Reading Weber

1. Translations from America

While Taylor was prescribing how work should be designed in America, or at least the Midvale Steel works and one or two other establishments, that continent received a visitor from Europe. Max Weber, recovering from a prolonged period of intellectual inactivity associated with deep depression, attended the World’s Fair in St Louis in 1904 on the invitation of Hugo Münsterberg, a compatriot of Weber’s and a follower of Taylor. We do not know what Weber saw there but it would not be surprising if there were not exhibits celebrating the achievements of systematic management, something which was not only a central interest for Münsterberg but also at the cutting edge of management innovation in 1904.

Max Weber was already a minor if not yet significant intellectual in Germany. He had recently completed his essays on the ‘Protestant ethic’ (Weber 1976)1 and was soon to create most of what we now know as his writings on power and orga- nizations in the first 20 or so years of the twentieth century, almost contempora- neously with F. W. Taylor’s promulgation and defense of his program. In the period between the wars Weber’s infinitely more sophisticated ideas were circulated only among a small number of scholars in Germany and barely established any sort of program at all, either in theory or in practice. These ideas received widespread reception in English only after the second of these wars, initially due to Talcott Parsons.

After a fairly conventional undergraduate education, Parsons studied at the London School of Economics and from there, at the end of 1925, he went to Heidelberg. It was in Heidelberg that he encountered the influence of Max Weber, who had lived and worked there from 1896 to 1918. Parsons first read Weber’s work during this period and became a sympathetic interpreter and subsequent translator of Max Weber. Parsons was the son of an ascetic Protestant family (his father was a Congregational minister in Colorado Springs). Thus, we might surmise that Weber’s essays on the Protestant ethic may have held especial interest for him, explaining why he chose these to translate into English.

Parsons became the leading ‘functionalist’ theorist of the 1950s, whose theory stressed the importance of consensus and a central value system for social order. Thus, not surprisingly perhaps, Weber’s rugged realism, which was most evident in the centrality of Herrschaft or domination to his scheme of thought (see Roth, in Weber 1978: lxxxviii, noting in his introduction to Economy and society that the sociology of domination is the book’s core), was invariably translated as if it had the qualifier of legitimacy attached to it, thus rendering it as authority, the core notion for functionalist theory. From Parsons’ point of view, rendering domination as legitimate per se makes obvious sense, due to functionalism’s general concern with stability and endurance. For Parsons, the other to authority/domination is less power/conflict than it is instability/disorder. So, from that perspective, it makes sense to equate (enduring) domination with authority. It effectively rendered power in such a way that it could be analyzed without considering conflict and confrontation between forces. While domination rests on a variable probability of obedience, power does not necessarily do this (it might involve compliance by force). Thus, domination is always to some extent legitimate while this is not neces- sarily true of power (it might involve violence). Hence, while some instances of power may be only episodic (where violence rules), domination has some exten- sion; it is enduring and (more) permanent. In other words, while there might be instances of an illegitimate exercise of power, domination is implicitly both endur- ing and potentially legitimate. It might have made for good functionalism but it was bad translation.

In the German language, Autorität is rarely used to denominate a process; in fact, it is almost exclusively used as an attribute of a particular person or office. So, one does not usually ‘exercise authority’ (Autorität ausüben), as one would say in English, but one would only ‘exercise power/domination’ (Macht/Herrschaft). Hence, someone is more likely to have (possess) Autorität rather than to exercise (ausüben) it. Also, Autorität would be only loosely coupled to legitimacy (someone can have Autorität as a person, although the legitimacy of the office is in question and vice versa). So, Autorität is more a personal attribute that tends to accompany (if not necessarily so) the exercise of power/domination, at least in German. In English the matters are somewhat different: authority is not merely a positional attribute but can also be something that is observable in process when words and deeds deepen or cheapen the legitimacy of authority; it is not irrevocably attached to positions. While Weber’s translation by Parsons emphasized a fair German inter- pretation it was also one which happened to correspond with the assumptions of functionalist theories. As Cohen et al. (1975a; 1975b) establish, following Gouldner’s (1971) tracks, there is every need to ‘de-Parsonize’ Weber despite Parsons’ (1975) objections to the contrary. Talcott Parsons and A. M. Henderson translated Weber’s (1947) sociology of domination into a sociology of authority, thus establishing what became the dominant meta-routine in the repertoire of postwar organization and management theory.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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