Weber’s distinction between formal rationality and substantive rationality
Students taking the course must write a 2000 word essay, which counts for 50% of the assessment of
this course, on the following topic:
Explain what Weber meant by the distinction between formal rationality and substantive rationality.
Using these two concepts, analyze whether Scientific Management and Human Relations Theory are
formally rational, substantively rational, both, or neither.
All essays should contain a full list of works referred to (not included in the word count), and must be
entirely your own unaided work. Plagiarism � using the words of anyone other than yourself
unquoted and without attribution � is checked for using specialist software and will result in a
reduced mark (which may be zero) or, in some circumstances, more severe penalties. In addition to
the guidance you will already have received on plagiarism, there is information available on Moodle
A good essay has the following characteristics:
? It demonstrably makes use of readings (not just the textbook) and course material and references
them: an essay is not just your opinion but should be based on the existing studies of the topic
? It is not simply a re-hash of lecture notes
? It makes an argument, rather than just being a list of points, and that argument can include, but
should not be limited to, your own opinion
? It is structured rather than being a string of haphazard ideas
? It makes best use of the words available: as you write and re-read what you have written, ask
yourself whether every word is relevant to the question
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 2
Weber’s distinction between 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. There
many types of rationality. This paper is focused only on formal rationality and substantive
Formal rationality and substantive rationality
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 3
Substantive rationality – people may consider various possible actions or values, and
trying to make them consistent. Max Weber, in the early 20 th century, referred to this as
substantive rationality. Weber regarded it as problematical in the contemporary society
largely because rationalization of social life made it very hard for individuals to follow some
specific values (Sterling & Moore, 2012). For instance, following religious or family values
might be very hard in contemporary society thanks to economic pressures and dominance of
bureaucratic institutions and companies. In essence, substantive rationality entails deciding
the most appropriate choice of a means to a given end as directed by each of the shared
values. Simply put, a person is aiming to make her system of values and her actions
harmonizing with each other (Kemple, 2013). Derksen (2014) noted that substantive
rationality is understood as goal-oriented sensible action in the framework of definitive ends
or values. 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
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 computing or working out the most efficient means to a given 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 gives rise
to universally applied regulations and laws which in fact epitomize formal rationality in
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 4
Western countries, chiefly within the scientific, judicial and economic institutions, over and
above in the bureaucratic type of authority. Some of the examples of formal rationality
include rational-legal kinds of authority like the modern judicial and court systems (Townley,
2012). The fear of Max Weber was that formal rationality was becoming increasingly
overriding in the western contemporary society, and that the significance of substantive
rationality was actually reducing.
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,
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
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 5
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 for this
reason, scientific management can be considered as 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).
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.
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 6
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).
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
noticed the success of formal rationality is the capitalist factory that was very much
influenced by the formally rational military (Ritzer, 2011). Max Weber saw the
organizational discipline within the modern capitalist factory as totally formally rational. He
saw the epitome of this type of formal rationality within the United States scientific
management system: Weber stated that with the assistance of appropriate techniques of
measurement, the individual worker’s optimal profitability is computed similar to that of any
material means of production. Basing on this, he noted that the scientific management system
in the United States successfully proceeds with its rational conditioning as well as training of
work performances, therefore making final conclusion from the discipline and mechanization
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 7
of the factory or facility (Wren, 2011). In essence, man’s psycho-physical apparatus is totally
adapted to the demands of the machines and tools (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.
The Human Relations Theory is neither substantively rational nor formally rational.
As a kind of decision-making, formal rationality is subject to computation which goes into an
action to improve its likelihood of becoming successful. 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 measurable, inflexible terms
through decisions founded on common laws 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
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 8
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).
To sum up, Max Weber stated that substantive rationality is basically a goal-oriented
sensible act in the context of definitive values or ends. It entails deciding the most appropriate
choice of a means to a given end as directed by shared values. On the contrary, formal
rationality entails making decisions founded on regulations, rules, in addition to the bigger
social structure of the society. It entails quantifying or calculating the most efficient means to
a given end. Since the application of scientific management principles is formally rational,
then scientific management is in fact formally rational. Nonetheless, the Human Relations
Theory is neither substantively nor formally rational. A recognizable modern organization in
the present day that has effectively espoused and implemented the main principles of
scientific management and formal rationality is McDonald’s – a firm whose practices and
structures epitomize and illustrate the ideas of Frederick Taylor and Max Weber in action.
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 9
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.
FORMAL RATIONALITY AND SUBSTANTIVE RATIONALITY 10
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.
Wren, D. A. (2011). The Centennial of Frederick W. Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific
Management: A Retrospective Commentary. Journal Of Business & Management,