Weber’s theory of bureaucracy and modern society


Luhmann, Blau’s and Parkin’s Criticisms of Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy



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Luhmann, Blau’s and Parkin’s Criticisms of Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy
Weber selects and emphasises the features of bureaucracy as discussed above; a formal hierarchy, consistent application of rules, promotion by merit or seniority, strict control of files and information, etc., as being its distinctive hallmark.8 Weber says,
“the fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organisations exactly as does the machine with the nonmechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs - these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration.”1
Blau and Meyer are critical of interpretations of Weber’s use of the ‘ideal type saying,

“This methodological concept does not represent an average of the attributes of all existing bureaucracies (or other social structures), but a pure type, derived by abstracting the most characteristic bureaucratic aspects of all known organisations. Since perfect bureaucratisation is never fully realised, no empirical organisation corresponds exactly to this scientific construct.” … The criticism has been made that Weber’s analysis of an imaginary type does not provide understanding of concrete bureaucratic structures. But this criticism obscures the fact that the ideal-type construct is intended as a guide in empirical research, not as a substitute of it.”2


Luhmann, in The Differentiation of Society, criticised Weber’s consideration of the operations of bureaucracies as too simplistic, claiming Weber’s classical theory of bureaucracy assumes most organisations orient their activities according to ends in a Western overtly rationalistic way, based on a command version of how organisations work.
Luhmann also questions the supposition that all ends are instructive. They are often a vague and ambitious justification of themselves, and don’t necessarily bind it to any specific ends. Means and ends schema are often irrelevant as such, in that the goals are sometimes not able to be expressed at all, and may change with variation in the culture. As the ends do not specify the means unambiguously, the sub goals of the organisation are regularly in conflict with one another, so that a structure with contrary goals may exist from the very start, such as can occur in some welfare organisations. Luhmann also recognises that for an organisation to function well, it doesn’t necessarily require the complete loyalty and obedience of its employees, as a partial consensus would likely suffice.
Blau, also providing some criticism of Weber’s theory of bureaucracy for its construction upon the ideal type, claiming its crude nature fails to differentiate between conceptual elaborations and hypotheses concerning the relationship between analytical attributes of social systems and prototypes of the social systems themselves.3 Blau suggests that Weber considers the three analytical principles of convention, ethics and law underlie conformity, whilst at other times seemingly referring to political systems; traditional political institutions, revolutionary movements, and modern governments based on rational law, suggesting that the limitations of the ideal type may be responsible for such discrepancies.4
Blau is also critical that Weber subsumes democracy under the legal order in his model of legal-rational behaviour discussed previously, particularly as Weber makes it clear that bureaucracies are not necessarily democratic. Critical that Weber never systematically differentiates the two concepts in the way he had done so with the other two types of authority structures, Bendix says, “power in the political struggle results from the manipulation of interests and profitable exchanges … and does not entail legitimate authority of protagonists over one another. Success, however, in this struggle leads to a position of legitimate authority.1 Blau notes that, “If men organise themselves and others for the purpose of realising specific objectives assigned to or accepted by them … they establish a bureaucratic organisation. The exact form best suited for such an organisation depends on a variety of conditions, including the kinds of skills required for the tasks.”2
Blau notes that as the differentiating criteria between democracy and bureaucracy proposed are whether the organisation’s purpose is to settle on common objective … and whether the governing principle of organising social action is majority rule rooted in freedom or dissent or administrative efficiency”, the two principles come into conflict.3 Blau consider the example of unions as a case in point to highlight the deficiencies in Weber’s theory.
As for Blau, Parkin is critical of Weber, claiming that he has failed to measure these claims against the existing bureaucracies, pointing to the fact that Weber appears not to present any evidence to indicate that organisations that depart from the ideal type actually do suffer from a loss of precision, speed or ambiguity.4
Parkin also notes that Weber’s classical model of bureaucracy is one of highly formalised and inflexible rules, as outlined in Weber’s claim that, “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly it is ‘dehumanised’, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.”5 The issue then arises as to what happens to the notion of taking the individual’s subjective meanings as the starting point of social enquiry; the Verstehen approach6, if bureaucracy is viewed in this way.7 This appears to be a significant flaw in Weber’s theory. Parkin believes that once the personal motivations and perceptions of individual incumbents are considered, a clearer picture of why bureaucracies do not parallel the ideal type is uncovered.8
The jump Weber appears to make using his notions of bureaucracy based on the ideal type of bureaucracy, does not adequately address the problem that many bureaucrats do not behave in the way Weber deems them to. The tendency for officials to accrue power to their own ends can mean the impartiality of the bureaucracy becomes a force fiction. What would now be seen as the naivety of Weber’s outlook is shown in Weber’s assertion that whilst it is proper for a bureaucrat to present a reasoned case in advising his minister, he is duty bound to accept the minister’s decision and to implement it as conscientiously as though it corresponds to his own innermost conviction.1 Based on this concern, it is possible that if Weber had referenced his theory of bureaucracy with his Verstehen approach, the criticisms of people in the Human Relations movement such as Mayo would be less evident.



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