Difficulties within
Rational-Legal Bureaucracy

(Weber and Gouldner)

Max Weber's rational-legal authority is an ideal type of the hierarchical organisation that exists to carry through specific ends and where the office holders are there not because of their personalities or their family or status line but because they are matched to that office in terms of their ability to carry out its tasks. The aim is maximum performance through the speciality and the chain of command. There are subordinates and superordinates in a pyramidal system. It is like a machine organisation, and this is what makes gives a depressing view of modern economic life given the spirit of our humanity (there is a kind of theology here). It is all part of the change to modernity, devoid of any religious ethic which paralleled the rise of capitalism in its more raw early expansionary period. Whilst it is good to get away from arbitrary personal whims of leaders, the placing of everyone into regimented offices (that is, positions) reduces the human touch. People are cogs in a machine. This is part of the system of organising, co-ordination and control, and everything is calculated. The association of bureaucracy with the keeping and processing of information in a system of filing (which can be electronic, of course) can well be made.

Alvin W. Goulder is not convinced that bureaucratic authority is either accepted or is inevitably the most efficient. This finding comes about from seeing how enforcing bureaucracy leads to opposition. An example of opposition happened in a gypsum mine in the United States.

After a lenient enforcement of bureaucratic authority, a new mine manager enforced the rules of the system effectively in an aim for better efficiency. The outcome, however, was a big fall in morale, increased labour-management conflict and a wildcat strike.

Gouldner's analysis then generalised is identifying three types of authority action in bureaucracy: mock, representative and punishment centred. These are ideal types: elements of all three can be within one actual bureaucracy.

Mock bureaucracy has rules ignored as illegitimate by superordinates and subordinates because they come from an outside or distant agency. The rules are not enforced, and in fact status comes from violating them. Only when outside enforcing authority calls does anyone take notice. Yet morale is high because whilst the occasional false returns go on (showing compliance) people do their own thing, and do so as they get on with the work in hand.
Representative bureaucracy is experts' authority and this is acceptable to superiors and subordinates and gives status based on conforming. The values involved are accepted as educated, skillful and universal, and so people who do not conform are assumed to be careless or at least well intentioned because no one would disagree. So this is authority not of position but knowledge and expertise.
Punishment centred bureaucracy is a condition of enforcement, coming from hierarchy and authority therein. Rules do intend to provide an impersonal method of authority (screening function), and suggest basic equality (rules replacing orders) by production at a distance (remote control function), but if rules come from too great a distance they become mock and are ignored. Rules give a definition of expectation with sanctions for non-performance (their punishment legitimating function), but these rules become instead minimal standards where individuals can work at low levels of commitment (their apathy preserving function). As minimal standards become standard behaviour, subordinates deviate at that level, finding the gaps to exhibit apathy (they still receive the same rewards) within the supposed efficient running of the bureaucracy. So this is less efficient, and requires a response of closer supervision which re-emphasises authority and tension. There is a cycle of ever increasing enforcement of new rules as superordinates and subordinates juggle for position. In any case hierarchical authority can involve a power struggle where rules even go backwards from subordinates against the management, as with union agreements on working practices. The status involved in such bureaucracy is a zero sum game, where a gain by one level is a loss by another (superordinate, subordinate). Deviation is disobedience. On top of this, bureaucracies do contain informal groups that may generate their own rules regarding obligations (explicational function) and these in effect overrule the bureaucracy's.

The intention here is to produce an efficient organisation working in conformity to rationally designed impersonal rules and procedures. It might work in depersonalising, but it just as much will produce conflict directed at actual managers and low levels of subordinate commitment.

Impersonal rules are not all bad; it is just that there are unintended as well as intended consequences, and these unintended consequences nevertheless come about and make Weber's bureaucracy not the efficient machine he presents.

Another problem with Weberian bureaucracy identified by Gouldner is the built in contradiction between the authority of experts and the authority of hierarchy and discipline. One comes from superior knowledge and another from the office held. Professionals may have more technical knowledge than hierarchical superordinates. Furthermore these professionals, called cosmopolitans, may be committed to their skills, and how they produce the general job title, but not as such to the organisation itself. The hierarchical people, called locals, show loyalty to the organisation. Loyalty to the organisation therefore comes at a price of speciality and efficiency, or efficiency comes at a price of maximising loyalty to the organisation.

Thus other psychologists and sociologists have looked for more human, expert based and ultimately more rewarding (for everyone) forms of business organisation.


Pugh, D. S., Hickson, D. J., Hinings, C. R. (eds.) (1971), Writers on Organizations, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 19-29.

Refers to:

Gerth, H. H., Mills, C. W. (eds.) (1948), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Gouldner, A. W. (1955), Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gouldner, A. W. (1955), Wildcat Strike, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gouldner, A. W. (1957), 'Cosmopolitans and Locals: Towards an Analysis of Latent Social Roles', 1, Administration Science Quarterly, 1957, vol. 1, no. 2, 281-306.

Gouldner, A. W. (1958), 'Organizational analysis', in Merton, R. K. et al. (eds.) (1958), Sociology Today, Basic Books.

Weber, M. (1930), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Allen and Unwin.

Weber, M. (1947), The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation, Free Press.