Like many of the classical theorists of his age, nineteenth-century German social theorist Max Weber sought to define “modernity.” Weber lived in a society experiencing rapid economic, political, and social changes and devoted much of his time to characterizing what defined modern society and how (and why) society had come to look differently than it ever had before. Weber explored many facets of modernity (including religion, social class, and politics), eventually developing one of his most famous concepts, “bureaucracy.”
According to Weber, modern society is in part defined by the introduction of bureaucracies, a new type of organization developed alongside capitalist values in western Europe. Unlike other organizational forms, bureaucracies exhibit a unique set of characteristics that set them apart. First, bureaucracies are defined by a clear-cut chain of command, wherein every member reports to someone of higher status and knows their own role and responsibility within the organization.
Next, bureaucratic members must follow written rules that govern their conduct (consider human resource policies you might encounter at work, for example). Members are also salaried, work full-time, and have a separation between their work at the bureaucracy and their home life (this might seem intuitive, but consider a worker during a feudal system, where they would have worked and lived in the same location).
Finally, Weber specified that bureaucratic members usually use materials at work that belong to the organization, rather than to themselves personally (this might again seem straight-forward, but is a relatively new capitalist phenomenon!).
Many of these qualities may seem familiar because bureaucracies have become very commonplace in our everyday lives. Consider the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example. The “DMV” is a fixture of modern adult life and possesses all the qualities Weber identified. The DMV relies on order and strict rules and regulations–so much so that it sometimes might actually be very difficult to accomplish what you need to get done there.
Even universities are very bureaucratic in nature. Consider how many different offices there are on your campus with specific responsibilities, and the number of explicit rules of conduct you are expected to follow as students. While these organizational forms might seem commonplace in our everyday lives, Weber’s work reminds us that they are a relatively new phenomenon.
Weber also noted that the rise of the bureaucracy came with both positives and negatives. Because of their streamlined organization, bureaucracies tend to be very efficient and fast-paced (a plus in a capitalist economy). Additionally, Weber deemed bureaucracies “impersonal,” meaning that they are goal-oriented and driven by rationality, rather than by social values and emotions.
Consequently, bureaucracies tend to be focused on achieving their desired goal and thus theoretically do not play favorites or discriminate. Consider again your experience at the DMV, for example. Their reliance on rules and regulations means that everyone who enters their doors is supposed to be treated the same, no exceptions-even if the employee helping you knows you personally.
Despite this, Weber also argued that bureaucracies come with some downsides as well. Although they are very efficient, their streamlined, regulatory nature can make them very rigid and hard to navigate. As an outsider it might be difficult to ascertain exactly what those rules are, thereby making it very complicated to achieve a seemingly simple task!
The same positively impersonal nature of bureaucracies might also be a downside. Weber warned his readers against the increasing rationality of our society, reminding us that sometimes it’s a good thing to leave room for social values and emotions because they are what makes us human. If bureaucracies do not leave room for such things we might be left operating like robots-albeit efficient ones.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many bureaucratic workplaces to adapt in order to keep their operations afloat and employees safe. In June 2020, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom estimated that approximately 42% of United States workers worked from home during the pandemic. While working from home comes with some perks, it strikes me that this new way of life has emphasized many of bureaucracy’s flaws.
For example, consider that bureaucracies are in part defined by the separation of employee’s work and social life. This divide has become strikingly blurred during the pandemic. Forced to create makeshift offices in their homes and maintain productivity in isolated settings, many researchers have reported U.S. workers are struggling to achieve the work-life balances they once had.
Only one month after many workplaces shut down, Bloomberg noted in a recent article:
In the U.S., homebound employees are logging three hours more per day on the job than before city and state-wide lockdowns…The contours of the workday have changed, too. Without commutes, wake-up times have shifted later…but peak email time has crept up an hour to 9 am. Employees are also logging back in late at night.
This shift is even starker for parents of school-age children, who suddenly must balance their own work alongside their children’s schooling. This phenomenon is particularly true for female workers who are often asked to shoulder the labor of parenting.
Despite being a prominent fixture of modern life, it is clear that the structure of bureaucratic organizations is currently not sufficient. Moreover, it is clear that bureaucracies are not equipped to rectify these issues. Reliant on strict regulations and the principle of impersonality, bureaucracies were not designed to deviate from their internal structure or take care of their employees during periods of mass-duress.
As a consequence, many bureaucratic workers’ quality of life has dramatically suffered. Both the CDC and National Safety Council have recognized the toll working through a pandemic has had on workers’ mental health, citing rising stress and anxiety levels, or even drug use. While these issues are well known, the burden of resolving them often falls on the shoulders of workers themselves rather than their workplaces. The CDC, for example, recommends practicing mindfulness, utilizing mental health resources, or talking to family and friends. This disparity between workers’ institutional demands and individual accountability points to some of the major flaws of bureaucracies-namely, that the rigid and impersonal structure that makes them so efficient might also harm those within the system.
Although Weber first theorized the bureaucracy over a century ago, it is clear that his principles still ring true to this day. While the bureaucracy has become a fundamental fixture of modern life and has brought many positive changes, this past year has also brought many of its flaws to the forefront.