Study of bureaucracy

Beyond all others, Max Weber may be regarded as the founder of the systematic study of bureaucracy. '[H]is formulations have been the fountainhead for much theoretical and empirical inquiry into bureaucracy.'(Merton, Gray, Hockey and Selvin, 1952:17) Weber's main anxiety concerned the society and the political system and involved the discrimination of people who were worthy of having a form of authority from those who were relatives or friends with a man with power and influence. This paper describes the characteristics of the "ideal type bureaucracy of Weber with a discussion on the 'superiority' of rational legal authority and its leading role in Weber's bureaucracy. The role of power and authority on the Weberian analysis of bureaucracy are examined, in addition with their conflicting relationship which has guided to a plethora of critiques. Misrepresentations, research studies, personal judgment and analysis based on alternative approaches to the entire "ideal type bureaucracy, have directed to numerous critiques which examine the advantages and disadvantages of Weber's concept ; many of which underline important factors neglected by the writer. Regardless of this factors his "ideal type of bureaucracy 'have been the fountainhead for much theoretical and empirical inquiry into bureaucracy' (Merton,Gray,Hochkey and Selvin,1952:17).


Bureaucracy has been recognized as 'the primary institutional characteristic of highly complex and differentiated societies' (Landau, 1972: 167). Weber in his attempt to obtain for a merit operational system applicable in society determined the "ideal type of bureaucracy with its essential characteristics in whose validity rests the whole idea. "Ideal type bureaucracy was an approach to resolve a combination of situations and facts that existed in organizations and in society and the characteristics of it describe how in every specific situation one should perform to reach effectiveness as an individual in a large organization. It has been criticised for being something imaginary that could not be applicable. Such criticism is given by Courpasson and Clegg (2006), who state their own view of understanding the ideal type. According to them, '[t]he ideal type does not correspond to reality but seeks to condense essential features of it in the model so that one can better recognizes its real characteristics when it is encountered. 'It is not an embodiment of one side or aspect but the synthetic ideational representation of complex phenomena from reality.'(Courpasson and Clegg, 2006:321)

Weber outlined three forms of power giving rise to authority structures, the charismatic form, the traditional form and the rational-legal form. Traditional authority is based on the belief in traditions, and the legitimacy of the person represents these traditions whilst charismatic authority is set on the persuasion of the people by someone with magical convincing powers. The third authority, which was believed by Weber as superior to other two, provides a large spectrum of people who can justifiably gain authority. Rational-legal authority rests on the belief in the legitimacy of patterns of standard rules which provide certain privileges to those raised to authority to issue orders. Authority is held by legally established impersonal commands and expands to people only by the virtue of offices they hold. Max Weber states, 'In the case of legal authority, obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal order. It extends to the persons exercising the authority of office under it only by virtue of the formal legality of their commands and only within the scope of authority of the office.'(Weber, 1947:328) The precise authority regards obedience to a collection of impersonal rules and not to a particular person. The ''ideal type'' of authority structure which is characterised by the legal norms and rules is applied to all officially constituted organizations. As Blau (1963:308) points out in his article, the modern government is reflected as the prototype of rational legal authority which has an absolute control over the legal use of physical coercion, and the same principles are reflected in its executive organizations, such as the army, and furthermore in private corporations, such as a factory.

According to Weber bureaucracies are goal oriented organizations based on rational principles in order to efficiently attain their goals. As I have mentioned before, in order for rational-legal authority to reach its complete effectiveness it must first lead the acceptance of the validity of some specific characteristics.

Hence, the functioning of a bureaucracy is governed by a reliable usage of 'technical rules or norms'. As Henderson and Parson (in Weber, 1947:332) observe Weber gives no explanation of the difference between rules and norms. According to their opinion 'by 'norms' he means rules which limit conduct on grounds other than those of efficiency.'(Henderson and Parson, in Weber 1947:332) Every decision made, administrative rules and measurements are confirmed in writing, even when the rule arises from oral debate. The 'office' arises from the mixture of an unremitting organization of official operations and the written documents. Within bureaucracy the person in authority occupies an 'office' and he is subject to an impersonal order to which his actions are oriented. Officers must be ranked hierarchically with directives flowing down the chain of command and information flowing up. Officials are also answerable for their performance and their subaltern to the immediate superior for them. The administrative staffs do not possess anything which is relevant to the way the organization construct its belongings. This indicates that officers do not owe anything that is in the sphere of their office and is a property of the organization. So there is an obvious distinction between the belongings of the organization in an 'office' and the personal property of the official. With this division, officers are obligated to distinct their private life and not to use their position for a private gain. Despite the fact that the members of an organization must comply with a person in authority, they owe this obedience to the impersonal order and not to him as an individual person. Impersonal regulations typify the operations of an organization, which specifically state responsibilities, duties and standardized procedures. With impersonality and impartiality there is no existence of discrimination and consequently there is a wide spectrum of fairness lying in organizations.

The administration of an organization is divided to various departments with special workforce in each department. Every 'office' has a clearly defined area of responsibility and this leads to the effective creation of manageable tasks, instead of complex duties with slow and time consuming procedures. In addition, the employees in each department 'are appointed, not selected' (Weber, 1947: 333) according to their technical competence. Knowledge and expertise is tested by examination or assured by diplomas of technical training.

Working together, these characteristics are designed to promote the collective goals of the organization and increase administrative efficiency. Weber's ''ideal type'' of bureaucracy in rational social systems may have been an approach to vanish nepotism and generate meritocracy, but as Blau (1963:311) underlines there is absence of the empirical research that is required to guarantee effectiveness. 'These are not elucidations of concepts but statements of fact which are assumed to be correct. Whereas concepts are not subject to empirical verification, hypothesized factual relationships are. Only empirical research can ascertain, for instance, whether authoritarian management and impersonal detachment, singly and in combination, always promote administrative efficiency, as predicted, or whether they do so only under certain conditions, or perhaps not at all.'(Blau, 1963:311)

Weber acknowledged formal rationality with effectiveness, goal achievement. Therefore, formal rationality was declared as the principle of direction of action to abstract formal rules and norms to an impersonal order.


'Power is defined by Weber as a person's ability to impose his will upon others despite resistance.' (Blau 1963: 306) .Hamilton (1991:236) underlines a problem in a specific phrase from the original definition of power by Weber, in the translation in English. ?n his opinion the closest definition to the original one is 'Within a social relationship, power means any chance (no matter where this chance is based on) to carry through one's*[*individual or collective] own will( even against resistance).' But according to Parsons (1968:656) power is 'The probability within a social relationship of being able to secure one's own ends even against opposition'. As we can observe the definitions for power, 'Macht' as Weber states in German, vary from author to author since Weber wrote his book in his own language and by translating it to a second language, its meaning is being distorted. A general perspective to the definition of power that is related to all the attempts of authors is that '"Power is the ability to exercise domination over another person' (Nass , 1986 :61).

Two basic types of power are being distinguished. The first is the ability to influence the interests of others which results to controlling them and the domination that rests on authority. This describes the power of an 'officer' to command and the duty of the workforce to obey. Etzioni (1961:4-19) emphasizes the notion of coercive power and underlines the negligence of Weber to consider it to his investigation of domination. The importance of coercive power is crucial since an incumbent may be tempted by the power of the authority he possess and exceeds his limits of authority, ignoring the formal rules that is obligated to follow and coerce a worker with less authority than him to do acts that is beneath his working obligations.

Authority, as a means of power, in the "ideal type of bureaucracy is hierarchically distributed and flows downward from the top of the organizational structure. It is allocated on faithfulness by the members of the organization to the expectations associated with their formal rules. The officer will internalize their executive task constraints and create a submissive and acceptable relation to organizational goals. Weber distinguishes the three types of legitimate authority as the traditional authority, the charismatic authority and the rational-legal authority on which the "ideal type of bureaucracy is constructed. As Weber states, 'In the case of legal authority, obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal order. It extends to the persons exercising the authority of office under it only by virtue of the formal legality of their commands and only within the scope of authority of the office.' (Weber, 1947:328) With the usage of rational legal authority society is released from searching for a charismatic person to become a leader and moreover is liberated from the abandonment of the authority to an unreliable person through inheritance (Hatch, 2006:31).

According to Weber, authority is power accepted as legitimate by those subjected to it. So as a consequence, authority's amount is constant and distributed according to calculations of the technical knowledge and expertise of the participants based on formal rationality. Conversely power in organizations is a variable and its amount is changeable. As Rudolph and H. Rudolph (1979:198) highlight, when officers have different motives than the prospect of the existence rules, anticipated relationships are re-cast in term of power. Weber, as Rudolph and H. Rudolph (1979:198) state, overlooked the important role of power in formal organizations although it is essential for achieving bureaucratic effectiveness. Weber believed that if officials' motives are guided by instrumental efficiency, technical expertise and knowledge, they will not interweave in the struggle for power. In contrast to Weber's beliefs, expertise is far beyond from being the only motive of bureaucrats and so they engage in struggles for power (Rudolph and H. Rudolph, 1979:209). Weber imagined that workforce would not fear to oppose bureaucratic authority, but simultaneously would obey by their desire to the rules and commands of their formal role. 'He did not envison that they would find and use power against authority. Nor did he anticipate that the use of power by "lower participants in organizations would require higher participants to find and use power as well as authority for organizational effectiveness and survival. His conceptualization of bureaucracy failed to take account of the struggle for power that is endemic in administrative relationships.'(Rudolph and H. Rudolph, 1979:208)



Weber's ''ideal type'' of bureaucracy has been criticised a lot for its lack of empirical research and evaluated by several social scientists as hypothetical. Blau(1963) characterizes him as 'one of the fathers of modern sociology' and responds to those criticising him by indicating, 'It is the fate of every scientist, but particularly the great innovator who blazes new trails and points in new direction, that his very success in clearing the path for others makes his own work soon appear crude and obsolete.'(Blau, 1963:316) The weaknesses of the "ideal type of bureaucracy vary but some strengtheners also occur in helping sociology.

In a formal rationalized organization there exists a series of offices which are hierarchically arranged and operate according to a number of written impersonal rules. Authority held by these officers is established by impersonal orders, and consequently the actions and orders of an officer will not be influenced by any sign of personal relationship with an employee. Expressions of predilection for a person or aversion for another one are inhibited, therefore discrimination is unfeasible. Moreover this reduces the conflictions between the staff because by following the impersonal rules and orders in an organization based on rationality, their personal relationships are downgraded and furthermore their concentration is related to their work.

The absolute commitment to their duty in addition to the division of the organization to a variety of departments submits to the goal achievement set by the organization. '[W]ork can be fulfilling, rather than a disutility, and that organization can be experienced as a cooperative endeavour' as Adler and Borys (1996:63) mark. Each department consists of specialized personnel with specific tasks and responsibilities in result to contribute to the effectiveness of the organization and improve their technical expertise simplifying by this tactic their promotion.

To contribute to the effectiveness of the organisation, candidates are appointed and promoted according to a merit-based system specifically with respect to their technical expertise and knowledge. The precise characteristic of rational legal authority reduces favouritism as well and enhances justice.

An additional advantage of Weber's bureaucracy has its foundations on stress theory and its correlation with formalization. Several researches as Jackson and Schuler (1985) have revealed the negative relationship between stress and formality (Adler and Borys, 1996:64). Formalization diminishes stress, reduces disagreements, feelings of alienation, ambiguity and alternatively increases work satisfaction (Adler and Borys, 1996:64).


For Weber the process of bureaucratization requires rationalization, which in turn designates the use of calculations through an organization to handle situations through formal rules. Rational calculation declaring the proper and logical, through formal rules can decrease autonomy and individual power converting people to machine-like objects and even reach to a point where the presence of humans will not be essential to their formulation. Decisions are obtained based on the protection and growth of the organization leaving employers' protection as an unimportant issue, concluding this way to dehumanisation. Hamilton (1991:86) emphasizes this leaning to dehumanisation, '[t]he irrationality of rationalization lies in the creation of impersonal meaningless forces which tend to function independently and despite man'. Impersonality with formality of the rules and the requirement of the complete obedience of the bureaucrats in addition with the absolute dedication to their assigned tasks, signals to the depersonalization of bureaucrats. Employees can reach the point where they see their colleagues in terms of their group-department- identities and not as a separate person with different personality. Merton (1940:565-566 ) underlines that depersonalization also influences the communication with the public of an organization through the ignorance of individual cases and the tension of generalization.

Another weakness to be noted is that the effectiveness of a bureaucracy has its foundations on the strict commitment to the rules with the result of transmuting them into absolutes; "means become the "ends. In time this means-rules- from functional are transformed to symbolic (Merton, 1940: 564). Officers are extremely devoted to their career structure with their performance and behaviour being tightly bonded to their goal, concluding to an exaggeration in the obedience of regulations and inevitably create a rigid environment with frightened and uncertain for their opinion human beings. The achievement of the organizational goal is their only anxiety; reaching this way to exaggeration-'red tape'-. Bendix (1947:493) considers the division of labour and the formation of special departments in an organization as a factor to the creation of the 'red tape' phenomenon. The foresaid processes results from the displacements of the original goals of the bureaucratic organization, into changing its pathway from rational to irrational and uncontrollable.

A significant topic of discussion with various critics is the Weberian approach on the issue of bureaucrats and professionals. An adequate number of researches, Abrahamson 1967; Blau 1974; Blau and Scott 1962; Cheek 1967; Etzioni 1964: 77; Hall 1967, 1968; and others, demonstrated that professionals are incorrectly defined by Weber, marking six differences between bureaucrats and professional (Nass,1986:64). Parsons and Henderson (in Weber, 1947: 58-60), and Gouldern (1954:22) strongly underlined the failure of Weber to distinguish the notion of professional authority from bureaucratic. On the contrary if consideration of professionals as bureaucratic leaders of their own organizations without any administrative staff utilized, then we conclude that Weber managed suitable the differences between them (Nass, 1986:68).


Analysing the characteristics of Weber's "ideal type of bureaucracy is crucial for everyone to value his concept, as the efficiency of the authority is based on the validation of those characteristics (Weber, 1947: 329). Rationality, efficiency, legality, technical expertise, impersonality and power of authority are the key concepts of Weber's model which individually and with their inter-relationships are the foundation of every organization development. The combination of power and authority and their role in bureaucracy has led to a plethora of critiques, with the ignorance of coercive power and struggle for power being their main subject. Sociologists and philosophers criticized Weber's ''ideal'' bureaucracy declaring strengtheners and weaknesses according to their way of understanding his conception and based on previous studies which sometimes misrepresent Weber's translated writings. 'As each critique was piled on top of the one before, the discussions became further and further removed from what Weber actually wrote' (Nass, 1986:68). Blau (1963:316) responds to Weber's unfavourable critiques with the statement, 'Much of Marx's work seems crude today; so does much of Freud's; and if much of Weber's does too, as I have suggested, it is because he belongs to this august company.' (Blau, 1963:316)

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