Max Weber’s Sociological Analysis of Bureaucracy

Rationalization and its different manifestation occupied the most of Weberian thought and remained a focused point in his sociological thought. This focus on rationalization also forced him to contemplate on the processes and development of large-scale organizations in the public and private sectors. Weber presented his idea and application of rationalization on the large-scale organizations through the concept of Bureaucracy.

Weber assumed that Bureaucratic synchronization of human activities and action is a distinctive feature of modern social and economic life.  He analysed the concept in the historical and existing social perspective and developed his own concept an ideal-type bureaucracy. The major qualities of his ideal type bureaucracy include hierarchy of authority, impersonality, efficiency, rules of conduct in black and white and specialized division of labor. (Aron, 1970. & Coser, 1977.)

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Lewis A. Coser (1977) sums up the Weberian idea of Bureaucracy in these words. Weber’s interest in the nature of power and authority, as well as his pervasive preoccupation with modern trends of rationalization, led him to concern himself with the operation of modern large-scale enterprises in the political, administrative, and economic realm.

Bureaucratic coordination of activities, he argued, is the distinctive mark of the modern era. Bureaucracies are organized according to rational principles. Offices are ranked in a hierarchical order and their operations are characterized by impersonal rules. Incumbents are governed by methodical allocation of areas of jurisdiction and delimited spheres of duty.

Appointments are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascriptive criteria. This bureaucratic coordination of the actions of large numbers of people has become the dominant structural feature of modern forms of organization. Only through this organizational device has large- scale planning, both for the modern state and the modern economy, become possible. (Coser, 1977. p. 230)

The efficiency achieved through the application of rational exercise of affairs to gain calculated results remained the central characteristic of his bureaucracy. Weber emphasized this rational exercise in this way:;”From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings.  It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability.

It thus makes possible a particularly high degree of calculability of results for the heads of the organization and for those acting in relation to it.  It is finally superior both in intensive efficiency and in the scope of its operations and is formally capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks” (Weber, 1921/1968, p. 223).

Weber emphasized many times that bureaucratic organizations are absolute product of a process to subdue human affairs to the canon of reason and to capacitate the organizations to carry out their business “according to calculable rules. He was of the view that rational bureaucracies are ultimate outcome of the human effort to locate and apply the logical solutions to the new problems of sheer size of human activities in the social and economic life. He further wrote:”The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any former organization. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with non-mechanical modes of production.” [Weber, 1946].

Bureaucracy of Weber is differentiated by an distinct and detailed hierarchal division of labor directed by explicit rules impersonally applied. Weber counts the chain of command of authority or hierarchy and functional specialization or division of labor, effective decision through rules and depersonalization as the functional paraphernalia of this rational bureaucracy. (Freund, 1968, Gerth & Wright, 1948 & Stark, 2004)

The concepts of functional specialization are germane both to the individuals with special expertise and to different tiers of a functional unit within an organization. Weber considered such specialization as an indispensable component of rational bureaucracy and suggested that particular borderlines must be marked by distinct operative rules and procedures between these functional units to make them more effective and efficient. (Freund, 1968, Stark, 2004)

Coordination among the different organizational and functional units of an organization requires a chain of command of authority prearranged in a hierarchy. So Weber suggested that for the effective working of an organization a proper and well developed line of graded authority is substantial for an organization. Every member of the organization must value this line of command i.e. a proper up-down mobility of orders and directives should be followed and should fulfil the responsibilities and duties. Additionally, hierarchy necessitates authority trained individuals to accomplish the task assigned to a particular bureaucratic organization. (Weber, Max. 1968/1921)

Ultimately, Weber’s bureaucracy also requires well devised and carefully developed rules and regulations to enhance the “calculability of the decision-making” and results. These rules must be organized in a way that it is easy to comprehend and apply them. All the decisions and results based on these rules and principles must be documented so that rules can he reviewed and revised. This distinctive operational component of bureaucracy leads to depersonalization. As rules are generalized and applicable to all, so no individual particularities are taken into consideration in decision-making and execution of job.

So subjectivity and emotional feelings are excluded from decision making and execution of tasks. A bureaucrat has to made decision according to the rational rules and he should not be moved by emotions or personal discretion. Weber assumed that calculability of bureaucratic actions can be fully realized if bureaucracy depersonalizes itself.  (Weber, Max. 1968/1921, Mommsen, 1977 & Stark, 2004)

Weber recognized three types of authority i.e. traditional authority, rational-legal authority and charismatic authority. Traditional authority governed the primitive societies. The underlying principle of this authority was conviction in the inviolability of tradition.  (Aron, 1970 & Coser, 1977) According to Weber, Rational legal authority is leap forward toward the rationalization of human society and is based objective principles that were recognized by law. (Aron, 1970 & Coser, 1977).

The major contrast between the traditional and rational-legal authority is that traditional authority relies chiefly hereditary line or some divine or superficial powers and does not seek public support or applause for their decision making or actions (Coser, 1977). Whereas the third manifestation of authority i.e. charismatic authority. It derives its strength from the personal charisma of leaders “who claim allegiance because of the force of their extraordinary personalities.” (Coser, 1977).

Weber was well aware of the fact that in reality mixtures of above-mentioned authorities will be found in a process to legitimize the authority. Such process of mixture of authority can be found in the third world country where a charismatic leadership hankers after the legal and constitutional protection of his authority once his rule is established through his personal appeal and charisma. Moammar Qaddafi of Libya, Castro of Cuba, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Pervez Musharaff of Pakistan are some of the example who seek legal shields to perpetuate their rules.

Max Weber was well aware of the fact his ideal-type bureaucracy does not exist in reality and real bureaucracy is less optimal and effective than his ideal model. The characteristics of Weber’s bureaucracy have deteriorated over the time. Bauman (1991) Modernity and the Holocaust has manifested clearly that ‘we live in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible’ [p.88] He is of the view that bureaucrats are exterminating large numbers of people because they are devices in an impersonal distant, and mechanized chain of rules and regulations.

They go after ‘orders’ and abolish their personal errands by authoritative decree. Most of the bureaucracies in the developed countries and in third world countries often indulge themselves in activities that are harmful for their people. (Hope, 1985) The sole motive of these activities is the pursuance of more power and authority.  This tendency of self-perpetuation is manifested in the form of continued military government of most of the third world countries like Pakistan, Burma, Cuba,  Iraq etc. (Wallis, 1989)

The pyramid structure of bureaucratic organizations tend to concentrate the power in few hands that threatens the very structure and activities of democracy. In the countries like Pakistan and Iraq, military bureaucracies devise the ways and tactics to impede the development of new and charismatic leadership. This type of bureaucracy also protects bureaucrats from public liability. These bureaucrats plunder the wealth of these countries and uses public exchequer for their personal benefits. To perpetuate their rule and to extend the tentacles of their rule, they formulate elaborated bureaucratic structures. (Hiltermann, 1994. Hope, 1985 & Rizvi, 2000) Peter Evan and James E. Rauch (1999) performed a cross national study to locate the impact of bureaucratic structure on economic growth.

Their research found that “bureaucracies characterized by meritocratic recruitment and predictable, rewarding career ladder are associated with higher growth rates.” (p 760) They further illustrate the example of East Asian countries’ economic growth and states that this is result of the “contribution of competent, cohesive bureaucracies.” (p 760) Goffman (1961) analysed the phenomenon of total institutions as absolute structure of bureaucratic control. Total institutions manifest the extreme intrusion of bureaucratic organization on the life of people.

Officials oversee every activity of mundane life. Goffman includes prison and mental hospitals in this category. A less extreme from of total institutions and bureaucratic intrusion in the public life of American people is manifested through the executive order of President Bush to authorise the NSA to conduct warrantless surveillance of American citizens. The hallmark of this executive order was to conduct surveillance without acquiring approval or warrants from a FISA court.

This order and activity was unlawful and unconstitutional as it trespassed its legal and constitutional jurisdictions and violated the legal and constitutional privacy rights of the people. (Risen. J & Lichtblau Eric. 2005) Another expression of the malfunctioning of bureaucracy is by a third world Nobel Laureate, Ahmed Zewail. He said that undue bureaucracy that guards obsolete and non-operational authoritative structures dispossesses science from its potential vitality in many third world countries. (Dickenson, 2002)

Due to lack of this advancement in science and technology, these countries lag behind in progress and prosperity.The ideal-type bureaucracy of Weber is an efficient and effective organizational tool and its characteristics enable it to facilitate decision making and execution of that decision at larger scale. But its different operational manifestations, inherent flaws and the personal aura of bureaucrats hinder its way to work on Weberian pattern.

Social scientists speculated that Weber ignored some of the important particularities of Bureaucracy subjectivity of individuals, the human approach on issues, their affiliations, circumventing the rules and the chain of command. They basic problem with present day bureaucracies and their ineffectiveness is that they consisted of human beings. So they need persuasion, incentive and other psycho-emotional inducements as manifested in the report by Peter Evan and James E. Rauch (1999) to perform effectively.


  1. Aron, Raymond.  1970,  Main Currents in Sociological Thought II. Anchor Books, New York.
  2. Bauman, Z. 2000, Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y..
  3. Coser, Lewis A.  1977,  Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, second edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  New York. Evan Peter & Rauch.
  4. James E. 1999, Bureaucracy and Growth: A Cross-National Analysis of The Effects of Weberian State Structures on Economic Growth. American Sociological Review Vol.64, No 5 pp. 748-765.
  5.  Freund, Julien  1968, The Sociology of Max Weber. Vintage Books, New York.
  6. Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills (translators and editors).  1946 [1958] From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.
  7.  Goffman, E. 1961, Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. [1st ed.]A Doubleday Anchor original A277.

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