An overview of Max Weber's concept of rationalization is presented. Weber made the historical movement away from institutional structures that engender actions based on the emotional, mystical, traditional, and religious to institutional structures that produce actions based on reason, calculability, predictability, and efficiency—the primary elements of his philosophy of history. Rationalization brings benefits to organizations while trapping workers in feelings of disenchantment. Despite the shortcomings of the process, Weber viewed it as efficient and necessary.
Keywords Bureaucracy; Efficiency; Fordism; Iron Cage; McDonaldization; Rationalization; Taylorism
Max Weber (1864–1920) is considered one of the founders of modern sociology. His work included studies of economics, the modern political state, and religion. At the core of Weber's work was a concern with the modern German state. He was a thinker situated in history between the positivist foundations of sociology, embodied in the works of Comte and Durkheim, and the rise of the anti-positivist movement. Weber was a contemporary of Wilhelm Dilthey, who argued that the social sciences were altogether different from the natural sciences and needed their own distinct but similarly scientific approach (Dilthey, 1989).
Weber embraced Dilthey's argument. In his last major lecture, "Science as a Vocation," he said that the natural sciences can only tell the answer to the question of what we should do if we want to technically master nature. It cannot tell us whether we want to or should master nature (Landmann, 1984). For Weber, rationalization was totally alien to value consideration (Gronow, 1988). His influence on sociology was such that both positivist and anti-positivist sociologists claim Weber as their own. Weber's contribution to sociological method is unquestioned. He refined existing concepts and introduced many more to the sociological approach to knowledge. He wrote at length about objective sociology and the subjective. To this end, he addressed concepts such as value-free research, social norms, ideal types, and social relations.
Perhaps Weber's most influential and enduring work was on rationalization. Rationalization is the movement over time away from institutional structures that engender actions based on the emotional, mystical, traditional, and religious, toward institutional structures that produce actions based on reason, calculability, predictability, and efficiency. It was in the light of his theory on rationalization that Weber viewed both the progress and the growing disenchantment of Germany.
H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1978) described rationalization as the most fundamental element of Weber's philosophy of history. The urge of religious teachers, artists, intellectuals, and eventually scientists throughout history has been toward comprehensive and meaningful interpretation of the universe. This constant drive away from institutional structures of magic, mysticism, and religion toward secular structures of rationalization has been at the center of the progress of history and what Weber called the "sociology of knowledge." Weber writes about the rise of bureaucracy and its presuppositions and causes in Economy and Society (1922). He sees the money economy as the primary presupposition of bureaucracy and gives as examples of the rise of historical bureaucracies the ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations, the Roman Catholic Church, modern Western states, and modern capitalism.
Once created, these bureaucratic machines take on a life of their own and are permanent in character. Rationalization in these structures comprises calculability, efficiency, technology, and control over economic goods, labor, opportunities, advantages, and even values. This control allows for bureaucracy to better predict probable outcomes and mitigate risk (Weber, 1978). Throughout his career, Weber continued to develop the idea of rationalization and, in doing so, identified four types of rationality:
• Substantive (Kalberg, 1980)
Practical rationality is based on an individual's experience and context. By considering their observations in light of their desired ends, individuals weigh their options and pursue the actions that are most likely to bring about those ends. Practical rationality is pragmatic and assumes action. Weber believed, like Sigmund Freud and later Michele Foucault, that culture and its institutions of rationality shape practical reason (Ritzer, 1975).
Unlike practical rationality, theoretical rationality does not assume action will be taken. Rather, theoretical rationality attempts to understand and explicate the world. This does not mean that theoretical rationality cannot give rise to action; it simply means that the theoretical rationality does not necessitate action.
Substantive rationality involves the consideration of numerous cultural, institutional, or personal values. It recognizes that people often find themselves caught between competing values, norms, or laws and must choose between conflicting values or rationalities. The fact that substantive rationality is necessary points to a significant dilemma of structures of rationalization.
Formal rationality typifies bureaucratic institutions. Formal rationality embraces the norms, rules, and laws of economic, legal, and scientific organizations. With the rise of the rational structures within the church, even religion has become subjected to formal rationality. Adherence to formal rationality is based on an impersonal bond. This bond, something Sigmund Freud (1989) called "guilt" and Michel Foucault (1979) termed "discipline," imposes adherence and action (Weber, 1989). Formal rationality is the most coercive rationality and the most prevalent in social structures.
Weber embraced scientific rationalization and its effectiveness in the natural sciences, though he remained wary of its limitations. His critique was directed towards the Kantian promise that reason would bring progress. Weber viewed Kantian reason, and Enlightenment thinking in general, as leading toward a rationalization of the economy that would limit individuals and lead to disenchantment (MacKinnon, 2001). Additionally, he often complained that the constant extension of rationality in bureaucracy through technology designed to emancipate eventually leads to an "iron cage" (Habermas, 1981).
Here lies the rub in Weber's work: Weber understood the value of rationalization and bureaucracy and the benefits it brought society. He did not see how history could march forward without it. However, he was deeply troubled by hegemony and the deep personal feeling of disenchantment that rationalization heaped on individuals.
He saw rationalized structures offering individuals...
Essay on the Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy – The term “bureaucracy” finds its origin from the French word “bureau” which means desk, and a government which is run from table is called a bureaucratic government. The word implies a particular system of administration.
Historically, it has been associated with the rule of government and governmental officials. In this form of the government there is concentration of power in the hands of departments. Sociologists regard bureaucracy as a form of administration that is found in formal organisations pursuing a wide variety of goals.
As a technical term in sociology, “bureaucracy” is associated with Max Weber. He gave it a precise definition and suggested that it was the best administrative form for the rational pursuit of organisational goals.
Image Source: leapcs.ca
Definition of Bureaucracy:
1. Max Weber:
Bureaucracy is “a type of hierarchical organisation which is designed rationally to co-ordinate the work of many individuals in pursuit of large scale administrative tasks.”
Weber also said that “bureaucracies are organised according to rational principles, officials ranked in a hierarchical order and operations are characterised by impersonal rules.”
2. Talcott Parsons:
“The relatively large-scale organisations with specialised functions loosely tend to be called bureaucracies.”
3. Wallace and Wallace:
“Bureaucracies are large-scale formal organisations which are highly differentiated and organised through elaborate policies and procedures in a hierarchy of authority.”
Weber – The Prime Architect of the “Theory of Bureaucracy”:
Weber is the first sociologist to analyse the functioning of bureaucracy from the sociological point of view. Weber’s theory of bureaucracy is a significant contribution to the field of sociology. Weber’s interest in the nature of power and authority and his realisation of the inevitability of rationalisation in the operation of large-scale modern organisations – led him to establish a “theory of bureaucracy.”
Weber felt that the operation of modern large-scale enterprises or organisations in the political, administrative, and economic fields would be impossible without bureaucracy. Bureaucratic co-ordination of activities is the distinctive mark of the modern era, he maintained.
According to Weber, bureaucracy refers to an instrument that has become indispensable “for the rational attainment of the goals of any organisation in industrial society.” Bureaucracies can be understood as large-scale formal organisations of the modern society with specialised functions. Bureaucratisation and rationalisation go together, because bureaucracies are organised according to rational principles.
Characteristics of Bureaucracy:
Max Weber was the first to give a detailed sociological account of the development of bureaucracy. According to him, bureaucracy reveals the following characteristics.
1. Fixed Official Jurisdiction Area:
Bureaucracies normally have their own official fixed jurisdiction. Bureaucracy consists of various statuses each of which has its own fixed official duties. There are clear cut written rules governing each status.
2. Hierarchy of Authority:
Bureaucracy has its own hierarchy of statuses. Officials who occupy these statuses are governed by the principle of super-ordination and subordination. There is the supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones.
3. Clear-cut Division of Labour:
The entire task of the bureaucratic system is governed by a stipulated system of division of labour. Who should do what work and who should shoulder what responsibility is decided by this system.
4. Appointment Based on Eligibility:
Bureaucracy has its own system of selecting employees and giving them promotions on the basis of seniority, technical competence, specialised knowledge or skill.
5. Fixed Salary, Allowance and Pension:
The officials of the bureaucracy are paid monthly salary and other types of allowances and pensions as per the written rules.
6. Office and Maintenance of Files:
Bureaucracy as an organisation functions through an office wherein all the matters and transactions relating to its area of operation are maintained in the form of files. It has a system of written documents defining its procedures and manner of functioning.
7. Appointment of officials on full time and long term service basis:
Appointment of officials in a bureaucracy is normally made by the higher officials and not by election. Normally the position of the bureaucrat is held for life as specified by the contract or order.
8. Difference between private matter and official issues:
The officials of the bureaucracy are expected to make a clear distinction between the official issues and pure private or personal matters. They are not entitled to make use of official facilities for personal needs except as defined by written rules.
9. Supervision of work by higher officials:
Officials of the bureaucracy are expected to work according to the written rules. Still there is the system of supervision of the work of lower officials by the higher officials.
10. Systematisation of official relations with officials:
The officials of bureaucracy maintain contact and communication among themselves in a particular way. Orders and communications among them always proceed through “proper channels.”
11. Political Neutrality:
Officials of bureaucracy are expected to be very objective in the official discharge of business. They are expected to be politically neutral in their dealings.
12. Guidance by past procedures:
Bureaucrats are mostly guided by the past procedures. A good bureaucrat is one who always tries to be upto date with the subject with which not only he is dealing at present but he may be required to deal at any subsequent stage.
The characteristics stated above, cannot be found in any existing bureaucracy in their true or complete form. Never before in history such bureaucracies existed. As Max Weber has said, the concept of bureaucracy associated with these rules represents the “ideal types.” The existing bureaucracies or any particular instance of a bureaucracy can only be compared with or evaluated in relation to this ideal type. Weber was quite aware of the increasing importance of the bureaucracies in the modern world.
Factors Contributing to the Development of Bureaucracy:
Bureaucracies did exist in the ancient world in the great empires of India, China, Rome, Greece, Egypt and so on. They are found today. As Weber has rightly prophesied the importance of bureaucracy has reached immeasurable proportions in the modern world.
According to Weber, following factors contributed a great deal to the development of modern bureaucracy.
(i) The development of money economy guarantees a constant income for maintaining bureaucracy through a system of taxation.
(ii) Modern industries and states which require a big army of administrative officials necessitated bureaucracy.
(iii) Qualitative changes in the administrative tasks also led to bureaucratisation. Modern states which claim themselves to be “welfare states” have to maintain an elaborate system of transport and communication including mass media. They naturally tend towards bureaucratic system.
(iv) Bureaucracy as a form of organisation seems to be technically superior to any other form of organisation.
(v) Demand for objective experts: The modern culture demands “the personally detached and strictly objective experts.” This nature of the modern culture encourages the development of bureaucracy.
(vi) Mass Democracy: Modern political parties are functioning on a mass scale which necessitates bureaucracies.
(vii) Concentration of material means: The development of big capitalist enterprises and the giant public organisations such as the state or army require the modern bureaucratic system.
(viii) Rational interpretation of law: Modern states guarantee to their citizens equality before law. It is a guarantee against arbitrariness. This has given rise to the bureaucratic form of administration and judiciary.
Functional and Dysfunctional Aspects of Bureaucracy
Positive or Functional Aspects of Bureaucracy:
1. Bureaucracy provides opportunity for division of labour:
Some of the modern organisations consist of lakhs and millions of members. Such organisations are institutionalised through bureaucracies.
2. Performance of complicated tasks:
Some of the complicated tasks of the modern society such as, conducting census, capturing criminals, collecting taxes, arranging for voting in elections, etc. are more efficiently undertaken in bureaucracy.
3. Performance of repetitive tasks:
Some of the modern bureaucracies, for example, industrial corporations, universities, advertising agencies, etc. regularly repeat their work. Modern bureaucracies have been able to perform that work without much difficulty.
4. Maintenance of law and order:
There are certain organisations [such as police, court, army, temple or church, religion, college, etc.] that deal with people’s actions in a normative manner. Here the right type of behaviour is to be encouraged and the wrong type is too regulated. Bureaucratic method is better suited to do this.
5. Mobilisation of resources and their rightful usage:
The heads or the leaders of the state could mobilise and centralise material resources and make necessary arrangements for their most effective use only through bureaucracy.
In feudal times, for example, power was dispersed in a variety of centres. Only through bureaucratic machinery at present economic resources are being mobilised while in the pre-modern age they remained untapped or improperly managed.
“Bureaucratic organisation is to Weber, the privileged instrumentality that has shaped the modern polity, the modern economy, the modern technology.” Just as a machine production is superior to hand-made articles so the bureaucratic types of organisation are technically superior to all other forms of administration.
6. Control of the waste of time:
In comparison with any other type of organisation bureaucracy has been found to be less expensive, less conflicting and more efficient and useful.
Negative Aspects or Dysfunctional Aspects of Bureaucracy:
Bureaucracy has its own ugly face. It has its own demerits and Weber, the champion of the theory of bureaucracy, was aware of this. Abraham and Morgan have stated: “Having granted its virtues and its unquestionable advancement of modern society, Weber was the first to concede the vices of bureaucracy.”
Some of the main drawbacks or dysfunctions of bureaucracy may be enlisted here.
1. Static Rules for Dynamic Situations:
The unchanging static rules of bureaucracy many a time fail in its very purpose of serving the human needs. Bureaucracy becomes dysfunctional when the rules remain static even while the social situations undergo fast changes.
2. Unnecessary Waste of Time and Redtapism:
Since there is a hierarchical arrangement in this system every paper or file is to pass through several stages before a final decision is taken. This delay leads to waste of time and sometimes to unwanted consequences.
3. Quarrel among Officials:
As Dahrendorf has pointed out junior and senior officials of bureaucracy always quarrel among themselves lowering its dignity and efficiency. In fact, this quarrel among these officials has necessitated the beginning of trade unions.
4. Blind Rules and Uncreative Officials:
Officials of the bureaucracy become rule bound and extremely formal. They act according to the written rules, and verbally stick on to them. “The uniform and rational procedures of bureaucratic practice largely prevent spontaneity, creativity and individual initiative. The impersonality of official conduct tends to produce “specialists without spirit. Weber also wrote: “It is horrible to think that the world would one day be filled with little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards the bigger ones.
5. Ever Expanding Army of Employees:
Bureaucracy goes on expanding and new members are recruited regularly whether there is a need for the same or not. Hence it becomes expensive at one time; officials who become lethargic give more importance to their salary, promotion, increments, allowances, facilities, etc. rather than to the services.
6. Human Relations are made to become Mechanical:
Too much of bureaucratisation leads to depersonalisation. As a result, human relations become extremely mechanical devoid of human touch. Weber too had foreseen “the possibility of men trapped in their specialised routines with little awareness of the relationship between their jobs and the organisation as a whole.”
7. Bureaucracy unsuited to Face Emergencies:
Officials of the bureaucracy find it difficult to face an emergency situation. They search for solutions only within the framework of existing rules and procedures and do not take the risk of facing the challenges.
8. Other Disadvantages or Deficiencies:
(a) Bureaucracies become corrupt and puppets in the hands of the vested interests:
Since bureaucrats have vast powers, vested interests try to corrupt them and provide them all temptations to get decisions in their favour. Ex.: The Tehalka Dotcom episode which has rocked the Indian Parliamentary discussions during the recent days is an example in this regard.
(b) Bureaucracies tending to exist even after the achievement of their goals: Ex.:
Bureaucratic committee formed to offer famine relief or flood relief, or earthquake relief to the people may continue to exist even after the settlement of the problem.
(c) New Despotism:
It is said that bureaucrats are new despots. Since they have knowledge and expertise, they wish that even decision should be taken to suit their whims and wishes.
(d) Superiority Complex:
Usually bureaucrats come from educated families and enjoy certain social prestige and economic privileges. After joining services they enjoy more of it. They thus suffer from superiority complex.
Weber who had recognised some of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy also knew about its inevitability. Bureaucracy today has come to stay. We have to find out ways and means of making it more efficient and less problematic. In the absence of any other alternative, it seems that the present bureaucracy will reign supreme in the years to come.
Weber argued that the bureaucratisation of the modern world has led to its depersonalisation. The more fully it is realised the more it depersonalises itself. The bureaucrats may function as “emotionally detached” “professional experts.” The bureaucrat functions to the exclusion of feelings and sentiments, of love and hatred in the execution of official tasks.
According to Weber, bureaucratisation and rationalisation are almost an “inescapable fate.” Like a reformist, Weber hoped that some charismatic leader might arise in future to provide some relief to mankind which is gripped by the tentacles of bureaucracy.
Like Marx, he never visualised an emancipator struggle or revolution that would help them to become free from the shackles of bureaucracy. Weber thought it more probable that “the future would be an ‘iron cage’ rather than a Garden of Eden.”