Managing local practices in global contexts
Managing local practices in global contexts

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Managing local practices in global contexts

4.2.2 Rational organisations

The third source of authority, based on rational-legal precepts, is exactly what Weber identified as the heart of bureaucratic organisations. People obey orders rationally because they believe that the person giving the order is acting in accordance with a code of legal rules and regulations (Albrow, 1970, p. 43). Members of the organisation obey its rules as general principles that can be applied to particular cases, and which apply to those exercising authority as much as to those who must obey the rules. People do not obey the rules because of traditional deference or submission to charismatic authority; they do not obey the person but the office holder. Whether one likes the office holder or not is supposed to be unimportant; police officers might sometimes be disagreeable, but they hold an office that legitimises their actions.

Weber's view of bureaucracy was as an instrument or tool of unrivalled technical superiority. He wrote that ‘Precision, speed and unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction, and of material and personal cost. These are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration’ (Weber, 1948, p. 214). Weber saw modern bureaucratic organisations as resting on a set of ‘rational’ foundations. These include the existence of a ‘formally free’ labour force; the appropriation and concentration of the physical means of production as disposable private property; the representation of share rights in organisations and property ownership; and the ‘rationalisation’ of various institutional areas such as the market, technology and the law.

The outcome of this process of rationalisation, Weber suggests, is the production of a new type of person: the specialist or technical expert. Such experts gained control of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Statistics, for example, began in the nineteenth century as a form of expertly compiled information about everyday life and death, which could inform public policy. The statistician emerged as a paradigm of the new kind of expert, dealing with everyday things, but in a way that was far removed from everyday understandings. Weber sometimes referred to the results of this process as disenchantment, meaning the process whereby all forms of magical, mystical, traditional explanation is stripped away from the world. The world is laid bare, open and amenable to the calculations of technical reason. While Weber believed that the technical superiority of bureaucracy was irresistible, this irresistibility alarmed him. It seemed that achieving the benefits of modernity involved reducing everything to rational calculation irrespective of other values and pleasures. Yet bureaucracy seemed to be a necessary and unavoidable feature of organising in the modern world: if you wanted modernity, Weber suggested, you had to have bureaucracy.

Box 4: Max Weber's fifteen dimensions of bureaucracy

  1. Power belongs to an office and is not a function of the office holder.

  2. Power relations within the organization structure have a distinct authority configuration, specified by the rules of the organization.

  3. Because powers are exercised in terms of the rules of office rather than the person, organizational action is impersonal.

  4. Disciplinary systems of knowledge, either professionally or organizationally formulated, rather than idiosyncratic beliefs, frame organizational action.

  5. The rules tend to be formally codified.

  6. These rules are contained in files of written documents that, based on precedent and abstract rule, serve as standards for organizational action.

  7. These rules specify tasks that are specific, distinct, and done by different formal categories of personnel who specialize in these tasks and not in others. These official tasks would be organized on a continuous regulated basis in order to ensure the smooth flow of work between the discontinuous elements in its organization. Thus, there is a tendency towards specialization.

  8. There is a sharp boundary between what is bureaucratic action and what is particularistic action by personnel, defining the limits of legitimacy.

  9. The functional separation of tasks means that personnel must have authority and sanction available to them commensurate with their duties. Thus, organizations exhibit an authority structure.

  10. Because tasks are functionally separated, and because the personnel charged with each function have precisely delegated powers, there is a tendency toward hierarchy.

  11. The delegation of powers is expressed in terms of duties, rights, obligations, and responsibilities. Thus, organizational relationships tend to have a precise contract basis.

  12. Qualities required for organization positions are increasingly measured in terms of formal credentials.

  13. Because different positions in the hierarchy of offices require different credentials for admission, there is a career structure in which promotion is possible either by seniority or by merit of service by individuals with similar credentials.

  14. Different positions in the hierarchy are differentially paid and otherwise stratified.

  15. Communication, coordination, and control are centralized in the organization.

(Clegg et al., 2005, pp. 51–2)

Activity 4

To what extent is bureaucracy desirable? Select two organisations with which you are familiar and consider in what respects there are similarities between them with regard to each of Weber's fifteen dimensions of bureaucracy, given in Box 4 above. Which organisation is most bureaucratic?


Weber saw that bureaucracy had several positive attributes, with much to recommend it. Organisations constructed in this way could be sources of satisfaction for those working within them: they were fairly predictable, and they offered opportunities for careers and for individual members to specialise in what they most enjoyed and to develop these skills.

Bureaucracy offered several potential benefits:

  1. It limited arbitrary power and privilege. Bureaucratic principles treated individuals on an equal basis according to precedents established by rules, rather than on the whim of an officer.

  2. One had a right of appeal in a bureaucracy: if the application of rules to individuals was found to be illegitimate, they had rational recourse to an appeal mechanism.

  3. None were above the law, none could escape rules and every office was accountable. In short, bureaucracy was a bulwark of civil liberty.

A cornerstone of bureaucracy for Weber was that it operated on an impersonal basis. At first sight, this phrase might confirm bureaucracy's negative image as a heartless, soulless and cruel method of organising. Bureaucracy does not have a human face: it makes everybody a number. However, Weber was arguing something far more fundamental. In essence, he was saying that it does not matter if one is black or white, Muslim or Jew, gay or straight, rich or poor, high-born or low-born. It does not matter who or what one is. One is entitled to be judged not on the prejudices of the community or the person applying a rule but strictly according to the rules, without regard for the specificities of one's identity. For many, impersonal rules without regard for persons are a fundamental bulwark of a decent, civil, liberal society.

On the other hand, bureaucracy's abstract, impersonal rules could be more menacing than comforting, something to dread rather than celebrate for its guarantee of liberal freedom – for example, if one did not understand the rules being applied, or if the rules were not transparent, serving not liberty, equality and fraternity, but tyranny. Such possibilities were imagined by the Prague-born writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924) in his novel The Trial (first published, in German, a year after his death), where bureaucracies were seen as inscrutable and unknowing to those who became caught up in their machinations, and obsessive in their detail for those who despatched their business – or those parts of it that they were privy to.

Many take the view that bureaucracy is simply unavoidable: the one best way to organise large-scale activities under uncertain conditions. However, the interpretation of bureaucratic principles varies according to the institutional rules of practice within which any given bureaucracy is embedded: Japanese or Chinese bureaucracies do not operate in the same way as their Western counterparts. No rule can account for the way in which it is interpreted in practice: the interpretation of rules, and the extent to which rules are overlooked or ignored, depends on practitioners acting and thinking in situ. Thus, the idea of ‘optimum solutions’ and rationalities based on universal principles might be contrasted with what actually happened in the here-and-now of local practices.


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