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Weber's Theory of Bureaucracy
& Authority

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Evolution of Management Thought -
Weber's Theory of Bureaucracy & Authority

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German Sociologist-philosopher. He was deeply interested in the process of social change and about the effect rationality on religious thought and capitalism. He wrote about the emergence of rationality in the West by comparing and contrasting differing cultures and historical periods. His writings on administration were part of this larger context.

His discussion on authority emnates from the perspective of observing modern bureaucratic organizations. Weber's discussion of authority relations also provides insight into what is happening in the modern world. On what basis do men and women exercise authority over others? Why do men and women comply voluntarily to the authority exercised over them by superiors? Weber distinguished three main types of authority:

  1. Traditional Authority

  2. Rational-legal Authority

  3. Charismatic

Charismatic authority rests on appeal of leaders and is based upon a belief in the divine or inordinate attributes of the person giving the order (e.g. Christ). In the traditional form of authority, orders were obeyed, as the person giving them were invested with the same through custom or conventions (e.g. king or lord. In the legal-rational form of authority, orders were obeyed because subordinates believed that the person giving them were empowered to do so through legal sanction i.e. in accordance with legal rules and regulations in force. Unlike rational-legal authority, traditional authority is not codified in impersonal rules but is usually invested in a hereditary line or invested in a particular office by a higher power (Coser, 1977). Rational legal authority is anchored in impersonal rules that have been legally established. This type of authority has come to characterize social relations in modern societies (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

Weber contended that Charismatic authority mainly arises in times of crisis and has to move to traditional or rational-legal forms for long term stability and that that rational-legal authority was becoming the dominant system (supplanting traditional authority) through the modern state and capitalism, mainly due to it's "purely technical superiority over any other form of organization"

Bureaucracy is the organisational form built upon pure legal-rational authority. But the emergence of bureaucracy was from more traditional organizational forms (like feudalism) and it's rising pre-eminence in modern society. Scott defines bureaucracy it as "the existence of a specialized administrative staff". According to Weber, bureaucracy is a particular type of administrative structure developed through rational-legal authority.

Bureaucratic structures evolved from traditional structures with the following changes:

  1. Responsibilities based on jurisdictional areas are clearly defined, activities are distributed as official duties (unlike traditional form where duties delegated by leader and changed at any time).

  2. Organization follows hierarchial principle -- subordinates follow orders or superiors, but have right of appeal (in contrast to more diffuse structure in traditional authority).

  3. Intential, abstract rules govern decisions and actions. Rules are stable, exhaustive, and can be learned. Decisions are recorded in permanent files (in traditional forms few explicit rules or written records).

  4. Means of production or administration belong to office. Personal property separated from office property.

  5. Officials are selected on basis of technical qualifications, appointed not elected, and compensated by salary.

  6. Employement by the organization is a career. The official is a full-time employee and looks forward to a life-long career. After a trial period they get tenure of position and are protected from arbitrary dismissal.

Weber's focus on the trend of rationalization led him to concern himself with the operation and expansion of large-scale enterprises in both the public and private sectors of modern societies (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977). Bureaucracy can be considered to be a case of rationalization, applied to human organization. Bureaucratic coordination of human action, Weber believed, is the distinctive mark of modern social structures. In elaboration of these concepts Weber enumerates the features of an ideal-type bureaucracy:

  • Hierarchy of authority

  • Impersonality

  • Written rules of conduct

  • Promotion based on achievement

  • Specialized division of labour

  • Efficiency

According to Weber, bureaucracies are goal-oriented organizations designed according to rational principles in order to efficiently attain their goals. Offices are ranked in a hierarchical order, with information flowing up the chain of command, directives flowing down. Operations of the organizations are characterized by impersonal rules that explicitly state duties, responsibilities, standardized procedures and conduct of office holders. Offices are highly specialized . Appointments to these offices are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascribed criteria. All of these ideal characteristics have one goal, to promote the efficient attainment of the organization's goals (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

Bureaucratic Unresponsiveness

  1. Weber observed that often public service organizations grew large in size and tend to become unresponsive to their customer's needs. It is difficult to maintain control over expanding state bureaucracies. It is not due inefficiency or mismanagement, but enlarged powers held by the officials which corrupt them to behave arbitrarily. Other anomalies of bureaucratic system are:

  2. Specialists endowed with expert knowledge exercise sway in their position, as the bosses are totally dependent on them.

  3. Employees tend to organise affinity towards informal groups based on special or social interests and to promote sectarian interests of their particular group or organization. Over history this has caused the shift in power from the leaders of society to the bureaucrats

Characteristics of Bureaucracy
[Source: Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, part III, chap. 6, pp. 650-78.

"MODERN officialdom functions in the following specific manner:

  1. "I. There is the principle of fixed and official jurisdictional areas, which are generally ordered by rules, that is, by laws or administrative regulations.

  2. "The regular activities required for the purposes of the bureaucratically governed structure are distributed in a fixed way as official duties.

  3. "The authority to give the commands required for the discharge of these duties is distributed in a stable way and is strictly delimited by rules concerning the coercive means, physical, sacerdotal, or otherwise, which may be placed at the disposal of officials.

  4. "Methodical provision is made for the regular and continuous fulfillment of these duties and for the execution of the corresponding rights; only persons who have the generally regulated qualifications to serve are employed.

"In public and lawful government these three elements constitute 'bureaucratic authority.' In private economic domination, they constitute bureaucratic 'management.' Bureaucracy, thus understood, is fully developed in political and ecclesiastical communities only in the modern state, and, in the private economy, only in the most advanced institutions of capitalism. Permanent and public office authority, with fixed jurisdiction, is not the historical rule but rather the exception. This is so even in large political structures such as those of the ancient Orient, the Germanic and Mongolian empires of conquest, or of many feudal structures of state. In all these cases, the ruler executes the most important measures through personal trustees, table-companions, or court-servants. Their commissions and authority are not precisely delimited and are temporarily called into being for each case.

II. "The principles of office hierarchy and of levels of graded authority mean a firmly ordered system of super- and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones. Such a system offers the governed the possibility of appealing the decision of a lower office to its higher authority, in a definitely regulated manner. With the full development of the bureaucratic type, the office hierarchy is monocratically organized. The principle of hierarchical office authority is found in all bureaucratic structures: in state and ecclesiastical structures as well as in large party organizations and private enterprises. It does not matter for the character of bureaucracy whether its authority is called 'private' or 'public.'

"When the principle of jurisdictional 'competency' is fully carried through, hierarchical subordination--at least in public office--does not mean that the 'higher' authority is simply authorized to take over the business of the 'lower.' Indeed, the opposite is the rule. Once established and having fulfilled its task, an office tends to continue in existence and be held by another incumbent.

III. "The management of the modern office is based upon written documents ('the files'), which are preserved in their original or draught form. There is, therefore, a staff of subaltern officials and scribes of all sorts. The body of officials actively engaged in a 'public' office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files, make up a 'bureau.' In private enterprise, 'the bureau' is often called 'the office.'

"In principle, the modern organization of the civil service separates the bureau from the private domicile of the official, and, in general, bureaucracy segregates official activity as something distinct from the sphere of private life. Public monies and equipment are divorced from the private property of the official. This condition is everywhere the product of a long development. Nowadays, it is found in public as well as in private enterprises; in the latter, the principle extends even to the leading entrepreneur. In principle, the executive office is separated from the household, business from private correspondence, and business assets from private fortunes. The more consistently the modern type of business management has been carried through the more are these separations the case. The beginnings of this process are to be found as early as the Middle Ages.

"It is the peculiarity of the modern entrepreneur that he conducts himself as the 'first official' of his enterprise, in the very same way in which the ruler of a specifically modern bureaucratic state spoke of himself as 'the first servant' of the state. The idea that the bureau activities of the state are intrinsically different in character from the management of private economic offices is a continental European notion and, by way of contrast, is totally foreign to the American way.

IV. "Office management, at least all specialized office management-- and such management is distinctly modern--usually presupposes thorough and expert training. This increasingly holds for the modern executive and employee of private enterprises, in the same manner as it holds for the state official.

V. "When the office is fully developed, official activity demands the full working capacity of the official, irrespective of the fact that his obligatory time in the bureau may be firmly delimited. In the normal case, this is only the product of a long development, in the public as well as in the private office. Formerly, in all cases, the normal state of affairs was reversed: official business was discharged as a secondary activity.

"VI. The management of the office follows general rules, which are more or less stable, more or less exhaustive, and which can be learned. Knowledge of these rules represents a special technical learning which the officials possess. It involves jurisprudence, or administrative or business management.

"The reduction of modern office management to rules is deeply embedded in its very nature. The theory of modern public administration, for instance, assumes that the authority to order certain matters by decree--which has been legally granted to public authorities--does not entitle the bureau to regulate the matter by commands given for each case, but only to regulate the matter abstractly. This stands in extreme contrast to the regulation of all relationships through individual privileges and bestowals of favor, which is absolutely dominant in patrimonialism, at least in so far as such relationships are not fixed by sacred tradition."

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