Written by Dr. Wasim Al-Habil
College of Commerce
The Islamic University of Gaza
Beginning with Max Weber, bureaucracies have been regarded as mechanisms that rationalize authority and decision-making in society. Yet subsequent theorists have questioned the rationality of bureaucracies. Which features of modern-day public bureaucracies are rational? Which are not? Buttress your argument with citations from organization and/or public administration theories.
Max Weber’s work about bureaucracy, translated into English in 1946, was one of the major contributions that has influenced the literature of public administration. However, Van Riper (1997) argues that the work of Weber on bureaucracy has no influence on American PA until the 1950’s. The word bureaucracy is derived from two words; “bureau” and “Kratos.” While the word “bureau” refers to the office the Greek suffix “kratia or kratos” means power or rule. Thus we use the word “bureaucracy” to refer to the power of the office (Hummel, 1998, 307). “Bureaucracy” is rule conducted from a desk or office, i.e. by the preparation and dispatch of written documents and electronic ones. Bureaucracy is borrowed by the field of public administration (PA) from the field of sociology. It was borrowed by PA in much a similar way that practices of business were borrowed from the field of business administration and economics. Weber (1946) presents bureaucracy as both a scientific and generic model that can work in both the public and private sectors (Rainey, 1996). For example, Weber asserts that:
The bureaucratic structure goes hand with the concentration of the material means of management in the hands of master. This concentration occurs, for instance in a well-known and typical fashion, in development of big capitalist enterprise, which finds their essential characteristics in this process. A corresponding process occurs in public organization (1946, 221).
This belief in science was evident in Max Weber’s rational-legal authority, which became the defining feature of organizational structures, especially government bureaucracies, to this day. It steered organizational setups to rational based considerations, which are in line with the science of administration idea. In other words, Weber’s bureaucracy consists of the traditional way of thinking in public administration that relied on the same “ingredients” to reform public administration based on the science of administration (Thompson, 2005).
This essay explores the nature of Weber’s bureaucracy and its influence on the PA discourse. It explains the reaction to Weber’s concept of bureaucracy and its combustion with capitalist and democratic values. In addition, the essay reflects the rational and irrational areas that can be traced in the literature of public organizations and public administration theories. It concludes by presenting an objective view of bureaucracy and its implementing implications in a democratic society like the United States.
Rationality of Weber’s Bureaucracy:
Weber defines bureaucracy as “the means of carrying community action over into rationally ordered social action… an instrument for socializing relations of power, bureaucracy has been and is a power instrument of the first order.” Some scholars (Friedrich, 1940; Finer, 1941; Simon, 1947; Shafritz and Hyde,1997; and Marshall in Ventriss, 2000) argue that public administration is a field of control; control of public administrators, control of people, control of inputs, and control of outputs. All these kinds of controls seek to achieve one main goal which is to meet the people’s needs and expectations in an efficient way. According to Weber (1946), bureaucracy “is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally that most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings” (337).
Weber argues that