Sociology / Max Weber – Bureaucracy



Weber saw bureaucracy as an organization with a hierarchy of paid, full time officials who formed a chain of command. A bureaucracy is concerned with the business of administration, with controlling, managing and coordinating a complex series of tasks.


To appreciate the nature of modern society, Weber maintained that an understanding of the process of bureaucratization is essential. Marxists see fundamental differences between capitalist and socialist industrial societies. To Weber their differences are minimal compared to essential similarity of bureaucratic organization. This is the defining characteristics of modern industrial society.

Weber’s view of bureaucracy must be seen in the context of his general theory of social action. He argued that all human action is directed by meanings. Thus, in order to understand and explain action, the meanings and motives which lie behind it must be appreciated. As discussed earlier, (in Weber’s theory of social action) Weber identified various types of actions which are distinguished by the meanings on which they are based. These include;

  • Affective/emotional action
  • Traditional action
  • Rational action

Weber believed that rational action had become the dominant mode of action in modern industrial society. He saw it expressed in wide varieties of areas, like the state, education, science etc. he referred to the increasing dominance of rational action as the process of rationalization. Bureaucratization is the prime example of this process.

  • A bureaucratic organization has a clearly defined goal.
  • It involves precise calculation of the means to attain this goal and systematically eliminates those factors which stand in the way of the achievement of its objectives.
  • Bureaucracy is therefore rational action in an institutional form.
  • Bureaucracy is also a system of control.
  • It is a hierarchical organization.
  • It derives its legitimacy from the rational-legal authority.

Like other forms of authority, rational-legal authority produces a particular kind of organizational structure. This is bureaucracy which weber defines as, ‘A hierarchical organization designed rationally to coordinate the work of many individuals in the pursuit of large-scale administrative tasks and organizational goals’.


Weber constructed an ideal type of the rational-legal bureaucratic organization. He argued that bureaucracies in modern industrial societies are steadily moving towards this ‘pure’ type. The ideal type bureaucracy contains the following element;

  1. It consists of a continuous organization of official functions (offices) bound by rules.
  2. Each office has a specified sphere of competence. The office carries with it a set of obligations to perform various functions, the authority to carry out these functions, and the means of compulsion required to do the job.
  3. The offices are organized into a hierarchical system.
  4. The offices may carry with them technical qualifications that require that the participants obtain suitable training.
  5. The staff that fills these offices does not own the means of production associated with them; staff members are provided with the use of those things that they need to do the job.
  6. The incumbent is not allowed to appropriate the position; it always remains part of the organization.
  7. Administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in writing.

The ideal type bureaucracy is only approximated in reality. The development of bureaucracy is due to its ‘technical superiority’ compared to organizations based on charismatic and traditional authority. In Weber’s words ‘the decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization’.


Although Weber appreciated the technical advantages of bureaucratic organization, he was also aware of its disadvantages.

  1. He saw the strict control of officials restricted too such specialized tasks as a limitation of human freedom.
  2. The uniform and rational procedures of bureaucratic practice largely prevent spontaneity, creativity, and individual initiative.
  3. The impersonality of official conduct tends to produce ‘specialists without sprit’.
  4. Weber foresaw the possibility of men trapped in their specialized routines with little awareness of the relationship between their jobs and the organization as a whole.
  5. Weber saw the danger of bureaucrats becoming preoccupied with dependent on the security provided by their highly structured niche in the bureaucratic machine.
  6. He saw two main dangers if control of state administration was left in the hands of bureaucrats themselves
  • Firstly, particularly in times of crisis, bureaucratic leadership would be ineffective. Bureaucrats are trained to follow orders and conduct routine operations rather than to make policy decisions and take initiatives in response to crises.
  • Secondly, in capitalist society, top bureaucrats may be swayed by the pressure of capitalist interests and tailor their administrative practices to fit the demands of the capital.

Weber believed that these dangers could only be avoided by strong parliamentary control of the state bureaucracy.

Thus, we can say that Weber view of bureaucracy is ambivalent. He recognized its technical superiority over all other forms of organization. He believed that it was essential for the effective operation of large-scale industrial society while he saw it as a threat to responsible government, he believed that this threat could be countered by strong political control.