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Jenny-Lu Zachary

Online Government
David Fuller


A Look at Max Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy
The concept of bureaucracy was developed by Max Weber, a German sociologist. His
ideas were influenced by his military experiences, his lack of trust in human judgment and the
phenomenal growth of industrial organizations. Weber viewed the bureaucratic model to be an
organized structure of power set out to achieve rational behavior beneath a hierarchy of
professionals. Except for slavery, people fell into one of three kinds of leader/follower relations.
He identifies three legitimate types of authority as the following: traditional, charismatic, and
Traditional authority is based on legitimacy and the power to control is handed down
from the past. Obligations are by personal loyalty to the chief rather than by office. Promotions
are granted by the arbitrary grace of the chief. There is no rational order of relations of
superiority and inferiority. The traditional authority has no fixed salaries, no requirement of
technical training, and no clearly defined sphere of competence subject to impersonal rules. This
authority refers to the obedience a person receives because he belongs to a particular class which
is traditionally recognized as possessing authority. It is readily accepted and unquestioned by
individuals since it emanates from deeply set customs and tradition. Traditional authority is
found in tribes and monarchies. It is very much dependent upon the followers’ acceptance of
this authority, and that the followers see this type of authority as legitimate. In this authority,
laws change according to the leadership’s will.
Charismatic authority is based upon personal characteristics and led by an individual or
small group. The individual or small group possesses special personal qualities that inspire
Jenny-Lu Zachary
Online Government
David Fuller


others to do what they ask. This authority is given to those who have gained the respect and trust
of their followers. Charismatic leaders choose members not for technical training, but on the
basis of social privilege, and are summoned on the basis of their charismatic qualification. There
is no system of formal rules and no abstract legal principle. This type of authority is radically
opposed to the rational and bureaucratic authority. This type of leader enjoys authority, not
through enacted position or traditional dignity, but owing to gifts of grace by virtue of which he
is set apart from other men. He is treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman powers or
Legal-rational authority is a formalistic belief in the content of the law. The leader is
subject to strict, systematic discipline and control in the conduct of his office. There is a clearly
defined hierarchy of offices. The officials exercise authority, rather than the persons. Only
people who demonstrate adequate technical training qualifications can be selected to be
administrative staff or placed in official positions. In this authority, there is a right to appeal and
a right to state grievances from those in lower positions. Most usually, hierarchy is dominated
by the principle of appointment, however, sometimes administrative heads are elected. Legal-
rational authority consists of a set of social actions governed by reasoning, calculation, as well
as, the rational pursuit of one’s interests. This authority is recognized as the most legitimate type
in the theory of bureaucracy. Weber believed all authorities should evolve to this because
decisions were more rational due to being made without regard to personal irrational and
emotional aspects.
Weber was a historian who wrote about the emergence of bureaucracy. He focused on
dividing organizations into hierarchies, establishing strong lines of authority and control. His
Jenny-Lu Zachary
Online Government
David Fuller


model is cyclical, with the charismatic authority being the most unstable form, and the rational-
legal being at the top. He believed the rational, bureaucratic organization form was more
legitimate because leaders were recognized and obeyed for subscribing to values of logic,
efficiency and reason. Bureaucracies entailed a separation of personal property from official
property, and leaders were usually selected on the basis of their qualification. They were then
appointed and compensated with salary. Weber stressed that the rational-legal form was the
most stable of systems for both superiors and subordinates. He points out that while
bureaucracies may seem to limit freedom, they are also necessary to carry out the administration
of modern, complex society. He believes that without these rational-bureaucracies, society
would be worse off because actions would be carried out in an inefficient and wasteful manner.
He is sure to point out that none of the three ideal types of authority is “pure”. Weber’s
knowledge organization is based on the theory of power. Max Weber views bureaucracy as
alienating in that it is a set of structures which dominate people. The rational and efficient
methods of administration do act to compromise human freedom.

Works Cited
Jenny-Lu Zachary
Online Government
David Fuller


Max Weber Bureaucracy Theory
Summary Weber’s 3 types (Bur, Charismatic, Traditional)
Weber, Max (1947 Max Weber: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated
by A.M. Henderson & Talcott Parsons. NY: The Free Press.
Weber, Max. (1921/1968). Economy and Society. (G.Roth, C. Wittich, Eds., G. Roth, & C.
Wittich) Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp.956-958.