Max Weber on Bureaucracy

Max Weber (1864–1920) is regarded as one of the founders of the modern discipline of sociology. He described the relationship of the state so society, famously defining the state as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’. Here he describes the workings of the bureaucracy, either as it enacts the power of the state, or in bureaucratically managed private enterprises:

Modern officialdom functions in the following manner: There is the principle of official jurisdictional areas, which are generally ordered by rules, that is, by laws or administrative regulations. This means:

(1) The regular activities required for the purpose of the bureaucratically governed structure are assigned as official duties.

(2) The authority to give the commands required for the discharge of these duties is distributed in a stable way and is strictly delimited by rules concerning the coercive means, physical … or otherwise, which may be displaced at the disposal of officials.

(3) Methodical provision is made for the regular and continuous fulfilment of these duties and for the exercise of the corresponding rights, only persons who qualify under general rules are employed.

In the sphere of the state these three elements constitute a bureaucratic agency, in the sphere of the private economy they constitute a bureaucratic enterprise. Bureaucracy, thus understood, is fully developed in political and ecclesiastical communities only in the modern state, and in the private economy only in the most advanced institutions of capitalism …

The principles of office hierarchy and of channels of appeal stipulate a clearly established system of super- and sub-ordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones. Such a system offers the governed the possibility of appealing in a precisely regulated manner, the decision of a lower office to the corresponding superior authority.

The management of modern office is based upon written documents (the ‘files’) … and upon a staff and subaltern officials and scribes of all sorts. The body of officials working in an agency along with respective apparatus of material implements and the files makes up a bureau …

The management of the office follows general rules, which are more or less stable, more or less exhaustive, and which can be learned. Knowledge of these rules represents a special technical expertise which the officials posses … The reduction of modern office management to rules is deeply embedded in its very nature. The theory of modern public administration, for instance, assumes that the authority to order certain matters by decree—which has been legally granted to an agency—does not entitle the agency to regulate the matter by individual commands given for each case, but only to regulate the matter abstractly. This stands in extreme contrast to the regulation of all relationships [in pre-modern states and organisations] through individual privileges and bestowals of favor …

Educational institutions … , especially the institutions of higher learning—the universities, as well as technical academies, business colleges, gymnasia, and other secondary schools—are dominated and influence by the need for the kind of ‘education’ which is bred by the system of specialized examinations or tests of expertise increasingly indispensable for modern bureaucracies … The role played in former days by the ‘proof of ancestry’, as the prerequisite for … access to noble prebends and endowments and, wherever the nobility retained social power, for the qualification of state offices, is nowadays taken by … education. The elaboration of the diplomas from universities, business and engineering colleges, and the universal clamor for the creation of further educational certificates in all fields serve the formation of a privileged stratum in bureaus and in offices … If we hear from all sides demands for the introduction of a regulated curricula culminating in specialized examinations, the reason behind this is, of course, not a suddenly awakened ‘thirst for education’, but rather a desire to limit the supply of candidates for these positions and to monopolize them for the holders of educational patents … [Bureaucracy] strives everywhere for the creation of a ‘right to the office’ by the establishment of regular disciplinary procedures and by elimination of the completely arbitrary disposition of the superior over the subordinate official. The bureaucracy seeks to secure the official’s position, his orderly advancement, and his provision for old age. In this, it is supported by the ‘democratic’ sentiment of the governed which demands that domination be minimized; those who hold this attitude believe themselves able to discern a weakening of authority itself in every weakening of the lord’s arbitrary disposition over the officials. To this extent bureaucracy, both in business offices and in public service, promotes the rise of a specific status group …


Weber, Max. 1922 (1968). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. New York: Bedminster Press. pp. 956–958, 999–1001. || Amazon || WorldCat


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