1864–1920 ) is universally recognized for constructing the intricate latticework that underlies and supports our contemporary understanding of bureaucracy. Weber's magnum opus, Economy and Society, was written over the course of twenty years and published posthumously in 1921 and 1922. In this gargantuan work, Weber set the stage for nearly all analysis that followed.

While Weber is most commonly associated with identifying the characteristics of an ideal type bureaucracy, it should be noted that his ideal type was a comparative methodology rather than an endorsement of an “ideal.” In addition to defining the characteristics of bureaucracy, Weber identified both the advantages and disadvantages of bureaucratic structure. Moreover, he established a theory of authority that underlies bureaucratic power and foresaw the tension that would arise between administration and politics.

Max Weber (1864–1920), German social scientist.

Max Weber (1864–1920), German social scientist.

Weber identified six characteristics of a bureaucracy. The first three—hierarchy, specialization, and rules— should be familiar to anyone acquainted with bureaucracy because they provide a clear chain of command, defined skills, and order and predictability. With the fourth characteristic, a modern office with written records, Weber distinguishes public from private organizations. The fifth and sixth characteristics, specialized training and “full working capacity,” are closely related to Weber's concept of vocation, which is often misunderstood. Because the opposite of vocation is avocation, or hobby, Weber's “full working capacity” is often reduced to fulltime job. Though difficult to grasp when you are standing in line at the DMV, Weber truly saw bureaucrats not in a “job” so much as answering a calling. In addition to these six basic characteristics of bureaucracy, Weber addresses the concept of loyalty. In contrast to popular conceptions of bureaucracy, Weber argued that organizational loyalty is more important than personal loyalty.

Although Weber does distinguish between public and private offices, especially with respect to written, available documents, it is clear that Weber's characteristics apply to any public or private organization, be it corporation or denomination, of even modest size.

For Weber, the advantages of bureaucracy are clear: efficiency, productivity, and standardization. They manage resources so as to increase output and maintain quality. In short, bureaucratic organization creates the ability to process numerous tasks in a large and complex environment. These advantages notwithstanding, bureaucratic organization becomes dysfunctional when Weber's ideal-type characteristics are taken too literally. Hierarchy, for example, when taken to extremes, can lead to a top-down management style that stifles organizational creativity. Similarly, specialization with inflexible lines of demarcation can lead to passing the buck. Almost anyone familiar with bureaucracy can offer an anecdotal illustration of an overemphasis on rules. Foreshadowing this all-too-familiar complaint, Weber himself suggested that “the reduction of modern office management to rules is deeply embedded in its very nature” ( 1968, 958 ).

1968, 1112 ). The ability of bureaucrats to “seize the task” points to a contemporary critique of bureaucracy.

Beyond the advantages and dangers of bureaucratic organization discussed above, Weber recognized the potential for tension between politics and administration, acknowledging the difficulty for elected legislators to control the personnel embedded in the vast bureaucratic structure. Bureaucrats are expected to administer, or implement, legislative enactments, or, as Article II of the US Constitution says of the president, “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” However, legislatures are increasingly likely to make broad pronouncements rather than specific statutes. This tendency delegates an increasing amount of implementation power—including rulemaking authority—to unelected officials whose connection to citizens is indirect.

Like Weber, Woodrow Wilson insisted that “administration lies outside of the proper sphere of politics” (italics in the original). In an American context, the challenge was “to make public opinion efficient without suffering it to be meddlesome.” Ultimately, Wilson argued that “bureaucracy can exist only where the whole service of the state is removed from the common political life of the people” ( Wilson 1887, 210, 215, 217 ).

In analyzing Weber's writings on bureaucracy, it is important to remember that his ideal type was not necessarily ideal. While he noted that “nothing [was] more efficient and more precise than bureaucratic management,” Weber also identified bureaucracy with “depersonalization and oppressive routine” ( 1946, 49–50 ). In the same way that Weber identified the “irrational element” in the spirit of capitalism in his Protestant Ethic ( 1904–1905 ), he identified the irrational elements in the spirit of bureaucracy. Weber's projected future of capitalism, “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart” ( 1958, 182 ), could be just as easily applied to bureaucracy.

SEE ALSO Governance ; Organizational Theory and Public Policy ; Public Administration ; Red Tape .


Goodsell, Charles T. The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic. 4th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004.

Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited and translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Scribner's, 1958.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich; translated by Ephraim Fischoff et al. New York: Bedminster Press, 1968.

Wilson, Woodrow. “The Study of Administration.” Political Science Quarterly 2, no. 2 (1887): 197–222.

George E. Connor
Missouri State University