Weber’s formal rationality and substantive rationality

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Weber’s formal rationality and substantive rationality

Rationalization of society is an idea that was conceptualized by Weber (Carroll, 2011). This paper provides an exhaustive explanation of what Max Weber meant by differentiating between substantive rationality and formal rationality. Moreover, with the use of the concepts of substantive rationality and formal rationality, this paper analyzes whether the Human Relations Theory and Scientific Management are substantively rational, formally rational, neither or both.

Rationalization is basically a product of technological advancements and scientific study in the West. Lippman and Aldrich (2013) reported that rationalization, by decreasing the tradition’s hold on society, brought about new practices. Rather than the behaviour of human beings being motivated by traditions and customs, rationalization resulted in behaviours which were guided by practicality and reason.

Rationalization changed modern society to a great extent and it also played a vital role in the development of capitalism. The main types of rationality include formal rationality, substantive rationality, theoretical rationality and practical rationality (Sterling & Moore, 2012). This paper is focused only on formal rationality and substantive rationality.

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Formal rationality and substantive rationality

Substantive rationality – people may consider various possible actions or values, and trying to make them consistent. Max Weber, in the early 20th century, referred to this as substantive rationality. Weber saw it as problematic in the contemporary society largely because rationalization of social life makes it very hard for individuals to pursue certain values (Sterling & Moore, 2012). For instance, it might be very hard to pursue religious or family values in contemporary society thanks to economic pressures as well as dominance of bureaucratic institutions and organizations.

In essence, substantive rationality entails deciding the most appropriate choice of a means to an end as guided by each of the collective values. Put simply, a person is trying to make his or her system of values and his or her actions matching or in agreement with each other (Kemple, 2013). Derksen (2014) noted that substantive rationality is understood as goal-oriented rational action in the context of ultimate values or ends. It is the extent to which economic actions serve ultimate values in spite of what they might be. This concept is holistic thinking that focuses on problem solving in a system of values.

Formal rationality on the other hand entails making decisions which are founded on regulations, rules, as well as the bigger social structure of the society. In essence, formal rationality entails quantifying or calculating the most efficient means to an end (Hedoin, 2012). It is also the degree of quantitative calculation or accounting that is theoretically feasible and actually applied.

As Weber pointed out, formal rationality refers to straightforward means-ends rational calculation. For instance, a person has a goal to accomplish and he/she then takes rational steps – that is, steps which are founded on science, logic, observation or prior experience – to accomplish that particular goal (Townley, 2012).

Formal rationality, as Hedoin (2012) stated, is a more extensive form of rationality which typifies business organizations; bureaucratic organizations in particular. This results in universally applied regulations, laws and rules which typify formal rationality in the Western world, especially in the scientific, legal and economic institutions, over and above in the bureaucratic type of domination.

Some of the examples of formal rationality include rational-legal types of authority for instance the modern judicial and legal systems (Townley, 2012). The fear of Max Weber was that formal rationality was becoming increasingly dominant in the western contemporary society, and that the significance of substantive rationality was actually reducing.

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Scientific Management

Frederick Taylor was a contemporary of Max Weber and he conceptualized the idea of scientific management which seeks to increase results and performance by making employees more efficient and work more rational. According to Frederick Taylor, scientific management gave emphasis to the following:

(i) discovering effective and efficient means of working by using scientific techniques;

(ii) selecting the finest, most skilled personnel to perform work tasks and recruiting them;

(iii) providing professional development and training to improve the efficiency of these employees in the business organization; and

(iv) closely monitoring employees’ achievement of well-defined goals and standards (Sterling & Moore, 2012). In today’s age, most organizations and companies have espoused and implemented the fundamental principles of scientific management and rationality (Kemple, 2013).

The scientific management model proposed several principles applicable in management. Some of these principles comprised the study as well as application of scientific techniques to the tasks contained in different roles in order to improve workers’ efficiency (Derksen, 2014).

Moreover, it suggested a reform of the processes of recruitment which ensured that new employees were selected in a scientific way to ensure that the workers who were hired were actually suitable for the job. Scientific management made a lasting and vital contribution in terms of the development of contemporary management.

The application of scientific management principles is formally rational and therefore scientific management can be considered as being formally rational. The approach underlying such thinking is that people’s behaviour within organizations is rational, and that premeditated rational action has to be taken in order to ensure that control is effected over their actions for the purpose of the organization itself (Lippman & Aldrich, 2013).

It is in this sense that management control is in fact very consciously rational and purposive. Weber suggested that the movement toward formal rationality would result in the development of interactions and practices aimed at facilitating calculation or efficiency instead of promoting aesthetics, morality or tradition (Kemple, 2013).

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Scientific management by Taylor affirmed to have introduced a more formal rationality into the process of management. This assertion has a number of vital implications. It enabled the management of a business organization to be taught. If prescriptions of the management could be identified through experiment and study, then it is possible for individuals to attain management status (Giannantonio & Hurley-Hanson, 2011).

It is not essential to be born into managerial authority positions as it had been supposed by the old social class structures. Through training and experience, even individuals from disadvantaged ethnic groups or social classes could become managers. Another supposition was that scientific management would be helpful in getting rid of social conflicts.

If facts that are scientifically based could become the starting point and foundation of managerial decision-making, then the arbitrary exercise of managerial power would need to be eradicated and there would not be any rational disagreements with regard to managerial policies (Derksen, 2014). On the whole, scientific management offered the likelihood that conflicts of opinion could really be resolved through rational investigation.  

According to Ritzer (2011), one familiar modern organization today that has effectively espoused and implemented the main principles of scientific management and formal rationality is McDonald’s – a company whose practices and structures typify and illustrate the ideas of Frederick Taylor and Max Weber in action. Ritzer (2011) pointed out that McDonald’s – as well as the McDonaldization of other firms in today’s era – is really not a novel or new phenomenon; rather, it is the product of the processes of rationalization which have been taking place during the past century and influenced commercial, governmental and even educational organizations.

In essence, McDonalized corporations have 4 main purposes or characteristics: (a) control over individuals entering the organizations by means of non-human technology; (b) efficiency, or the best technique of getting from one point to another point; (c) calculability, or a highlighting on the quantitative facets of services and/or products offered; and (d) predictability, the assurance that over time in every location, services and products would actually be the same (Lippmann & Altman, 2013).

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According to Max Weber, scientific management is formally rational. Max Weber did not see the success of formal rationality only in the bureaucracy. The other place where he saw the triumph of formal rationality is the modern capitalist factory which was greatly influenced by the formally rational military along with its discipline (Ritzer, 2011). Max Weber saw the organizational discipline within the modern capitalist factory as totally formally rational.

He saw the height of this type of formal rationality within the American system of scientific management: Weber stated that with the help of appropriate measurement methods, the individual worker’s optimum profitability is computed similar to that of any material means of production. Basing on this, he noted that the system of scientific management in the United States successfully proceeds with its rational conditioning as well as training of work performances, therefore drawing the final conclusions from the discipline and mechanization of the plant (Wren, 2011).

In essence, man’s psycho-physical apparatus is totally adjusted to the demands of the machines and tools – put simply, it is functionalized, and the person is shorn of his or her natural rhythm by the functional specialization of muscles and by creation of a most favourable economy of physical effort (Hedoin, 2012).    

Human Relations Theory

Also referred to as behavioural management theory, the Human Relations Theory is focused more on the people in a place of work than the processes, procedures and rules. Rather than directives coming directly from the senior company executives, this theory emphasize communication between managers and staff members and allow them to interact with each other to help in making decisions (Townley, 2012).

Rather than providing employees with quotas and demanding specific procedures, staff members are exposed to emotional as well as motivational tactics in order to get them to enhance and improve their productivity. This style basically focuses on creating productive, satisfied employees and helping employees to invest in the organization. 

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The Human Relations Theory is neither substantively rational nor formally rational. As a kind of decision-making, formal rationality is subject to calculation which goes into an action to improve its likelihood of success. In formal rationality, the most efficient means to an end is calculated or quantified (Lippman & Aldrich, 2013). In essence, formal rationality forces order on the society by means of quantifiable, rigid terms through decisions which are founded on universal regulations and rules.

The Human Relations Theory is not formally rational at all. As per the Human Relations Theory, the attitudes of people in an organization have the potential of affecting their productivity either in a negative or positive way. The place of work can be likened to a social system that comprises informal groups that bear significant influence over the workers’ behaviour and attitude.

Additionally, this theoretical framework emphasized on the style of supervision and management. It stated that the adopted styles of supervision and management have a direct impact on the workers’ job satisfaction level (Derksen, 2014).

Furthermore, the Human Relations Theory is really not substantively rational. Even as many business organizations operate basing upon the Human Relations Theory, Wren (2011) pointed out that this kind of management has its shortcomings. Business organizations risk their employees becoming very social or easily influenced by personal opinions and emotions when making important decisions instead of depending on hard data.

In addition, dismissing workers after they become invested in the organization or reprimanding them for poor performance might be harder and more difficult. In spite of these risks, this theory can increase employee productivity and retention rates in the organization.

As workers feel more valued by their organization, they would invest in it and its greater good (Wren, 2011). Substantive rationality is a kind of decision-making that is actually subject to values as well as an appeal to ethical norms and it does not consider the nature of consequences: the human relations theory is not at all substantively rational.  

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To sum up, Max Weber stated that substantive rationality is basically a goal-oriented rational action in the context of ultimate values or ends. It entails deciding the most appropriate choice of a means to an end as guided by collective values. Conversely, formal rationality entails making decisions which are founded on regulations, rules, as well as the bigger social structure of the society.

It involves quantifying or calculating the most efficient means to an end. Since the application of scientific management principles is formally rational, scientific management is in fact formally rational. Nonetheless, the Human Relations Theory is neither substantively rational nor formally rational.


Carroll, A. J. (2011). Disenchantment, rationality and the modernity of Max Weber. Forum Philosophicum: International Journal For Philosophy, 16(1), 117-137.

Derksen, M. (2014). Turning Men into Machines? Scientific Management, Industrial Psychology, and the ‘Human Factor’. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 50(2), 148-165. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21650

Giannantonio, C. M., & Hurley-Hanson, A. E. (2011). Frederick Winslow Taylor: Reflections on the Relevance of The Principles of Scientific Management 100 Years Later. Journal Of Business & Management, 17(1), 7-10.

Hedoin, C. (2012). Weber and Veblen on the Rationalization Process. Journal Of Economic Issues (M.E. Sharpe Inc.), 43(1), 167-187.

Kemple, T. (2013). Presenting Max Weber. Canadian Journal Of Sociology, 38(3), 407-412.

Lippman, S, & Aldrich, H. (2013). The rationalization of everything? Using Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis to teach Weber. Teaching Sociology, 31, 134-145.

Ritzer, G. (2011). Explorations in social theory: From metatheorizing to rationalization. Boston, MA: SAGE.

Sterling, J. S., & Moore, W. E. (2012). Weber’s Analysis of Legal Rationalization: A Critique and Constructive Modification. Sociological Forum, 2(1), 67.

Townley, B. (2012). The role of competing rationalities in institutional change. Academy Of Management Journal, 45(1), 163-179. doi:10.2307/3069290

Wren, D. A. (2011). The Centennial of Frederick W. Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management: A Retrospective Commentary. Journal Of Business & Management, 17(1), 11-22.

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