Bureucracy And LegalRational Essay Research Paper BUREAUCRACY

Bureucracy And Legal-Rational Essay, Research Paper


According to Weber, bureaucracy is a product of the legal-rational form of authority which is itself a product of the process of rationalisation which defines modern societies. Max Weber was a sociologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who was concerned with understanding social actions and the effects they had on modern, Western civilisation. He identified a relatively new social process of rational action which is characteristic of modern society in all it s institutions. One of the social consequences of rationalisation lies within the sphere of authority, and Weber identified a new form of authority called legal-rational authority. This type of authority called for new ways of organising systems, that is, new organisational bodies which would be compatible with rationalist principles. Weber called these modern organisational bodies bureaucracies.

Weber saw rationalism as the hallmark of modern society (Cuff, Sharrock & Francis 1998). He made a distinction between people s behaviours and people s actions, with actions being those which carry attached meanings, and behaviours those which don t. Four types of meaningful action were theorised by Weber- traditional, emotional/affectual, value-rational and instrumentally rational (Haralambos, Holborn, Smith & Davis 1997). The first three types of action were based on traditional customs, emotional ties or personal or social values. Instrumental-rational action, argued Weber, was unique in that the actors took into account the means, ends and the long-term consequences of their actions (Haralambos et al 1997). According to Weber, modern civilisation, particularly in the West, was driven by a widespread tendency towards instrumentally rational action, a process of rationalisation (Haralmbos et al 1997). This was apparent in the growing emphasis on science, medicine, architechture, the capitalist economy and in particular, systems of control.

Weber focussed on authority or domination as a central aspect in society and in the process of rationalisation. He theorised three forms of social domination which operated throughout history, similar to the idea of forms of action (Weber 1957). Traditional authority is domination based on traditional or customary grounds, such as the monarchy. Charismatic authority is the rule by actors on the basis of personal charisma, such as religious authority. Legal-rational authority is the form of domination which is linked with the process of rationalisation- it involves the popular belief in normative rules for the establishment and the exercise of authority (Weber 1957). In other words, legal-rational domination is the rule by an individual/party on the basis of a set of shared rules, under which the authority acts upon. The best example of legal-rational authority, according to Weber, is the bureaucracy.

In Weber s work, the bureaucratic system of control stemmed from the modern tendency to legal-rational authority, based on the process of rationalisation. Bureaucracy in it s pure form, Weber argued, is the most efficient of the systems of control. The term itself was coined in…, meaning “the rule of officials” (Giddens 1997). Weber saw bureaucracy as broadly applicable, not just relevent to public administraton but also to such as institutions as “large-scale capitalistic enterprise” (Weber 1957, p. 534), religion (the church) and the military system (Weber 1957). Likewise bureaucracy is possible and apparent under both capitalist and socialist systems, although Weber emphasised that capitalism has fueled the rise of bureacracy (Weber 1957). This is due to the emphasis in capitalism on efficiency, and the ability for a capitalist society to provide monetary resources and technology in the form of communications systems (Weber 1957).

Weber identified several key elements as fundamental to a “pure” bureaucratic organisation, which can be found in his work The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (1957), and which represent the principles of legal-rational authority. These elements are what make the bureaucratic organisation such an efficient system of control. First and foremost, the bureaucracy is a continuous organisation of official functions bound by rules- it is not controlled by one overarching individual or group, and transcends the influence of the uppermost officials in the organisation, unlike a private enterprise. The bureaucratic organisation works within a specialized sphere, where it can concentrate in depth upon its functions. The organisation is always separated from the ownership of the means of production, and so is not influenced by erratic market forces. The office is the central focus of the bureaucracy, and it is in this removed and rational setting where decisions and rules are made. Offices within the bureaucracy are organised hierarchically, and officials are technically trained in their sphere of work. Officials are appointed (not elected). Their positions are treated as careers, with opportunity for promotion. There is a strict separation for the official between their private life and their official duties. All the above characteristics of the bureaucratic organisation are designed to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation and it s function. They demonstrate an awareness and emphasis on not only fulfilling social functions but also on how these requirements are fulfilled- the relationship between the means and the ends of actions, which characterises legal-rational authority, rational action, and the process of rationalisation.

Weber saw bureaucracy as an embodiment of legal-rational authority. Legal-rational authority itself Weber conceptualised as part of a larger process of rationalisation, rational action and the consideration of means as well as of ends related to all actions. Weber distinguished between modern, rational societies as opposed to other societies using concepts of meaningful action and domination. Modern societies are characterised by instrumentally rational action and legal-rational authority. By studying the modern system of control, the bureaucracy, Weber showed how the principles of rationalism operate within the organisation and, in doing so, demonstrated how modern bureaucracy is legal-rational authority in it s concrete form.


Cuff, E.C., Sharrock, W.W. & Francis, D.W. 1998, Perspectives in Sociology, 4th edn., Routledge, London.

Giddens, A. 1997, Sociology, 3rd edn., Polity, Cambridge.

Haralambos, M., van Krieken, R., Smith, P. & Holborn, M. 1996, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, Longman, Melbourne.

Weber, M. 1957. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Free Press, New York.


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