But whatever you call it, [Fordism] has been a system based on large-scale standardization and vertical organizations that require a strict division of labor and an extreme rationalization of each process. [emphasis mine]

I'm looking for perspectives on what the term "rationalization" might mean in this context - it seems to be a rather unique use of the term, and I'm curious about why it might have been chosen. Let me know if a longer excerpt is needed for more context - I'm curious about what can be deduced from this alone

4 Answers 4


Certainly OED meaning 1 (c), (of rationalize) is the meaning that Americans most frequently assume. But it only appears to date from 1922.

c. Psychol. To explain or justify (one's behaviour or attitude) to oneself or others with plausible but specious reasons, usually unwittingly.

Not surprisingly, the original meaning is to make rational, i.e. meaning 1 (a) of the OED..

a. To explain on a rational basis, make conformable to reason; to make rational, consistent, or intelligible.

It is very seldom that I have heard British people use meaning 1 (c), though it is clearly considered the principal meaning across the Atlantic.

  • 1
    I suspected the Atlantic was at play here... thanks!
    – drew moore
    Nov 15, 2014 at 0:26
  • @drewmore I know that in America it can be tantamount to accusing someone of infidelity, to accuse them of 'rationalizing'. It is a use which is largely foreign to most people in Britain.
    – WS2
    Nov 15, 2014 at 10:03


Rationalization means organizing something into a logically coherent system. Factory organization is often rationalized to make it as efficient as possible. Sometimes rationalization means a way someone justifies their action. I found this and I think the bolded language sounds like your case. I've usually thought of the second, "justification" meaning when thinking of the word.


Economic rationalization concerns the efficient organization of processes, people, and machines. It is often used in the realm of production / manufacturing. Rationalizing a process or system is intended to increase productivity.

For an overview of economic rationalization, you can check out the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalization_%28economics%29

Rationalization sometimes refers more specifically to laying workers off in a drive for greater efficiency. We sometimes see workforce rationalization and labor rationalization. For a good example of "rationalization" being used as an alternative to "layoffs," see this page: http://www.ppiaf.org/sites/ppiaf.org/files/documents/toolkits/Portoolkit/Toolkit/module7/developing.html


In this case, rationalization means "concentrated rational thought on or about." It's what the word originally meant.

  • I suppose we can't avoid thought being relevant here, but I think in OP's context it's not so much a matter of thinking rationally about each process. More a matter of each process being implemented in a totally rational way (including nothing unnecessary, for historical or sentimental reasons, etc.). Nov 14, 2014 at 22:04
  • That's just an extension of the result thinking process into a physical arrangement and the thought-out process to implement the desire.
    – Oldcat
    Nov 14, 2014 at 22:14
  • I know, but if someone said "We must rationalize this process", they're probably thinking more about making changes so the process is more rational, focused, efficient, rather than about having rational thoughts/discussion on how to do this. Nov 14, 2014 at 22:18
  • @FumbleFingers But all this is totally different to the meaning that the word has acquired in America (see my answer). A lot of Americans (I'm sure the OP is no exception) see it as the principal meaning of the word.
    – WS2
    Nov 15, 2014 at 10:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.