Monday, October 13, 2008

The Irrationality of Rationalization: California Marriage Licenses

We are talking about the "irrationalities of rationalization" in my Intro class. This is an idea derived from Max Weber's "iron cage," and developed most thoroughly by George Ritzer in his many works on McDonaldization. The idea is that as we transform every aspect of society to make it more efficient, calculable, predictable, and technologically controlled -- in a word, rationalized -- we also create unintended irrationalities.

A case in point comes from the news (as it always does when teaching Weber). California marriage licenses used to have a space for the name of the bride and the name of the groom. When the legal definition of marriage was expanded to cover same-sex couples, the state's bureaucrats followed the normal rules of bureaucratic rationalization: they changed the forms. They judged it more rational and efficient to have one form that could cover all cases -- both the traditional form that the vast majority of the form's users would want, and the rare exceptions. They opted for the most abstract, colorless, unromantic terms to use in place of "bride" and "groom." The new forms asked for Party A and Party B.

The "rational" solution to a problem of bureaucratic nomenclature, though, was an irrational reduction of marriage to many of the people who the state bureaucracy is supposed to serve, the taxpayers of California. Two of them, Rachael Bird and Gideon Codding, refused to use the new, abstract form when they got married, prefering to be bride and groom. The state refused to recognize their marriage. Law suits followed. Embarrassing publicity followed, pushing the bureaucrats to remember that rationalization is not supposed to be an end in itself, but to serve the people.

The state of California backed down. Bride and Groom are now back on the marriage license.

10 comments:

brax4444 said...

As much as I love the geographical state of California, good grief.

Anonymous said...

Bride and groom aren't apt terms given California's statute on permitting same-sex marriage. Not that it's a very big deal unless you value accuracy.

Fran said...

No society has ever condoned same-sex marriage. I don't think is wise for us to try it. I suppose some believe that we are smarter than anyone before us.

brax4444 said...

@fran : In my college history classes they told us many things that were not covered in middle/high school. Many societies in the past did condone same-sex marriage and many even encouraged it. Supposedly the bond between soldiers would make them fight harder in a battle. Solders were only encouraged to be with women for a few hours a night sometimes only once every few weeks and this was simply to produce more soldiers. The men lived together in the barracks.

fran said...

@brax444:
Ridicule doesn't suit you well but since you say there were many societies that condoned same-sex marriages name a dozen please. Or would you just rather insult me?

youryoungersister said...

Because “bride” and “groom” appear in both sections, couples could check the same title twice to reflect a union between two men or two women.

[http://sandiego.about.com/b/2008/10/07/bride-and-groom-to-be-restored-to-california-marriage-license-forms.htm]

P said...

"No society has ever condoned same-sex marriage. I don't think is wise for us to try it."

Shall we try some similar statements?

No/very few societies have ever condoned voting right's for women, abolition of slavery, publically funded scientific research, literacy and eduacation for the masses, free speech, free press, seperation of church and state, democracy, so heavans to Betsy don't start doin' those things now. I'm with Fran, let's all go back to Hunter-Gathering or if we're really going for progress maybe revert to single-celled life forms.

Gruntled said...

I like that double possibility of using bride and groom in either slot. I don't take it for granted that all same-sex couples would choose the same term.

fran said...

For P,
Again, ridicule.

P said...

You happened to have said something very silly. I was just pointing out how silly it was. If you want to retreat behind hurt feelings fine. If you want to come up with a better idea than, "No one else has done it we shouldn't do it either!" than I'm all ears.