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Max Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy

Max Weber (1864-1920), who was a German sociologist, proposed different characteristics found in effective bureaucracies that would effectively conduct decision-making, control resources, protect workers and accomplish organizational goals. Max Weber's model of Bureaucracy is oftentimes described through a simple set of characteristics, which will be described in this article.

Max Weber's work was translated into English in the mid-forties of the twentieth century, and was oftentimes interpreted as a caricature of modern bureaucracies with all of their shortcomings. However, Weber's work was indented to supplant old organizational structures that existed in the earlier periods of industrialization. To fully appreciate and understand the work of Max Weber, one therefore has to keep the historic context in mind, and not "just" see his work as a caricature of bureaucratic models.

Below, some characteristics of the bureaucratic model are presented. Each characteristic is described in relation to which traditional features of administrative systems they were intended to succeed.

Characteristics of Bureaucracy:

1. Fixed Division of Labor:

The jurisdictional areas are clearly specified, and each area has a specific set of official duties and rights that cannot be changed at the whim of the leader.

This division of labor should minimize arbitrary assignments of duties found in more traditional structures, in which the division of labor was not firm and regular, and in which the leader could change duties at any time.

2. Hierarchy of Offices:

Each office should be controlled and supervised by a higher ranking office. However, lower offices should maintain a right to appeal decisions made higher in the hierarchy.

This should replace a more traditional system, in which power and authority relations are more diffuse, and not based on a clear hierarchical order.

3. Rational-legal Authority:

A bureaucracy is founded on rational-legal authority. This type of authority rests on the belief in the "legality" of formal rules and hierarchies, and in the right of those elevated in the hierarchy to posses authority and issue commands. Authority is given to officials based on their skills, position and authority placed formally in each position.

This should supplant earlier types administrative systems, where authority was legitimized based on other, and more individual, aspects of authority like wealth, position, ownership, heritage etc.

4. Creation of Rules to Govern Performance:

Rules should be specified to govern official decisions and actions. These formal rules should be relatively stable, exhaustive and easily understood.

This should supplant old systems, in which rules were either ill-defined or stated vaguely, and in which leaders could change the rules for conducting the daily work arbitrarily.

5. Separation of Personal from Official Property and Rights:

Official property rights concerning e.g. machines or tools should belong to the office or department - not the officeholder. Personal property should be separated from official property.

This should supplant earlier systems, in which personal and official property rights were not separated to the needed extent.

6. Selection Based on Qualifications:

Officials are recruited based on qualifications, and are appointed, not elected, to the office. People are compensated with a salary, and are not compensated with benefices such as rights to land, power etc.

This should supplant more particularistic ways of staffing found in more traditional systems, where officials were often selected due to their relation with the leader or social rank. Benefices such as land, rights etc. were also common ways of compensating people, which was to be replaced by a general salary matching qualifications.

7. Clear Career Paths:

Employment in the organizations should be seen as a career for officials. An official is a full-time employee, and anticipates a lifelong career. After an introduction period, the employee is given tenure, which protects the employee from arbitrary dismissal.

This should supplant more traditional systems, in which employees' career paths were determined by the leader, and in which employees lacked the security of tenure.


Max Weber viewed these bureaucratic elements as solutions to problems or defects within earlier and more traditional administrative systems. Likewise, he viewed these elements as parts of a total system, which, combined and instituted effectively, would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the administrative structure.

The bureaucratic structure would to a greater extent protect employees from arbitrary rulings from leaders, and would potentially give a greater sense of security to the employees.

Additionally, the bureaucratic structure would create an oppurtunity for employees to become specialists within one specific area, which would increase the effectiveness and efficiency in each area of the organization.

Finally, when rules for performance are relatively stable, employees would have a greater possibility to act creatively within the realm of their respective duties and sub-tasks, and to find creative ways to accomplish rather stable goals and targets.

Related Article: Bureaucracy

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