Weber’s theory of bureaucracy and modern society

Why Have Bureaucracies Become So Prevalent?

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Why Have Bureaucracies Become So Prevalent?
Initially, the reasons for bureaucracy were primarily military. Superiority of the standing army over knightly warfare meant the first European modern bureaucracies were needed to be funded reliably. Weber refers to the development of these bureaucracies saying,
Among purely political factors, the increasing demand for a society accustomed to absolute pacification, for order or protection in all fields exerts an especially persevering influence in the direction of bureaucratisation. A steady road leads from modifications of the blood feud, sacerdotally, or by means of arbitration, to the resent position of the policeman as the ‘representative of God on earth’. The former means placed the guarantees for the individual’s rights and security squarely upon the members of his sib, who are obliged to assist him with oath and vengeance. Among other factors, primarily the manifold tasks of the so-called ‘policy of social welfare’ operate in the direction of bureaucratisation, for these tasks are, in part, saddled upon the state by interest groups and in part, the state usurps them, either for reasons of power policy or for ideological motives.”1
Weber points to the connection of some of these things with purely technical aspects of modern society. For Weber, the modern means of communication enter the picture as ‘pacemakers’ of modern bureaucracy, ie; public lands, modern communication, railways, etc., become analogous to canals and rivers in ancient civilisations. In contrast, for Marx, the bureaucracy was ‘a parasitic growth on the back of society’, a useless collection of unproductive workers, who in contrast to the proletariat, make no real contribution to the productive output of society.
A large number of studies have been done which help to critique Weber’s theory. One particularly well known critique is that of Elton Mayo of the Harvard Business School. Mayo was interested in how to produce a healthy work environment with morale and incentive rather than simply high wages or salaries. These studies were prompted by some 1930’s work which had found that people not only carry out orders, but also at times resist and obstruct the organisations aims. The recognition of informal structures has had important implications for organisation theory. The most important initial response was the theory of Human Relations as developed by Mayo, which sought to reconcile the formal organisation with the informal structure, by placing a premium on the needs of the workers. Without undermining the command structure of the formal organisation, it argued it was possible to improve the level of job satisfaction by attending to the felt needs of the employees by job enrichment, extensive awards such as promotion and esteem, as well as salary.
Mayo says an alternative arrangement may come into effect so that inverted power relations may occur, or people are circumvented. Also there might be solidarity to avoid particular commands and particular work levels to maintain. Problems exist because often the overseer is part of the system, as he wants consensus with the workers, so sometimes people you least expect to have power, have extreme power. This movement sought to encourage a more meaningful participation in decision making by making democratisation a goal of the bureaucratic structure. This was in contrast to Weber’s view that the bureaucratic structure is undemocratic, with people being elected on the grounds of competence rather then popularity or support from the employees, as the assumption that competence can only be recognised by those of greater competence.
The effect of Human Relations has only been partly successful. In more recent times, ‘organisation culture’, or ‘culture theory’ has emerged, which gives emphasis to looking at various sometimes intangible features of a work environment which will improve things, by changes such as office refurbishing etc. The logic of the theory is that by altering the physical aspects of the work environment, the cultural ambience of the environment may improve. Certain types of work were more amenable to culture theory, such as the high technology industries, by the same notions may not work with very routine and mechanical processes are involved. Also, there was always an underlying assumption that it was possible to reconcile the formal and informal structure into harmony, based an the assumption that you can subsume the informal structure into the formal structure.

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