Max Weber’s Bureaucracy

By Priyanka Sham Bhat, Jindal Global Law School

Editor’s Note: Max Weber is well-known for his theory of bureaucracy. This theory has its application in politics, businesses and probably many institutions that have legal authority. Bureaucracy is based on principles like specialisation, hierarchy, formal selection and formal rules. There is a close connection between modern capitalism and bureaucracy. However, this integration has led to a loss of the ”human touch’, which is why these principles need re-examination.”

Max Webber is well known for his theory of bureaucracy. The principles of bureaucracy – although are usually frowned upon for being cumbersome and leading to ‘red-tapism’ – are found virtually in every formal organisation today. Weber’s ideal bureaucracy was designed to eradicate inefficiency and waste from organisations. His basic principles for a bureaucratic organisation are:

  1. Specialisation: Bureaucrats specialize in an area that their agency covers. This allows for efficiency  because the specialist does what he or she knows best.
  2. Hierarchy: A bureaucracy is set up with a clear chain of command so that everyone has a boss. At the top of the organisation is a chief who oversees the entire bureaucracy. Power flows downward and is decentralised.
  3. Formal Selection: All employees are to be selected upon the basis of the technical knowledge and competence that they display through formal examination, training or education.
  4. Formal Rules and Regulations: A standard operating procedure informs workers about how to handle tasks and situations. The same procedures are followed to increase efficiency and predictability so that the organisation will produce similar results in similar circumstances.
  5. Impersonality: Rules and controls are applied uniformly, avoiding involvement with personalities and preferences of employees.
  6. Career Orientation: Career building opportunity is offered. Promotions and salary hikes are strictly based on technical competence.

Closely related to bureaucracy is the concept of authority and institutions. Rational-legal institutions are those institutions in which the authority of the institutions is tied to its legal legitimacy and legal rationality. This concept of rational-legal institutions comes from the Weber’s tripartite classification of authority. Rational-Legal authority is empowered by a formalistic belief in the content of the law (legal) or natural law (rationality). Obedience is not given to a specific individual leader but to a set of uniform principles. The best example of this kind of institution is a political or economic bureaucracy. This type of authority is often found in the modern state, city governments, private and public corporations and various voluntary associations. For example, the Indian Government is a rational-legal system. The Indian Constitution defines the structure and powers of the government and serves as the pattern of rules that Weber says gives a legal-rational system of government legitimacy. In this rational-legal institution one can see Weber’s principles of bureaucracy at play. There is hierarchy, formal selection, specialisation, formal rules and regulations, impersonality, and career orientation in the structure of the Indian state. Weber stated that the “development of modern state is identical with that of modern officialdom and bureaucratic organisations just as the development of modern capitalism is identical with the increasing bureaucratisation of economic enterprise.” [i]

The development of modern capitalism is identical with bureaucratization. This can be seen in George Ritzer’s “The McDonaldization of Society”. The term ‘McDonaldization’ refers to “the process by which the principles of fast food restraunts are coming to dominate more and more sectors of the American society as well as the rest of the world”. According to Ritzer, the fast-food restaurant has become the organizational force representing the process of rationalization. Ritzer outlines the five major themes within the process of McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased control, and the replacement of human by non-human technology. To achieve this, fast food restraunts follow Weber’s bureaucratic system, explained above. However, this has led to the human employee no longer having to think – they just have to follow instructions and occasionally push a button. For example, checkers at grocery stores simply have to scan the barcode. Now customers are scanning the goods themselves, since self-serve scanners are replacing checkers.

Due to increasing bureaucratisation, to achieve higher efficiency in rational-legal institutions, skills and capabilities of human beings are quickly becoming a thing of the past. In fact, Ritzer even argues that who we are and how we interact is becoming defined by our dependence upon and subordination to the machine. In light of this process, where the personal touch is being lost, principles of bureaucracy and their application to today’s world needs a re-examination.

Edited by Kudrat Agrawal

[i] Weber, M. (1958). “The three types of legitimate rule”. Berkeley Publications in Society and Institutions, 4 (1): 1-11. Translated by Hans Gerth

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