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Max Weber Bureaucracy Essay Summary Outline

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Introduction Given the subject matter of this essay revolves around bureaucracy, and given that bureaucracy is concerned with rules and order, it seems fitting to first begin with an official definition of the term; "A system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives; a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system." This essay will break down how this definition came about and where bureaucracy first originated before moving onto explore its unintended consequences and some of its extreme uses while counter balancing this with some of its more positive attributes. I shall look at the modern cases of bureaucracy and weigh up whether there is a place for it in the modern world and if not whether post bureaucracy is more fitting. Finally I shall conclude by attempting to come down on one side of the argument as to whether in fact bureaucracy is bad.

Bureaucracy as an ideal type and form of power based on legitimate authority Max Weber was a German social scientist (1864-1920) who was concerned with the question of what held societies together, he came to the conclusion that it was down to authority which allows those who have the right of legitimacy to give orders (Wilson, 1999). Weber questioned what the power of this authority was based on, because in most societies it is not based on force, fear or coercion. This authority previously came about in two main ways; authority based on charisma (the personal authority of a particular individual) or authority based on tradition (the established authority of institutions) (Grey, 2009). However, Weber put forward the idea that these previous types of authority were increasingly being overshadowed by rational-legal authority in modern societies (systems of rules devised for rational reasons). Weber was writing at a time where organisations were growing at a rate not seen before. He was commentating o the transformation that he was directly seeing. The idea of this rationality in society and organisations is not a new one and indeed in Weber's study regarding the rise of capitalism he argued that it owed a considerable amount to the practices of the Calvinist Church which was itself involved in logical calculative thought. This rationalisation can be defined as a process whereby the means chose to pursue ends can be determined by logical and rational calculation (Wilson, 1999). When applied to organisations, this rational-legal authority means bureaucracy.

When Weber was putting forward his ideas regarding bureaucracy he discussed it as "an ideal type" however a common misconception is that by this Weber meant bureaucracy was a desirable ideal when in fact he despaired of how dominant this organisational structure was becoming. The "ideal type" is simply a subjective element in social theory and research which formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena, but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. According to Wilson (1999) "the ideal type of bureaucracy is governed by a formal set of rules and procedures that ensures that operations and activities are carried out in a predictable, uniform and impersonal manner". This comes from the four foundational aspects that according to Weber bureaucracy consist of; functional specialisation (the formal division of labour), hierarchy of authority (the structure that gives those in a superior position authority, simply because they hold that position), system of rules (everything is based upon following a formal set of written rules about practices and procedures) and impersonality (rules are followed without regard for emotions) (Grey, 2009). According to Weber it was these four concepts that meant

bureaucracy was the most technically efficient and rational form of organisations, it was adopted because it was simply better than any other system. Form of rationality it promotes (instrumental/formal vs. value/substantive) It is clear to see that bureaucracy promotes an instrumental form of rationality, which is a type of decision making which is subject to calculation that goes into an action to increase its chance of success. Its decisive feature is that it eliminates an orientation to values because they are non-technical. Rationality is instrumental (formal) when problems are solved by the application of technical criteria. In opposition, substantive (value) rationality is a type of decision making which is subject to values and an appeal to ethical norms - this is not something that bureaucracy is concerned with especially given substantive rationality does not take into account the nature of outcomes. Weber also concluded that bureaucracy was substantively irrational following his work and reading on the "overall societal effects of its rise" (Grey, 2009). This is where Weber coined his term of "The Iron Cage" of rationality. The idea was that because bureaucracy was becoming so dominant in every aspect of life and work more and more people's lives were lived within the constraints of a rationalised system. Grey (2009) takes it ones step further and claims that bureaucracy undermines our very humanity. Whilst this may seem ludicrous, he presents a very interesting idea. We live in a world "in which every experience is organised from the hospital in which we are born to the undertakers that take us to our graves" (Grey, 2009).

Unintended consequences/Dysfunctions of bureaucracy (Blau, Gouldner, Merton) It is already clear to see that bureaucracy may not be without its problems, or unintended consequences. The word itself in the modern day world is often frowned on and associated with issues of red tape as well as a "needless waste and pedantic obsession with rules" (Grey, 2009). It is essential in many organisations nowadays that there is a paper trail, so that it can be proved everything was done how it was meant to be. However, the unintended consequences of bureaucracy go much further than this and begin with the idea that bureaucracy is thought of as a mechanical form of organisation. Whilst this means that every part is designed perfectly and operates in a predictable and standard way, it also means that the people within the organisation have to function as if they are merely cogs which lead to a number of key unintended consequences.

There is firstly an issue regarding the levels of motivation among employees. A lack of personal commitment is bred from having to follow set rules and having no discretion about doing so. These standard procedures that must be followed also provides little interest or stimulation for employees which again weakens their commitment to the organisation. It is not a new idea that motivation is clearly linked to job satisfaction and that higher motivation leads to better work performance. It therefore follows that in bureaucracies where motivation is low employees will simply perform sub optimally meaning they are not as efficient as first thought. Following on from the above problem, is that this lack of motivation often translates into poor customer service. Employees will simply follow rules and procedures blindly with little regard for the customer in the process. Bureaucratic rules are also designed for the benefit of the organisation, not the customer meaning they will not be changed to suit the demands of one individual.

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Table of Contents


1 Introduction
1.1 Problem Definition
1.2 Layout of this Paper

2 Max Weber´s Theory of Bureaucracy and its Negative Consequences
2.1 Max Weber´s Theory of Bureaucracy
2.1.1 Rationalization as Weber´s Image of Modernity
2.1.2 Three Types of Legitimate Domination
2.1.3 Characteristics of Weber´s Bureaucracy and its Benefits
2.2 Negative Consequences of Weber´s Bureaucracy
2.2.1 Weber - Bureaucracy as Iron Cage
2.2.2 Merton - Unexpected Dysfunctions

3 Conclusion
3.1 Results
3.2 Consequences



The text at hand deals with Max Weber´s theory of bureaucracy and its negative consequences in Robert K. Merton´s functional analysis. The starting point is the description of what Weber understands as rationalization and his conceptualization of the three types of legitimate domination. The purest and most rational type of legal domination is in Weber´s eyes bureaucracy with its benefits of precision, calculability, controllability and efficiency - in short, with its technical superiority. Weber´s position concerning bureaucratization is ambivalent, because he also sees the negative consequences in dehumanization and excessive control, which ends in an ‘iron cage’. Merton analysis outlines the dysfunctions resulting from bureaucratic structures. The negative consequences he identifies are the displacement of goals, the trained incapacity, over-conformity and esprit de corps of the officials and the depersonalization of relationships.

1 Introduction

1.1 Problem Definition

In public opinion bureaucracy has in general a negative connotation which could be expressed with Goethe’s citation above, because bureaucracy is in Germany seen as a typical German phenomenon for inflexibility and unprofitability. That’s why bureaucratic structures in public and private administrations are likely described as management.1 Wherever it is called, how relevant the subject of bureaucracy is in our present service economy, shows Ritzer´s (1993) thesis from the ‘McDonaldization of Society’ and his findings, that calculability, predictability, control and efficiency are the basis of our acting.2 These are consequences of rationalization and that´s why bureaucracy is an omnipresent part of our all modern life.

This is what Max Weber (1864-1920) predicted almost 100 years ago; that the process of rationalization will be lead to a bureaucratic way to handle and manage things. So the roots of modern thinking on bureaucracy lie in his work.3 Weber´s interest in bureaucracy was guided by his belief, that the increasing bureaucratization on the level of institutions is a precondition for a modern, highly industrial society.4 Bureaucracy for him is the most efficient and effective form of organization to ensure precision, durability, reliability and speed in a getting more and more complex world. But Weber himself expected also the negative aspects of bureaucratization and rationalization respectively - what he terms an ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy.5

After Weber, research in bureaucracy was built on his theory. Most of the new insights in this area were either further conceptualizations of this theory of bureaucracy or revisions and critiques, which have expressed concern over the dysfunctions of and problems within bureaucracy.6 These negative consequences are broad and manifold and come from different scholars.7 One critic is Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), who looks on bureaucracy with a functional analysis and suggests that the characteristics of Weber´s bureaucracy do not provide only positive and efficient outcomes. Merton sees in bureaucracy the tendency to foster e.g. goal displacement. This means, that the strictly obedience and conformity to norms and rules may lead to a situation, where these rules become ends in themselves, which can inhibit the organization to achieve its goals and cause dysfunctional outcomes.8 Merton labels the negative consequences of Weber´s principles ‘latent dysfunctions’.

The goal of this paper is to outline and expound Max Weber´s theory of bureaucracy, to highlight its benefits and negative aspects from Weber´s point of view and to show the negative consequences (dysfunctions), which Merton describes in his work.

1.2 Layout of this Paper

This paper is divided into three main sections. The introduction deals with the problem definition and the layout of this paper. Section two is divided in two parts. Part one introduces Max Weber´s theory of bureaucracy and expounds and defines the process of rationalization, the three types of legitimate domination as well as the characteristics of Weber´s bureaucracy and its benefits. Part two presents the negative consequences of Weber´s bureaucracy. First there will be explained Weber´s himself expected negative consequences which he terms ‘iron cage’ and second the unexpected and unintended dysfunctions of bureaucracy, which Robert K. Merton anticipates. The paper ends with the conclusion that encompasses results and consequences.

2 Max Weber´s Theory of Bureaucracy and its Negative Consequences

2.1 Max Weber´s Theory of Bureaucracy

The following section deals with Max Weber´s theory of bureaucracy. Before turning to Weber´s bureaucracy model it is advisable to illustrate first his image of the rationalization process, which is the leading thought throughout his work. Furthermore, it is appropriated to give a short overview about Weber´s conceptualization of the three types of legitimate domination. The final part presents, on the one hand, the characteristics of Weber´s bureaucracy and on the other hand, its benefits to Weber.

2.1.1 Rationalization as Weber´s Image of Modernity

During his studies concerning the sociology of religion, especially the Protestantism as the foundation of Capitalism, Weber reached the solution of a universal-historic development, the processes of rationalization in all areas of life (e.g. economy, policy, culture, science, religion).9 So it can be said that, for Weber, rationalization is the axial principle for modern western societies.10 In his eyes, rationalization results in the increasing ability of people to cope with and influence the natural and social environment by setting criteria in ordering, systemizing and planning.11

The process of rationalization can be explained, according to Weber, along three dimensions: worldviews, institutions and lifestyle.12

The rationalization of worldviews describes Weber as ‘Disenchantment of the World’, which is a part of the process of rationalization, secularization and intellectualization.13 According to Weber, the ‘Disenchantment of the World‘ is endpoint of ”jener große religionsgeschichtliche Prozess […], welcher mit der altjüdischen Prophetie einsetzte und, im Verein mit dem hellenischen wissenschaftlichen Denken, alle magischen Mittel der Heilssuche als Aberglaube und Frevel verwarf.”14 The final point of this process was Calvinism, especially the characteristic of Puritanism, but the process starts with the changing way how people valued working since the Greek.15

In ancient times working was just a job for slaves but this view changed in the beginning middle-ages, where physical work was valued as obeying God. During the Renaissance, people reintroduced the perspective of the Greek and saw the sense of life outside hard physical work.16 Until this time, the world was filled with magic and the worldview was a monolithic one, were the natural and paranormal was not separated.17 With the beginning of the Reformation magic was increasingly rejected from religion. The endpoint of that process is for Weber taking on the protestant characteristic of Calvinism.

Until this time, ascetical work, as the only godly way of life was done by monks in catholic monasteries.18 Calvin changed this by introducing the ‘predestination doctrine’, which emphasizes that god has already predetermined the fate of everybody after they have died. The only way to receive divine redemption or election is through continuous ascetical working.19 By that, work became an intrinsic motivated profession or calling, which means that the duty to work wasn´t any longer externally forced - there was a ‘do it yourself- ideology’.20 Everybody who wanted to be sure to get in heaven worked without pause, methodical and ascetical like the monks. The more a people were successful in their work and business, the greater was the chance to receive god´s grace - which led to a rational way of life impelled by the logic and spirit of the developing capitalism since the Renaissance, by which profit-oriented working got a religious legitimacy. So Calvin and the Puritanism emphasized efficiency and transformed work from a sign of poor life into cult.21

To sum up, the ‘Disenchantment of the World’ means the exclusion of all magical means granting salvation - it was the elimination of magic within the world.22 The process of disenchantment began within the Greek philosophy and science, was continued within the renaissance and culminated in Calvinism. The result is the concentration on inner worldly ascetical continuous working and to see work as a calling - thus the rationalization of all worldly matters.23

Calvinism was the starting point for rationalization. But in the 18th century, the Puritanism began to go global, due to their dominance concerning economic benefits.24 Weber explains this as follows: “Die Schaffung einer kapitalistischen Ethik leistete […] erst die innerweltliche Askese des Protestantismus, welche gerade den frömmsten und ethisch rigorosesten Elementen den Weg in das Geschäftsleben öffnete und ihnen vor allem den Erfolg im Geschäftsleben als Frucht rationaler Lebensführung zuwendete.“25 But the Puritanism and protestant ethic went away from the sphere of business and left capitalism without a religious foundation.26 Weber says that “der Krampf des Suchens nach dem Gottesreich sich allmählich in nüchterne Berufstugend aufzulösen begann, die religiöse Wurzel langsam abstarb und utilitaristischer Diesseitigkeit Platz machte.”27 Protestantism was the driver for a religious motivated performance orientation, but this had become secularized and independent.

Connected with the rationalization of worldviews is the rationalization of lifestyle. In Weber´s eyes this is a result from Calvinism and its asceticism: “[…]das die Reformation ja nicht sowohl die Beseitigung der katholischen Herrschaft über das Leben überhaupt, als vielmehr die Ersetzung der bisherigen Form durch eine andere bedeutete. Und zwar die Ersetzung einer höchst bequemen, praktisch damals wenig fühlbaren, vielfach fast nur noch formalen Herrschaft durch eine im denkbar weitestgehenden Maße in alle Spähren des häuslichen und öffentlichen Lebens eindringende, unendlich lästige und ernstgemeinte Reglementierung der ganzen Lebensführung.“28 For Weber, Puritans are rational human beings, who secure their eternal life in heaven by methodical working. So the rationalization of lifestyle means the development of a methodical and rational way of life, which tries to take into account set rules.29

But at the same time there was an increasing evolution of sciences, which tried to explain the world. This scientific knowledge came from different scientific communities (e.g. economy, sociology, jurisprudence) and provided different possibilities to see the world. That’s why people had the chance to explain the world in a way they assumed as right and combined with the decreasing religious foundation and developed into a lifestyle that was more and more autonomous and individual.30 Graber-Haider explains this as follows: ”Doch in der weiteren Entwicklung wurde die Selbstkontrolle des religiösen Menschen durch die Entfaltung der wissenschaftlichen Persönlichkeit abgelöst. Ein ethischer Rationalisierungsprozess führte dabei zu gesteigerter persönlicher Verantwortung. Autonome Persönlichkeiten prägten vermehrt auch autonome Wertordnungen.“31 To sum up, the practical meaning of rationalization for the social life means, that things become more universal and can be seen and defined from different point of views.32

The rationalization on those two levels effected the rationalization of institutions as well. Rationalization in this case means that the world became increasingly calculable and controllable due to the uprising sciences, technologies and forms of organization.33 ”Zunächst rationalisierten protestantische Unternehmer ihre Produktionsformen, in dem sie sich von traditionellen Arbeits- und Handelsmethoden abwandten und nach effizienteren Zweck-Mittel-Relationen strebten.”34 One famous method was the introduction of the instrument of the double-entry bookkeeping. Summarizing, rationalization of institutions was the development and distribution of skills to measure, calculate and influence what happens in the world.35 For Weber, the rationalization process leads to an institutional change and the most rational and efficient form of organization in the future is bureaucracy.

2.1.2 Three Types of Legitimate Domination

Based upon the rationalization processes, Weber asked how activities in a society with an increasing population should be organized so that they are stable, durable, coordinated and purpose-oriented.36 To manage activities with power, as “jede Chance, innerhalb einer sozialen Beziehung den eigenen Willen auch gegen Widerstreben duchzusetzen, gleichviel worauf diese Chance beruht”, is in Weber´eyes uncertain, because it doesn´t rest on legitimacy - due to the fact that power can have many different sources.37 Only when power is transformed into domination, as “jede Chance, für einen Befehl bestimmten Inhalts bei angebbaren Personen Gehorsam zu finden; Disziplin soll heißen die Chance, kraft eingeübter Einstellung für einen Befehl prompten, automatischen und schematischen Gehorsam bei einer angebbaren Vielfalt von Menschen zu finden”, power becomes concrete and useable.38 This means, domination in the sense of authority is institutionalized and based on general rules and norms, an established kind of power, which is only obligatory for a certain area of people - he officials within an administration.39 These people obey by habitual training, the process of disciplining, and when they believe in the legitimacy of the domination.40 This means, that all claims of domination must rest on a claim of legitimacy to provide inner grounds for justification, which ensures obedience and a stable and continuous authority. Only when the dominated person’s belief in the right of legitimacy and accepts this in a form of authority, can authority serve as power.41


1 Cp. Galbraith (2005): p. 53.

2 Cp. Thompson/Alvesson (2004): p. 97-98; see also Ritzer (1983).

3 Cp. Ritzer (1993): p. 27.

4 Cp. Lipset (1959): p. 90.

5 Cp. Morgan (1997): p. 31.

6 Cp. Bonazzi (2008): p. 177.

7 Critiques concerning the dysfunctions of bureaucracy are also stated from Selznick, Croizer, Burns and Stalker, Gouldner or Blau. Due to the large amount of critique the text at hand concentrates on Merton and the unexpected and unintended negative consequences.

8 Cp. Merton (1964): p. 51-60; cp. Jain (2004): p. 2; cp. Kieser (2006): p. 63; cp. Bonazzi (2008): p. 187; cp. Aluko/Adesopo (2004): p. 16.

9 Cp. Kässler (2006): p. 199; cp. Lassman/Speirs (1994): p. xviii-xix; cp. Albrow (1972): p. 47.

10 Cp. Bell (1979): p. 27.

11 Cp. Kässler (2006): p. 199-200; cp. Nerlinger/Bickle/Schaber (2008): p. 54.

12 Rationalization is in Weber´s eyes, the fate of modernity, which he differently described as bureaucratization, industrialization, specialization, intellectualization, secularization or disenchantment depending on what aspects he wanted to emphasize (cp. Bell (1979): p. 72; cp. Hartz (2004): p. 4-5; cp. Albrow (1972): p. 41).

13 Cp. Weber (1999): p. 90; cp. Weber (2010): p. 396.

14 Weber (1999): p. 90-91.

15 According to Weber, the terms Calvinism and Puritanism are used as synonyms in this paper to describe the ascetical working and ascetical Protestantism. (Weber 2010: p. 82.). The specific religious difference between them is not relevant for the text at hand.

16 Cp. Nieschmidt (2010): p. 6-7.

17 Cp. Kieser (2006): p. 43.

18 Cp. Kieser (2006): p. 44.

19 Cp. Gerhards (1989): p. 352; cp. Breuer (2006): p. 15 & 33; cp. Röhrich (2006): p. 55; cp. Hartz (2004): p. 4; cp. Hartz (2009): p. 75; cp. Fitzi (2008): p. 112.

20 Cp. Weber (2010): p. 485; cp. Röhrich (2006): p. 56; cp. Joffe (2011): p. 66.

21 Cp. Weber (2010): p. 376, 423 & 455; cp. Nieschmidt (2010): p. 8; cp. Zwecker (2010): p. 201.; cp. Röhrich (2006): p. 57.

22 Cp. Rosa/Strecker/Kottmann (2007): p. 58.

23 Cp. Lehmann (2009): p. 10-11; cp. Fitzi (2008): p. 98.

24 Cp. Kieser (2006): p. 45.

25 Weber (2010): p. 455.

26 Cp. Stehr (2007): p. 32; cp. Noll (2010): p. 157; cp. Hartz (2004): p. 29.

27 Weber (1999): p. 159.

28 Weber (1999): p. 26.

29 Cp. Kiesel (1994): p. 29; cp. Lehmann (2009): p. 15.

30 Cp. Grabner-Haider (2006): p. 387; cp. Noll (2010): p. 157.

31 Grabner-Haider (2006): p. 387.

32 Cp. Stehr (2007): p. 37.

33 Cp. Kieser (2006): p. 42.

34 Rosa/Strecker/Kottmann (2007): p. 57.

35 Cp. Kiesel (1994): p. 29.

36 Cp. Grunow (2009): p. 354.

37 Weber (2010): p. 38.

38 Weber (2010): p. 38.

39 Cp. Vierecke/Mayerhofer/Kohout (2010): p. 69; cp. Albrow (1972): p. 43; cp. Hopkins (1964): p. 84.

40 This is the difference between legitimate domination and arbitrary domination, where obedience is forced by all means of power, e.g. violence.

41 Cp. Bonazzi (2008): p. 167; cp. Morgan (1997): p. 231; cp. Menz (2009): p. 126-128.