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Max Weber's bureaucracy theory

The characteristics of Weberian bureaucracy

Max Weber imposes, as a standard in the social sciences of the twentieth century, the understanding of bureaucracy as an administrative system, carried out continuously following certain rules by trained professionals.

Approximate reading time: 3m 38s

Max Weber was born on April 21 1864 in the German city of Erfurt. His parents’ family is very close-knit, Weber’s mother and father are respected people, and they both combine intellectual potential with moral and human virtues.

At the beginning of his conscious life, Max Weber took a very broad interest in science. He studied theology, philosophy, economics, and law, and did not confine himself to the walls of a university, but went through the proven academic schools of Heidelberg, Berlin, and Göttingen. European scientists at that time had as a profession and as an object of study a fairly wide range of disciplines and areas, the concretization of research has not yet occurred. At the beginning of his scientific practice, Weber proceeded from the general situation in economics and law, but over the years, his research pursuits acquired a concretized expression and fixation on clearly defined problems. He thus managed to reach solid conclusions on issues such as legitimacy, power, politics, and the state.


Weber and the bureaucracy

Max Weber was the first to set the task of building a theory of bureaucracy. Unlike later critics (such as the Frankfurt School philosophers of the 1930s) of the bureaucracy, he emphasized the positive side of the bureaucracy as the main form of effective government. Weber reveals the sociological parameters, mechanisms, and stages of the formation of the bureaucratic apparatus of government.

Max Weber imposes, as a standard in the social sciences of the twentieth century, the understanding of bureaucracy as an administrative system, carried out continuously following certain rules by trained professionals. He notes that administration through professional experts is becoming more prevalent in political systems of all types and in all organizations where complex and large-scale administrative tasks are carried out: business enterprises, trade unions, political parties, etc.

Max Weber defines bureaucracy as a system of administration with the following characteristics:

  • Hierarchy - each employee has specific powers is responsible to a senior employee;
  • Impartiality - the work is performed by certain rules, without arbitrariness or preferences to anyone and each action performed is documented in writing;
  • Continuity - the post is a full-time job for a salary, a guaranteed job and an opportunity for professional growth;
  • Competence - employees are selected depending on their professional qualities, are trained for the work they do, and control access to documented information.

These characteristics in general, according to Weber, can maximize the efficiency of the administration and make bureaucracy an inevitable part of a complex industrialized society.

Max Weber believed that the belief in the legitimacy of power is a central element of almost all administrative systems. He formulated five concepts that determine the legitimacy of the powers of the head of the organization:

  • A set of laws that require obedience by members of the organization must be established.
  • The law is a system of abstract rules that have a specific application. It is within the framework of such laws that the administration defends the interests of the organization.
  • The person who performs power functions in the organization also obeys the laws.
  • The member of the organization is obliged to obey its laws only in his capacity as a member of the organization.
  • Subordination is determined not by a specific person who performs power functions, but by the legally established order, which, among other things, determines the occupation of the respective position by the person in question.

Based on these concepts, Max Weber formulated six characteristics of bureaucracy as a system of government. Weber is considered to be the first expert to use and explain the term “bureaucracy”.

The six characteristics of bureaucracy are:

  • Specialization and division of labor;
  • Hierarchical management structure;
  • Careful selection of staff;
  • Rule management;
  • Impersonal environment;
  • Career development according to achievements.

These characteristics, according to Weber, increase the efficiency of an organization’s administration.

In the field of the theory of administration and organization, the central question has always been whether the characteristics defined by Weber as inalienable for the bureaucracy make the administration as efficient as possible. In this context, the authors of the Encyclopedia of Political Thought (Blackwell, 1977) set out the following considerations and clarifications:

  • Strict hierarchy can reduce the flow of ideas and information upwards; 
  • Strict adherence to the rules can lead to rigidity; 
  • Secure jobs and privileges can lead to conservatism.

Also, research on administrative systems has shown in practice that they operate through a network of personal connections and that they facilitate, not hinder its smooth functioning.

In general, it can be argued that for all organizations, whether industrial or governmental and under any circumstances, whether stable or rapidly changing, a single administrative model is appropriate and whether a single concept of efficiency can cover different tasks of modern organizations. organizations. For example, a broad area of individual activity may be more appropriate for an economic organization whose activity is measured only by its profit, generally speaking.

On the other hand, the activity of a governmental social organization, which must treat all members of society equally, must be subject to the strictest possible rules, which do not allow for subjective judgment.

Different sciences emphasize different countries and characteristics of the bureaucracy (administrative system). Here again, we will refer to the authors of the “Encyclopedia of Political Thought”.

Sociological theory is interested in bureaucracy as a social (group) category, representing a new middle class other than capital and labor.

Weber’s ideas were not widely known around the world until the 1940s and 1950s when they were translated into English. The moment conveniently coincides with the emergence of complex organizational systems that need clear rules to function stably and efficiently.

In today’s complex world, organizational systems are becoming even more complicated. The bureaucratic management is partly left behind for the new theories to come. There are some speculations about what the future management will look like and how it will defer from the organizational hierarchy of Weberian bureaucracy. 

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