formal and substantive rationality
formal and substantive rationalitythe distinction between the formal rationality of, say, economic action, as the ‘quantitative calculation or accounting which is technically possible and which is actually applied’, and substantive rationality, which refers to rational social action which occurs ‘under some criterion (past, present or potential) of ultimate value’ (WEBER, 1922). Weber, although suspicious of the social implications of too narrow an application of the former (see RATIONALIZATION), nevertheless regarded the latter as so ‘full of ambiguities’ as to render any possibility of its systematization out of the question, since it involves ‘an infinite number of possible value scales’. It is in this context that Weber is sometimes regarded as an ‘irrationalist’. Other sociologists and philosophers (e.g. see FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY, HABERMAS) have taken a different view, and argued that contributions to improvements in ‘substantive rationality’ must be a central focus of sociological effort. See also RATIONALITY, HYPERRATIONALITY.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000