indigenous traditions, rationalized medicine is standardized and global.
  9. Rationalization of Public Services: Public services are characterized by the power of bureaucracy, which is one of the key concepts for Weber. 
  10. McDonaldization of Religion: Despite being heavily related with pre-modern traditions, religious institutions such as Churches are becoming increasingly standardized, which is a phenomenon known as McChurch.
  11. Rationalization of Mental Health: With modernization, perspectives about mental health shifted from spiritual approaches to standardized concepts, diagnoses, and treatments.
  12. McDonaldization of Arts and Culture: Globalization and modernity have been leading to the McDonaldization of arts and culture, causing the loss of variety and authenticity (Salvacion, 2021).
  13. McDonaldization of Clothing and Fashion: With modernity and mass production, clothing and fashion became standardized and cost-efficient.
  14. Rationalization of Dating: Dating and romance are becoming increasingly more rational and less emotional, as individuals fulfill their needs through time-efficient channels such as online dating websites.
  15. Rationalization of Friendship: With the introduction of the internet and particularly social media, friendship and socialization are becoming more time-efficient and cost-efficient.

Rationalization Case Studies

1. McDonaldization

McDonaldization is the process through which various aspects of the world become homogenized and standardized.

As a result, the world loses its diversity and variety in favor of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, which are the principles of rationalization.

This concept is based on the example of the American fast-food restaurant McDonald’s, which has a model illustrating the four main principles of rationalization.

In McDonald’s, food production and service is efficient and calculable in terms of time and financial cost. The product quality and ingredients are standardized, therefore predictable, and all aspects of the production and delivery processes are controlled (Ritzer, 2008).

2. Rationalization of Education

Rationalization heavily influenced all aspects of the education system globally, and particularly in the Western societies.

Principles of calculability and predictability often guide learning outcomes and assessment types, such as tests and quizzes.

There is also an increasing shift towards online courses and even online degrees. The use of online technologies for education is also an example of the efficiency and control principles of rationalization.

Another result of the rationalization of education is the devaluation of humanities and social science subjects, at the expense of subjects that are seen as more profitable, such as business administration or STEM topics.

3. Rationalization of Mental Health and Wellbeing

Society’s perspectives about mental health and wellbeing changed with the emergence of modernity and capitalism.

In the pre-modern era, mental health issues were seen as signs of demonic possession or curses (Foucault, 2003). With modernization, mental health and wellbeing became medicalized, therefore started to be seen as topics of psychiatry and medicine.

Mental health issues and diagnoses became further standardized with the introduction and adoption of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association.

Resources such as online therapy or mindfulness sessions are other examples of the rationalization of mental healthcare, where time-efficiency is prioritized (Hyland, 2017).

4. Rationalization of Public Services

Because of rationalization, public services are characterized by the authority of bureaucrats or government employees.

Various services such as law enforcement, education, transportation and health care are provided according to a strong division of labor between bureaucrats and service providers (Altay, 1999).

This division of labor contributes to the differentiation of roles and tasks between individuals, which provide efficiency, calculability, control and standardization.

Also, as a result of capitalism, public services such as education and healthcare increasingly become privatized under the premise of efficiency.

This increasing trend of privatization is also known as the McDonaldization of the Public Services. An example of this is private hospitals opening multiple branches across a single country (Soyler, 2022).

Criticism of Rationalization

Criticism of rationalization is closely related to criticism against modernity and capitalism.

For example, Polish-Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman discussed how modernity’s hostile and suspicious view towards strangers, ambiguity, and chaos were the key forces behind Holocaust.

He illustrated how rationalization’s principles of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control played significant roles in different phases of Holocaust, such as the use of gas chambers or involuntary use of war prisoners in medical experiments (Bauman, 1989). 

In addition, in non-European societies rationalization is a result of Westernization (e.g., Turkey, Jordan) or colonization (e.g., Canada, Senegal).

As a result, rationalization is historically associated with the prioritization of European values over local indigenous traditions in these societies (Schultz, 2007).

Similarly, the principles of rationalization can lead to the erasure of variety and diversity due to the increased standardization and homogenization, which are also known as elements of McDonaldization (Ritzer, 2008).

Conclusion

In sociology, rationalization refers to the process of transition from traditions to rationality, as described by Max Weber (Weber & Kalberg, 2013).

It is a result of modernity and capitalism, characterized by the Protestant Ethics and its focus on hard work and wealth.

The principles of rationalization are efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. These principles are also related to the process of McDonaldization, which refers to the homogenization and standardization of the society (Ritzer, 2008).

Examples to rationalization include changing approaches to education, public services, and mental healthcare.

Rationalization is criticized for facilitating modernity’s hostile view towards strangers, ambiguity, and chaos, as well as the replacement of diversity and variety with Western capitalist values.

References

Altay, A. (1999). The efficiency of bureaucracy in the public sector. Dokuz Eylül University Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences Journal, 14(2), 35-51.

Barber, B. R. (2010). jihad vs McWorld. Random House.

Bauman, Z. (1989). Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, M. (2003). Madness and civilization. Routledge.

Hyland, T. (2017). McDonaldizing spirituality: Mindfulness, education, and consumerism. Journal of Transformative Education, 15(4), 334-356.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1541344617696972

Kalberg, S. (1980). Max Weber’s types of rationality: Cornerstones for the analysis of rationalization processes in history. American journal of sociology, 85(5), 1145-1179. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/227128

Ritzer, G. (2008). The McDonaldization of society. Pine Forge Press, Los Angeles.

Salvacion. (2021). McDonaldization of Culture: Arts Industry in the Philippines. Retrieved from https://artinneed.medium.com/mcdonaldization-of-culture-arts-industry-in-the-philippines-a4eb1b35b022

Schultz, A. B. (2007). Holmes, Alice, and Ezeulu: Western Rationality in the Context of British Colonialism and Western Modernity. Brigham Young University.

Soyler, M. (2022). The McDonaldization of Public Services: A Case Study of City Hospitals in Turkey. Lectio Socialis, 6(2), 81-92.

Weber, M., & Kalberg, S. (2013). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Routledge.

Sanam Vaghefi (PhD Candidate)
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Sanam Vaghefi (BSc, MA) is a Sociologist, educator and PhD Candidate. She has several years of experience at the University of Victoria as a teaching assistant and instructor. Her research on sociology of migration and mental health has won essay awards from the Canadian Sociological Association and the IRCC. Currently, she is am focused on supporting students online under her academic coaching and tutoring business Lingua Academic Coaching OU.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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