Weber and bureaucratic organization


WEBER advocates for a bureaucratic organization of the company which is, according to him, the assurance of organizational efficiency.

This article will be broken down into three parts ending with a general conclusion.

The first part is devoted to the treatment of a general vision on the principles of Weberian thought, namely: Biography and bibliography of Max Weber; The origin of thought; and the foundations of authority and power in the organization.

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In the second part, we will discuss the rationalization of the organization, namely: the theory of bureaucracy; the streamlining process; his appreciation of modern organizations and a comparison with other currents OST and OAT;

The third part treats the various deepenings of the Weberian theory

Principles of Weberian Thought

Biography and quick bibliography of Max Weber

Max weber (1864-1920) is German. He studied law, economics, history, philosophy, theology, disciplines he taught in various German universities. He is considered one of the founders of contemporary sociology.

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Some reference books:

  • The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905.
  • Essays on the theory of science, 1904-1917.
  • Weber’s major work is Economy and Society which, unfinished at his death in 1920, will appear posthumously.

The origin of thought

Max Weber having lived astride the 19th and 20th centuries, this century was marked by profound transformations (industrial revolution, political changes), which led to the decline of traditional society.

Max Weber saw society change profoundly, he tried to identify the deep meaning and the roots of the passage from traditional societies to modern societies.

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In seeking to explain the transformations he witnesses, Weber will work a lot with the concept of rationality. Indeed, according to Weber, we are witnessing the rationalization of all spheres of activity.

The foundations of authority and power in the organization

Power and authority, what is their relationship?

Power can be defined as the faculty, the capacity, the material possibility or the permission to do something. Having power over a person means getting something out of that person that they would not have done without our intervention. Power manifests:

  • either as an inherent property of things understood in terms of capacities,
  • either as an attribute conferred by a social group,
  • or finally as a capacity conquered or invested by violence for example

Authority can be considered as a superiority thanks to which an individual makes himself obeyed by inspiring belief, fear or respect and imposing himself on their judgment will or feeling.

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Two types of authority relations oppose each other:

  • the “master-slave” relationship, which is an unequal situation in which the master’s only goal is to maintain his power over the other,
  • the “teacher-student” relationship in which the master aims to destroy inequality by being equaled or even surpassed by the student and which is an end in itself.

At this point we can say that the notions of power and authority are close because both mean an ability to make others act. Indeed, if authority is recognized in the free obedience of others, it is indeed a power. But it is not just any power.

However, not all power is authority. A power exercised without authority is a constraint experienced in a balance of power. It is not a relationship of authority but the manifestation of authoritarianism.

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Contrary to what opinion too often admits, a balance of power does not establish any authority in the person who exercises power. Power is often associated with notions of force, even domination.

In fact, the man of power exerts pressure and threatens when he has lost his real authority. The man of value and knowledge inspires respect. We follow him because he has natural authority.

Mr. Weber distinguishes between three types of authority:

  • charismatic authority, based on the personal qualities of leaders;
  • traditional authority based on your customs and users inherited from the past;
  • rational (or bureaucratic) authority, based on strict and explicit rules that characterize the bureaucratic structure.

From these three types of authority derive three organizational models

Charismatic organization (or charismatic authority)

In this type of organization, it is the belief of the members in the exceptional qualities of their hero that ensures the functioning of the organization by thus basing its unlimited authority. Weber noted the role that charismatic leaders provided at certain turning points in history when other models of authority faltered.

This type of organization is unstable by nature, the leader can lose his power at any time and the belief of the members in his superior qualities can disappear at any time. In addition, succession often poses a problem and it is difficult to find a successor who has the same qualities as the initial leader.

Traditional organization (or traditional authority)

The traditional model is one where the authority of the ruler is ultimately legitimized by the belief in the inviolable nature of the daily routine inherited from the elders and the certainty that the past must repeat itself.

This type of organization can lead to tensions or conflicts. Indeed, His subordinates integrate this form of authority without necessarily recognizing it.

Bureaucratic organization (or bureaucratic authority)

Authority derives from the legality of orders and the legitimacy of those who give them.

Subordinates do not obey by virtue of personal allegiance or respect for traditional authority, but by formalized regulations that assign objective limits to the competence of the superior.

This model of organization, called bureaucratic, is reputed to be rational-legal, it is reputed to be legal, because authority rests there on the law, the validity of orders and on the legitimacy of those who issue them; authority has been delegated to them by virtue of the office they perform. This authority is framed by impersonal standards and procedures.

Weber qualified this model as the ideal type because it presents the most rational logic of operation on the formal level, by its requirement of regulatory compliance, by its predictability and by reason of its technical precision based on competence, rigor and of course, a strict hierarchy.

He proposes a model where the functions are organized hierarchically rationally. It’s not the person that counts, it’s their position. The development of this type of (bureaucratic) organization has been accelerated by capitalism, and according to Weber, it is the most efficient form for running big business.

The rational organization model (Weberian model)

it bears repeating that the conceptual framework of weber’s work is much broader than that of the founders of classical theory they preceded. Weber proposes, as being more effective and more adapted to modern society: the rational model of the organization of the work of the employee.

Characteristics of the Weberian model

According to Weber’s thought, all employees of the bureaucratic system are:

  • Personally free and subject only to their official obligations and the impersonal rules that govern their work;
  • Organized into a hierarchy of clearly defined functions;
  • In functions with a legally defined sphere of competence;
  • Occupying this function by contract by virtue of an objective selection;
  • Selected on the basis of their technical qualifications and appointed and not elected (most of the time after selection by examination or diploma;
  • Paid in fixed salaries with pensions according to their rank and status and can always resign but dismissable only for serious causes and planned in advance;
  • Occupying their function as sole or principal occupation;
  • There careers, promoted by their superiors on the basis of seniority or results, or both, by appreciation by the superiors;
  • Subject to strict and systematic discipline and control of their conduct in office.

Overall, the bureaucratic organization is therefore characterized by a division of tasks based on functional specialization, a clearly defined hierarchy of positions, a system of rules and very detailed written procedures defining the authority, responsibilities and tasks, finally, a total depersonalization of decisions and relationships (independent of the personality of the members who exercise the different functions).

This organization is rational since the means are chosen to achieve specific goals. In addition, depersonalization allows great coordination, strong control, reduces uncertainty, protects employees and reinforces fairness in organizations.

The process and types of rationalization

The rationalization process is defined as a generalization of the scientific approach to all the activities of modern societies.

Weber distinguishes two Forms of rationalities: a rationality in value and a rationality in finality.

  • Rationality in value is based on social behaviors inspired by religious ideals, by moral duty or by the greatness of a “cause”. As part of this approach, the social agent does not take into account the consequences of his actions. He is exclusively guided by his belief system.
  • Rationality in purpose supposes adapting a set of means in order to achieve a determined goal. A congruence then appears between the goals, the means and the foreseeable consequences of social action.

These two types of rationality can coexist in the concrete strategies of social agents. Thus, one can consider a rational approach in value as to the defined goal and a rationality in purpose as to the means of achieving it.

Rationalization affects all social activities such as economic activity, politics, law or education.

It constitutes a source of progress insofar as it frees the individual from the burdens of tradition or the arbitrariness of irrational powers stemming from magic or superstition.

However, the intellectual rationalization specific to Western capitalism results, according to Weber, in a “disenchantment” with the world. Magic gives way to cold calculation and forecasting.

Economic rationalization is embodied in modern capitalism. For Weber, the capitalist economy corresponds to a process of rationalization based on the basis of a “capital calculation account” underpinned by six conditions:

  • The appropriation of the technical means of production (land, equipment, machines, etc.) by private companies which benefit from managerial autonomy and which seek profit;
  • The freedom of the market in terms of transactions between supply and demand;
  • The use of quantifiable rational techniques intended for the management of production costs;
  • The existence of a rational law organizing equity between the economic partners;
  • Freedom to work, i.e. the possibility for individuals to freely sell their labor power;
  • The commercialization of the economy.

Appreciation of the Weberian model in modern organizations

The advantages of the Weberian model

Clearly, the Weberian model has enormous advantages, it replaces favor or nepotism with rule and protects employees against arbitrariness and discrimination. It guarantees as far as possible the competence of those employed.

Historically, the rationality of this system contrasts with an aristocratic tradition where birth and privilege took the place of law. Clearly, too, the model is working.

The vast majority of organizations over a certain size are bureaucratic structures and most of them have not found a more efficient way to organize themselves.

Critics of the Weberian model

Phase to a growth in the size of organizations, the Weberian model becomes unsuited to the modern situation. This is where we see that the Weberian legal rational model is an ideal type and not a reality of the present time:

In reality, the bureaucratic functioning has favored, in several organizations, the development of “bureaucratic”, in the pejorative sense of the term, which has generated a rigidity in their functioning and a slowness harmful to their flexibility and their reactivity.

Bureaucracy and the other currents OST and OAT

The Weberian model of bureaucracy therefore presents astonishing similarities with other classical approaches, in particular:

  • The Key Productivity Goal: The goal of increased productivity of the OST and OAT becomes, in this Weberian model, a goal of rationalization and efficiency. Productivity is obtained by the rationality of bureaucratic characteristics: men behave in a logical and reasonable way and this makes it possible to produce and manage the organization efficiently.
  • Efficiency: Within the three streams of work organization, efficiency can be measured in terms of productivity, abstracting from human (mechanistic) factors.
  • The One Best Way: Any organization must possess the bureaucratic characteristics (presented above) if it is to operate efficiently and effectively.
  • Rationalization: It is not called into question in the Weberian model: necessary for the movement of rationalization of activities, the rationalization of administrative principles and bureaucratic characteristics must be imposed on all.
  • The “superiority” of the organization: As with the other two heights, the “superiority” of the organization lies in greater control, stronger predictability and depersonalization, formalized work procedures, rules (technical and formalized standards) established.

The deepening of bureaucracy

The structural-functionalist model

The first effort to deepen bureaucracy came from a school representing the mainstream of North American sociology of the 1950s and 1960s. This was called the structural-functionalist school.

Structural-functionalism is an intellectual movement related to the study of organizations. By taking up concepts linked to Weberian bureaucracy, he emphasizes the interplay of informal structures and the dysfunctions that can result from them.

This model is known from the work of Robert K. Merton who recognizes beforehand that the application of the rules and the impersonality of the Weberian bureaucracy produces positive results and in particular a high degree of predictability, at least initially.

Robert K. Merton, taking up the idea of the Weberian ideal-type, carries out a study of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy, where Weber had emphasized effective rationality.

Moreover, his study opts for the global scale: he tries to identify the effects of bureaucratization on the people who experience it. Merton points out that the more a bureaucratization tends to introduce an authority close to the rational-legal ideal-type, the more dysfunctions and routines paralyze its rationalizing character.

He finds an explanation for this in the appropriation of the bureaucratic model by its actors who apply, without any adaptation, the law and the rules formalized in writing. Merton’s main contribution is to have introduced dysfunction – and thereby, the duality between explicit phenomena favoring the adjustment of a system, and implicit phenomena hindering it.

Another contribution is the distinction between manifest function and latent function: the first brings an expected consequence, the second an unexpected consequence and attributed to another function than the one initially assigned.

Subsequently, Philip Selznick insists on the need to legitimize the action of the organization with its members and its environment. His analysis really follows that of Merton: he validates the concept of dysfunctions in his studies, but shows that they do not owe their existence only to the multiplication of regulations and the assimilation of a bureaucratic thought pattern. .

According to Selznick, a large part of the dysfunctions is due to the inevitable specialization of activities: actors tend to focus on the objectives of their functions and their groups. In addition, the external environment exerts significant pressure, particularly through the delegation of activities abroad.

All criticisms of the bureaucratic model attack its degeneration more than its essential principles. It is therefore permissible to ask the question whether these – perverse effects – are inevitable and – prove – that the model cannot exist in Weber’s conception? Could they be corrected by leaving the essentials of the model intact, are they inevitable or are there a plurality of different models?

The ASTON school

The Aston Group project provides part of the answer to the previous question. The studies carried out at Aston were unspeakably ambitious and far broader in scope than a mere pursuit of bureaucratic analysis.

They are original in their point of view on organizations and, for the time, their methodology. It is also a project that continues over a long period.

The work focuses on a varied sample of organizations: companies, industrial or not, for-profit or not. Their concrete structural characteristics are the subject of quantified and detailed measurements. The latter are then subjected to statistical processing, in particular principal component analyzes which allow them to be grouped around essential traits.

An important conclusion drawn from these calculations is that, while all organizations are different, five concepts can serve as dimensions on which all can be described and compared in terms of elements of their structure. These are the aftermaths:

  • Specialization of activities,
  • Standardization of procedures,
  • Formalization of documentation,
  • Concentration of authority,
  • Configuration of the role structure,

These five primary dimensions, of course, do not describe everything an organization is, but cover the essentials of what can characterize the basic control structure of organizations. Furthermore, additional simplification is possible on two dimensions following additional statistical processing:

  • Structuring of activities,
  • Concentration of authority,


In conclusion, Max Weber notes that the development of bureaucratic organizations affects all forms of organization: armies, state agencies, etc.

However, Weber does not intend to describe, through his typology of forms of authority, the observable reality; its approach consists more of proposing “ideal-types” (a simplified presentation of reality), that is to say theoretical constructions, useful to researchers for making comparisons with empirical reality. It would therefore be futile to want to observe with precision the typology proposed by Max Weber in daily life.

It is clear that a concrete organization does not perfectly meet all the criteria of the Weberian model; most of the time, it approaches it in certain aspects and deviates from it in others.

However, certain combinations can take place between the three types of organization: thus the rational-legal authority, frequent in certain Western democracies (companies, public administration…) can be seen reinforced by the presence of a charismatic leader, etc. As for traditional authority, it has become much rarer today.

Max Weber belongs to the classical school, the latter was well suited to the spirit and conditions of his time, as well as to the advancement of scientific and technical work close to organizations.

The classic approach to organization has unfortunately given rise to various abuses with sometimes disastrous social consequences (fatigue, monotony, stress, accident, etc.). It is these excesses that have led to the development of new or growing approaches (organizational psychology, sociology, ergonomics, etc.)

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