Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis, and in Modern Life

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Max Weber (1864–1920)

For my first post on Rational Action, I’d like to offer a summary of Max Weber’s classic analysis of rationality and social action in his posthumously published Economy and Society (E&S, 1922).1 This subject has not exactly wanted for attention. Weber’s discussion is unquestionably an important reference in twentieth-century thinking about rationality, and we will no doubt have ample opportunity to link back to this post in the future.

A central feature of Weber’s sociology was his belief that sociological inquiry should be grounded in the analysis of how individuals attach “meanings” to their “social actions.” For Weber, an action was social and subjectively meaningful to the actor insofar as it embodied some consideration concerning how others had acted and would act. Individuals’ social actions collectively gave rise to observed forms of social organization.

Rationality and Social Action

In Weber’s view, social actions could be classified into four types: “instrumentally rational (zweckrational),” “value-rational (wertrational),” “affectual,” and “traditional,” though he noted that this list was not necessarily “exhaustive” (E&S 1.1.2).

  • A traditional action was one that was habitual, which meant that, while it might be meaningful, it was done more out of routine than any conscious deliberation.
  • An affectual action was one undertaken as a means of satisfying the immediate demands of an emotional state, such as romantic passion or anger. Like traditional action, affectual action did not arise from deliberation.
  • A value-rational action was one taken out of the self-conscious conviction that the action has a value inherent to itself, independent of any outcome it might or might not have.
  • Finally, an instrumentally rational action was one taken based on its anticipated ability to achieve some considered end (Zweck, in German).

Consistent with his epistemology of “ideal types,” Weber did not expect that these types of social action would ever be found in their “pure” form. Very often, empirically observed social actions would embody different types to varying degrees. Accordingly, Weber treated as fluid the boundaries among them, and the boundaries between them and actions lacking meaning. This fluidity could also function as a mechanism of social change.

For example, insofar as traditional “everyday action” became essentially mindless, it stood on the cusp of lacking meaning. Or, insofar as individuals became attached enough to their habits as to ascribe a emblematic or ritualistic significance to them, those habits could “shade over into value rationality.”

Similarly, affectual action, if “uncontrolled,” might not be meaningful; but, conversely, if it took the “form of conscious release of emotional tension,” then that constituted a rationalization, which might embody either value rationality or instrumental rationality.

Because instrumental rationality necessarily involved making conscious choices between different means, and weighing the relative value of competing ends, it was “incompatible” with traditional and affectual action.

Instrumental rationality had a more complicated relation to value rationality. Most obviously, value rationality could select the ends that individuals pursued through instrumental rationality. Yet, selection among ends was not necessarily a product of the value rationality. An individual might also take different ends as “subjective wants and arrange them in a scale of consciously assessed relative urgency. He may then orient his action to this scale in such a way that they are satisfied as far as possible in order of urgency, as formulated in the principle of ‘marginal utility.'” In this case, the act of selecting ends became an instrumentally rational action.

Joachim Radkau's recent biography of Weber

Joachim Radkau’s recent biography of Weber

From this perspective, the more ends were pursued “unconditionally,” because they were value rational, the more “irrational” value rationality began to seem. But that did not mean the rationality of value rationality was illusory. According to Weber, “The orientation of action wholly to the rational achievement of ends without relation to fundamental values is, to be sure, only a limiting case.” Few, if any, actions, would ever be purely instrumentally rational. At some level values did impinge on the selection of ends, and the means used to achieve them.

Note that in this discussion Weber’s concept of rationality merely connotes some form of conscious reflection. It does not demand that that deliberation arrive at a result that is, in some sense, a correct or optimal selection among alternatives, as defined by the sociologist. This accords with Weber’s proviso that “meanings” underlying social actions were subjective—they could never be defined “objectively” or determined to be “‘true’ in some metaphysical sense” (1.1.1.A).

Rationality in Sociological Analysis

If Weber regarded rationality in social actions as merely connoting the presence of deliberation, not its quality, the sociological analysis of social action did nevertheless demand a comparison between the apparent rationality of individuals’ actions and the sociologist’s own conception of the rational.

Both before and after Weber, many analysts of human behavior preferred to limit analysis to observable relations, thereby avoiding difficult inquiries into individuals’ psychological motivations; or they sought to level all actions as a pursuit (however rational or irrational) of fixed ends (however they were selected).

But, for Weber, a delineation of motivation was critical to understanding why social structures could differ radically from each other. He well understood that this imposed a heavy analytical burden, and allowed that such motivations had to be inferred imperfectly through an examination of patterns of action, through empathy, and through the replication of social actors’ rational calculations. All these methods came with their own methodological quandaries.

Importantly, Weber believed that irrational social actions (i.e., habitual or affectual actions) were best identified and assessed by observing how they differed from rational actions, as defined by the sociologist:

For the purposes of typological analysis it is convenient to treat all irrational, affectually determined elements of human behavior as factors of deviation from a conceptually pure type of rational action. For example a panic on the stock exchange can be most conveniently analysed by attempting to determine first what the course of action would have been if it had not been influenced by irrational affects; it is then possible to introduce the irrational components as accounting for the observed deviations from this hypothetical course.

Weber understood that this problem fed into the heated question of whether sociology was a “rationalistic” discipline. “Only in this respect,” he argued, “and for these reasons of methodological convenience is the method of sociology ‘rationalistic.'” Sociology, he argued, was certainly not “rationalistic” in that it involved “a belief in the actual predominance of rational elements in human life, for on the question of how far this predominance does or does not exist, nothing whatever has been said.” He did allow, “That there is … a danger of rationalistic interpretations where they are out of place cannot be denied” (1.1.1.A)

Rationality in Modern Life

Although Weber denied that sociology ascribed too much rationality to social actions, he did worry that rationality was coming to dominate modern life—a view he expressed as early as his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). This rationality, he argued, was to be found in the market action of capitalism, in industrial production, in scientific inquiry, and particularly in the proliferation of bureaucracy.

In Weber’s estimation—deeply and explicitly influenced by his experiences in post-Bismarck Germany—there was a pronounced danger that the bureaucratic “machine” was encompassing an increasing array of functional purposes and provided more and more people with their livelihood. In his view, service to this machine could begin to monopolize social action, to the exclusion of other ends. In the concluding pages of The Protestant Ethic, Weber referred to this scenario as an “iron cage” (stahlhartes Gehäuse) from which humanity would find it difficult to escape.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) would provide iconic imagery of humanity subordinated to undefined ends of machinery

Weber’s anxieties about the rationalization of society were widely shared. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) famously used imagery of humanity’s subordination to machinery operating to undefined ends to comedic effect.

This concern continued to plague Weber after World War I, and up to his death. In his essay, “Parliament and Government in a Reconstructed Germany,”2, he wrote:

An inanimate machine is mind objectified. Only this provides it with the power to force men into its service and to dominate their working life as completely as is actually the case in the factory. Objectified intelligence is also that animated machine, the bureaucratic organization, with its specialization of trained skills, its division of jurisdiction, its rules and hierarchical relations of authority. Together with the inanimate machine it is busy fabricating the shell [Gehäuse] of bondage which men will perhaps be forced to inhabit some day, as powerless as the fellahs of ancient Egypt. This might happen if a technically superior administration were to be the ultimate and sole value in the ordering of their affairs…

In the wake of the mass slaughter of trench warfare, Weber’s fears concerning the uncertain end state of civilizational progress had become commonplace. The more specific idea that modern society had subordinated itself to the rationality of a system interested only in the action of its own mechanisms was well on its way to becoming a pervasive anxiety among twentieth-century intellectuals.

Readers looking for additional material on Weber’s thought will be confronted with a broad literature, and might do well to start with the bibliography at the end of Sung Ho Kim’s entry on Weber at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  1. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der Verstehenden Soziologie, quotes will be from the 1978 English edition from the University of California Press.
  2. The essay was included in the English edition of Economy and Society partially “to provide a corrective to the one-sided reception of the chapter on bureaucracy (ch. XI)—as if Weber had somehow missed the facts of bureaucracy as a vested interest group or a network of informal cliques…” Weber’s emphasis on the “impersonality” of bureaucracy has often been taken as a sign of a naive belief in its ability to function with total objectivity and disinterestedness.

3 thoughts on “Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis, and in Modern Life

  1. James Schmidt

    Congratulations on your new blog (though I trust Ether Wave Propaganda won’t languish)! A quick note on the translation of Weber’s “stahlhartes Gehäuse” as “iron cage.” My colleague Steve Kalberg has argued, in a number of places, that this is one of the many unfortunately legacies of Parsons’ somewhat tone-deaf translation. Kalberg suggests (rightly I think) that it obscure Weber’s metaphor and renders the passage as follows:
    “According to Baxter, the concern for material goods should lie upon the shoulders of his saints like a ‘lightweight coat that could be thrown off at any time’. Yet fate allowed a steel-hard casing (stahl­hartes Gehäuse) to be forged from this coat.”

    He’s discussed this, and other matters, in “The Spirit of Capitalism Revisited: On the New Translation of Weber’s Protestant Ethic (1920),” Max Weber Studies 2, no. 1 (2001): 41–58.

    1. Will Thomas Post author

      What a great first comment – that’s exactly the sort of extended discussion I hope the site can foster, and that I can illicit by wandering into areas where I don’t fully know the literature. Thank you for the reference to Kalberg’s work [here’s a link to the pdf of it].

      In researching this post, I did look at some of the original German texts, and came away with the definite impression that the translations I was working with were less than ideal. For example, in the last block quote, while “Gehäuse” more properly becomes “shell,” “mind objectified” is really “geronnener Geist,” i.e something like “congealed spirit.”

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