Weberian Approach to Bureaucracy

German sociologist Max Weber is known for his study of bureaucracy, which he viewed as the most rational mechanism for governing the state and other organizations and institutions. Bureaucracy enables efficient and systematic management of a large number of people and material resources. Although the rudiments of bureaucracy appeared with the first civilizations, it was not until the nineteenth century that bureaucratic management spread to all aspects of social life. This development and expansion of bureaucracy were made possible by the creation of a centralized state, an increase in traffic and communication systems, an increase in the monetary economy, an increase in tax revenues, and the development of the industry. The development of bureaucracy is most closely related to the development of a legal-rational type of authority.

Within a bureaucratic organization, individuals are connected hierarchically, power comes from an official position in the hierarchy and not from the person who is the office holder, each position has specific powers and duties, rights, and obligations, and there are clear relationships of superiority and subordination. There are general formalized rules that are impersonal and that all members must strictly follow. Communication and coordination are centralized. The duties and salary of each person are precisely defined, the prospects for progress within the organization are known, and job qualifications are acquired through schooling or special exams. Bureaucracy is guided by instrumental rationality, and its advantages are: predictability, speed, resource savings, and uniformity.

American sociologist Peter Blau first studied bureaucracy in the books Dynamics of Bureaucracy (1955) and Formal Organizations (1962). His research on bureaucracy was on the sociological trail of Max Weber, however, unlike Weber, Blau believes, based on his own empirical and theoretical research, that deviating from the official structure within a bureaucratic organization does not have to be disastrous for the organization. The reverse case is far more common. Based on his research of a federal institution, whose center was in Washington, he concluded that the illegal practice of consulting officials of the same rank contributed to better efficiency within that institution. The reasons that, deviating from strict bureaucratic rules, lead to better work organization and greater efficiency, are twofold. On the one hand, workers within an institution or company constantly create their own norms of work practice, and on the other hand, strict rules, no matter how detailed, can never predict all the problems that may arise in practice.

Talcott Parsons stated that in transition to the modern industrial society, four more types of universals are formed: 1) bureaucratic organization, 2) legal system of generalized universalic norms applicable to the whole society, 3) money and markets based on property and contract, 4) democratic association - universal suffrage, parliamentary assemblies, secret ballot, free elections, political associations and the concept of citizenship. 

George Ritzer introduced a concept he calls "McDonaldization", which is best explained in the book McDonaldization of Society (1993). Ritzer sees McDonaldization as the application of Max Weber's rationality to the overall structure of society, with McDonald's business taken only as an example that best reflects this process. Unlike the period in which Weber wrote, bureaucratization no longer represents the best model of rationalization; McDonaldization has become the best way of rationalization in modern times.

The type of rationalization that was introduced by McDonaldization, seeks to achieve four main goals: 1) to increase efficiency, 2) to increase measurability, 3) to increase predictability, and 4) to increase control. An additional goal is, where possible, to replace human labor with mechanical labor. McDonald's, through its business model, perfectly achieves four main goals, although it still retains human labor and has not replaced it with mechanical labor. McDonald's has managed to achieve these goals by standardizing every aspect of its business: retail outlets, menus, meal layouts, prefabricated ingredients, food preparation, customer relations, and the like. In addition, McDonald's has perfectly applied Frederick Taylor's workflow rationalization and Ford's model of automation - food is produced as cars are produced on the workbench.

The essence of the process of McDonaldization is the application of these principles and models of work in as many companies as possible, but also in other organizations and institutions (churches, schools, hospitals, courts). Ritzer warns that behind such a formal rationalization of the work process, there is a danger of "the irrationality of rationality". As the main examples of irrationality, Ritzer cites: higher costs, dehumanization, loss of authenticity, increased environmental and health risks, etc. In more recent work, Ritzer examines how Starbucks' business models (coffee sales) and online shopping sites, such as Amazon and eBay, have influenced the McDonaldization process.

Barrington Moore is one of the most influential historical sociologists, and his theoretical and research orientation was influenced by Marx and his theory of the role of class struggle in history, as well as by Marx Weber and his study of the role of bureaucracy and rational action. The influences of both these intellectual currents are visible in Moore's books Soviet Politics (1950) and Terror and Progress USSR (1954), in which he explores how Stalin's quest for rapid industrialization of the USSR undermined some key aspects of Marxist ideology, especially political equality. Moore believed that the introduction of bureaucratic rules could lead to democratization in that country.

Martin Albrow, in the book Bureaucracy (1970), stated that the rational bureaucratic procedure, which Weber wrote about, is the best tool for measuring efficiency, which does not necessarily mean ensuring the success of the organization. 

                        Other Research on Bureaucracy 

The book The Management of Innovation (1961), co-authored by sociologist Tom Burns and psychologist George Macpherson Stalker, is one of the most influential studies in the field of organizational theory and industrial sociology. In this book, the authors divide organizations into two types: organic and mechanical. Mechanical organizations have a hierarchically organized bureaucracy, with clear vertical channels of tasks, responsibilities, and power. Each individual and each level within the organization does its part autonomously, while major decisions are made only at the top of the hierarchy. Organic organizations have a looser structure, while levels and channels of communication and decision-making are multiple. In these organizations, achieving goals is more important than respecting clearly defined bureaucratic rules. Organic organizations are more suited to companies operating in fields that are characterized by rapid market changes and major technological innovations. On the other hand, mechanical organizations are more suited to traditional and stable industries, which are not greatly affected by market changes.

French sociologist Michel Crozier, in the book The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (1964), stated his belief that the impersonal centralized bureaucratic system corresponds to French culture. Fear of face-to-face relations, desire for equality, and aversion to hierarchy are patterns that maintain the rigidity of bureaucracy.

In the book The New Industrial State (1967), economist Kenneth Galbraith concludes that in the modern age, large corporations are led and controlled by employed bureaucratic technocrats, while owners have less and less power. The increasing complexity of the operation of modern corporations forces bureaucracy to develop specialized scientific and technical knowledge. The technocratic non-proprietary elite, which includes engineers, accountants, and lawyers, and which Galbraith calls “technostructure”, exert actual control over corporations. their primary goal is to survive, thrive, and maintain independence while being less interested in profit maximization. This group's key resources are management, marketing, and connections with politicians. Galbraith sees the proliferation of bureaucracy in every sector - public, private, and civil. 

In his book The Post-Industrial Society (1969), Alain Touraine states that the second half of the twentieth century saw the development of a post-industrial society, which he called a "programmed" society. In post-industrial societies, the focus is shifting from the production of goods to the production of information. The development of the welfare state abolished the autonomy of the economic sphere because more and more economic decisions are made by the centralized state bureaucracy. It is this centralization and bureaucratization of economic policy that has contributed to post-industrial societies becoming programmed. The creation and dissemination of information is becoming most important for society and the economy, so universities are taking on the most important role in creating and shaping a new type of society and its elite. The centralized power of the state tends to control both the economy and public opinion and thus endanger the power of collective actors and the democratic order. In industrial society, the main representatives of the ruling class were the capitalists, and the main representatives of the popular class were the workers, so class conflicts were characterized by a conflict between workers and capitalists. In postmodern society, the most important representatives of the ruling class are politicians, bureaucrats, and managers, and the main force of resistance to the ruling class is no longer workers and the labor movement, but new social movements - environmental, student, anti-nuclear, feminist and the like.

In his book Classes (1985) Erik Olin Wright introduces "organization" as s type of productive asset. The organization, as coordinated cooperation between producers in a complex division of labor, represents a production resource in itself. In current capitalism, this resource is controlled by managers and capitalists. According to Wright, for bureaucracy (including political and economic leaders), authority is not a resource in itself, but the organization is a resource controlled by a hierarchy of authority. Organizational resources are the basis for exploitation because ordinary workers would be in a better position if the management of companies would be democratized. The peculiarity of this type of resource is that the organization cannot be the subject of legal ownership or ownership relations.

American sociologist Alvin Gouldner was interested in conflicts within bureaucratic organizations.  In his study of a gypsum-manufacturing plant, presented in the book Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy (1954), Gouldner discovered a set of informal norms that function alongside, and in contradiction to, the formal bureaucratic rules. Management often overlooked workers' tardiness, misappropriation of company materials, and other infractions of official rules. Gouldner named those behaviors an “indulgency pattern.” When new management tried to stop those infractions workers protested and organized a strike. 


                                  Critique of Bureaucracy

Karl Marx was very critical of the bureaucracy, which through formalized procedures, secrets, and hierarchies turns the goals of the state into its own goals so that the bureaucracy acts as an imaginary state next to the real state.

In his book Ancient Regime and the Revolution (1856), Alexis de Tocqueville examines how the collapse of the aristocratic order and the revolution in France took place, as well as the long-term consequences of those events. The later failure of the development of democracy in the post-revolutionary period, Tocqueville attributes to the aspirations of both the republican and monarchical regimes in France to continue with the bureaucratic centralization of state power. 

Sociologist Lewis Coser studied the role of intellectuals in American society in the book Men of Ideas (1965). He believes that American society has become too bureaucratic and prevents the development of intelligentsia and ideas that could solve social problems. In the book Conservatism: Dream and Reality (1986), Robert Nisbet sees militarization, centralization, bureaucratization, and conformism as threats to political and personal freedoms in the USA. 

In the book White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) Wright C. Mills attributed the increase in the size of a part of the middle class, the so-called "white collars", to three processes: the growth of bureaucracy in all spheres of work, the development of technology, and the growth of industrial production. Corporations are getting bigger, so former small entrepreneurs are becoming ordinary employees within large companies. The growth of bureaucracy in companies requires the creation of more managerial levels within companies, and these levels are linked into chains of superiority and subordination. At each level, specific coordination and supervision of subordinate employees take place. White-collar workers, unlike experts from earlier periods, do not represent independent professionals but are completely subject to bureaucratic control and manipulation within the companies in which they work. 

Mills thinks that the huge increase in bureaucracy was driven by the idea of ​​rationalizing the world, a type of rationalization that leads to standardization of work and rules, depersonalization, and loss of personal autonomy, all to increase efficiency, coordination, and control. Power in such bureaucracies occurs in three forms: 1) coercive power, 2) power based on faith in one's authority, and 3) manipulative power. Manipulative power is becoming dominant and is based on the application of sophisticated methods of science and technology. The application of the principles of scientific management and the huge centralization of decision-making enables the use of manipulative power. Manipulative power is applied less visibly, and the goal is to manipulate workers to internalize the values ​​imposed on them by their superiors and serve only the interests of those superiors. 

In the book Critique of Everyday Life (2014, in French 1947, 1961, 1968, 1981), Henri Lefebvre studies everyday life, which is not banal but represents a direct product of a society governed by consumerism and the bureaucratization of life. Everyday life is the best indicator of how the capitalist mode of production has shaped modern society. Bureaucratization and consumerism have impoverished and taken away authenticity from everyday life. Capitalism, marketing, and the liberal-democratic state have created a "bureaucratic society of organized consumption". On the other hand, everyday life contains the seeds of resistance to such a system, because it preserves the collective memory of alternative practices and supports the development of strategies and movements that challenge the existing social order.

British sociologist Zygmunt Baumann studied Nazi crimes in his book Modernity and the Holocaust (1989).  Bauman believed that sociologists have not dealt enough with the Holocaust and that they have generally viewed it only as the exception in civilized modern society. Bauman, on the other hand, believed that it is precisely the specific characteristics of modern society, in general, that have made the Holocaust possible. Modern technology and bureaucracy have enabled the Holocaust to be carried out quickly and efficiently, and, on the other hand, technology and bureaucracy have enabled individuals to renounce their own moral responsibility for crimes.

Henry Mintzberg, in the book Structure in Fives (1983) promoted the idea of the ‘adhocracy’ or ‘rule of ad hoc’. Adhocracy presents a state in which strict bureaucratic form is abandoned in decentralized organizations or in project work. 

               Critique of Bureaucratization in the Socialist States

Anarchist Emma Goldman, in her book My Disillusionment in Russia (1923), expressed distrust in the possibility of "class consciousness" being realized independently in the political sphere. The communist state has much greater potential to use the political apparatus of force to achieve economic dictatorship over individuals. The Communist Party in Russia did just that. It nationalized the economy, introduced rigid central planning, established a huge bureaucratic system, abolished freedom of speech, and conducted political purges while securing a privileged status for itself.

In the book History and Class Consciousness (1971, in German 1923) Hungarian philosopher György Lukács warns of the danger of hierarchical structure and the cult of personality, phenomena that were present in the communist parties of that period. In addition, the threat to building a true communist party is the passivity and submissive attitude of ordinary party members. Both of these tendencies can lead to the bureaucratization and centralization of communist parties.



Albrow. Bureaucracy (1970);

Argyris, Chris. Integrating the Individual and the Organization (1964);

Bauman. Modernity and the Holocaust (1989);

Blau. Dynamics of Bureaucracy (1955);

     -     Formal Organizations: A Comparative Approach (1962);

Burnham, James. The Managerial Revolution (1941);

Burns. The Management of Innovation (1961);

Coser. Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View (1965);

     -     Greedy Institutions: Patterns of Undivided Commitment (1974);

Crozier. The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (1964);

Galbraith. The New Industrial State (1967);

Goldman. My Disillusionment in Russia (1923);

Gouldner. Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy (1954); 

Eisenstadt. The Political Systems of Empires (1963);

Hummel, Ralph. The Bureaucratic Experience: A Critique of Life in the Modern Organization (1994);

Lefebvre. Critique of Everyday Life (1991);

Luhmann. Funktionen und Folgen formaler Organisation (1964);

Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition (1984, in French 1979);

Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1963, in German 1852);

Mills. White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951);

     -     The Power Elite (1956);

     -     The Sociological Imagination (1959);

Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organization (1986);

Mouzelis, Nicos P. Organization and Bureaucracy (1967);

Parsons. Toward a General Theory of Action (1951);

     -     Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (1966);

Riesman. A Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950);

Ritzer. The McDonaldization of Society (1993);

Schumpeter. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942);

Taylor, Frederick W. Principles of Scientific Management (1911);

Tocqueville. L’ancien regime and the French Revolution (1955, in French 1877);

Touraine. The Post-Industrial Society (1971, in French 1969);

von Mises, Ludwig. Bureaucracy (1944);

Weber, Max. Economy and Society (1978, in German 1922);

Wilson, James Q. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (1947);

     -     Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (1978);

     -     Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (1989);

Wright. Class, Crisis, and the State (1978).


Still Have Questions?

Our user care team is here for you!

Contact Us