Situating Weber

1. Weber is not a classical management theorist

After the English translations were available, the organization scholars who read Weber largely worked outside of contemporary German scholarship. Few, if any, knew precursors such as Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx or contemporaries such as Simmel. And, to add a further barrier to the reception of his ideas, while Weber foreshadowed a more critical scholarly approach to the analysis of organizations and economic action, in the period that had elapsed since Taylor’s work was first received, a discourse on management had developed that regarded Taylor as a founding intellectual father, someone to build on, to respect, and with whom to engage rather than someone to criticize or question. When Weber’s ideas were received they were normalized into the canon that this scholarship had already constituted. Weber became seen as a classical scholar of administration, someone whose concern with bureaucracy rounded out the concern with the shop floor exhibited by Taylor, and which meshed nicely with other contemporaries, such as the Frenchman Henri Fayol. The Max Weber known to most management and organization theory was therefore an exceedingly simplified caricature in which the nuance, depth, and cultural embeddedness of the original had been lost.

Weber’s inscription as a part of the classical canon by management writers (Pugh 1971) added a touch of class to a rather pedestrian set of concerns. However, Weber was never a conscious part of the classical management canon in any contemporary’s cal- culations, least of all his own. While Weber (1978) was familiar with the work of Taylor and other scientific management writers, they were not familiar with him. While Taylor proposed technologies to exert power, Weber explained them. It would be wholly incor- rect to bundle Weber up as a scholar of the Classical School akin to F. W. Taylor (Pugh et al. 1971) or to situate his corpus within the narrative of formal management theories (Robbins and De Cenzo 2005). They have very little in common at all.

Weber both acknowledged the origins of modern bureaucracy in military aus-pices and demonstrated an awareness of Taylor’s ‘scientific management’, but as formal theories of management were first initiated in the late nineteenth century, in a great wave of mobilization around the notion of engineering, they barely occupied the same conceptual universe as Weber. These pioneers of management argued that the applied science of engineering, if applied appropriately, would not only legitimate the manager as a new class of highly skilled employee but also justify the entire structures of control in which they were inserted. It would make these structures authoritative, for what could be a better basis for authority in the new world than the legitimacy of science (Shenhav 1999)?

Engineering rationality replaced older legitimation grounded in the Protestant ethic (Weber 1976) or ideas about the survival of the fittest, flourishing as social Darwinism from the nineteenth century (Therborn 1976). Scientific management was able to position itself as a rational and irrefutable bastion against the privileges that ownership allowed. Installing scientific management, it was claimed, would eradicate arbitrary and socially destructive domination, tame it, and make it authority. It would create a legitimate model of hierarchy and management con- ceived not just as the expression of a dilettante or capricious will. It was based, its protagonists said, on facts and technical analysis of the organizational situation. It was grounded in functional analysis of necessity rather than the arbitrary exercise of will by an overseer or a master. It would fit the person to the job, after the job had first been scientifically analyzed. Thus, people were to be slotted into their positions on the basis of their aptitudes and abilities, formed through whatever circumstances. Above all, the achievement of efficiency would ensure management authority and inscribe it in the ultimate value that flourished best in modernity.

Weber foresaw that ultimate values would be in inexorable decline as modernity developed, defined in terms of an increasing rationalization of the world through new institutions and a concomitant decline in beliefs in enchantment, magic and fatalism. In large part this would be because the ‘calculability’ contained in the disciplinary rationality of modern management techniques, such as double-entry bookkeeping, would progressively replace values. As techniques increasingly achieved what previ- ously only great value commitments could ensure, then the necessity for these values would diminish. The future would be one in which we strive to work ceaselessly in jobs and organizations that neither serve ultimate values nor adequately fill the space left by the values they purported to replace. The outcome of this process of rational- ization, Weber suggests, is the production of a new type of person, the specialist or technical expert, well represented by engineers in the twentieth century (Layton 1986). Such experts master reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Statistics, for example, began in the nineteenth century as a form of expert codified knowledge of everyday life and death, which could inform public policy (Hacking 1991). The statistician became a paradigm of the new kind of expert, dealing with everyday things but in a way that was far removed from everyday understandings, a little like Frederick Taylor, perhaps, with his fascination for statistical data.

The understanding of the rationalization of power and domination that has been developed thus far can be used to analyze the history that early figures in management, such as Taylor, were constructing. Weber sometimes referred to the process whereby all forms of magical, mystical, traditional explanation are stripped away from the world as disenchantment. The world stripped bare by rational analy- sis is always open and amenable to the calculations of technical reason under the tutelage of the expert. It holds no mystery. New disciplines colonize it and Taylor evidently promulgated one such new discipline. However, he did not produce a new authority, something that was uncontested. In Nietszche’s terms, he found that the will to power he proposed was widely opposed by resistance.

While Taylor was an unabashed utilitarian, the philosophical auspices of Max Weber were very different indeed. He was no Benthamite reformer intent on dis- covering the one best way to be efficient but a scholar schooled in the classical German traditions of Kant and Hegel. As such he provided the vocabulary and grammar for the analysis of power, one that, due to translation, became increas- ingly available from 1947 onwards. But knowledge had already been too system- atized, literally. The system and rationality were the hallmarks of the new management thinking, one from which Weber’s grammar of power and domina- tion had been formally expunged in favor of authority by Parsons and Henderson’s translation of Weber (1947). Being expunged, power would now largely be treated as marginal (Hardy and Clegg 1996).

Weber’s major interest was in the development of the great world civilizations. In this sense, he took up the themes of G. W. F. Hegel’s (1998) philosophy of history, especially the specific and peculiar role of rationalism in the development of Western culture. Weber was also concerned with the debate concerning science and history, between interpretive understanding and causal explanation. Weber felt that historical sociology should be concerned with both individuality and general- ity (Ritzer 1992: 114).

The philosopher who dominated German philosophical thought during Weber’s life was Immanuel Kant, who lived from 1724 to 1804. Kant argued that the meth- ods of the natural sciences as he understood them at that time provided indu- bitable knowledge about the external phenomenal world as we experience it through our senses. Kant argued that empirical analysis and moral judgment were two separate systems. Weber believed that while sociology must be concerned with empirical analysis of society and history, the method of sociology would have to be different from that of the natural sciences, because it dealt with the ideational, and thus moral, world. It meant examining social action within a context of social interaction, not just viewing people as objects driven by impersonal forces. For Weber, the person could not be reduced to the utilitarian calculating machine that Taylor conjured up.

Along with this emphasis on universal cultural history, Weber’s detailed training as a legal and economic historian led him to reject the overly simplistic formulas of economic base and corresponding cultural superstructure that were so often used to account for cultural development in Marxist analysis. Weber, given his legal training, sought to generalize across cases and developed the method of ideal types to do this. Amongst his enquiries were a series of ruminations on organizations, on power, authority and domination. Unlike Taylor, Weber had an explicit concern with issues of power and domination, and a particular interest in their organiza- tion (Clegg 1975).

2. Weber’s obscurity

Parsons was somewhat unusual in having read Weber when he did, shortly after Weber’s death. The national and international reception of Weber’s work during his lifetime was muted. What distinction he enjoyed came almost exclusively from his work on the Protestant ethic (1976) and the printed versions of the lectures on Wissenschaft als Beruf (1919a/1948) and Politik als Beruf (1919b/1948). After Weber’s death from influenza in 1920, his widow, Marianne Weber, extended awareness of his work through her success in bringing Gesammelte politische Schriften (Weber 1921), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Weber 1922a), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Weber 1924a) and Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik (Weber 1924b) to fruition, but none of these succeeded in making Weber well known. Even Weber’s (1922b) epic Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft was not widely distributed. As Kaesler (2004) observes, in a most instructive essay addressing the critical reception of Weber’s oeuvre, fewer than 2,000 copies of this text were sold between its initial publication and its trans- lation into English in 1947.

Weber was not well known outside of certain select circles of scholarship, such as Parsons’ (1937) recognition of him as a founder of the theory of social action and Schutz’s (1967) recognition of the centrality of his account of social action as an appropriate point of departure for a phenomenological sociology. In Germany he was perhaps better known as an economist rather than a sociologist concerned with social relations in antiquity and modernity (Swedberg 1998).

He was not much read by Anglophone management theorists until after the Second World War, when his works were widely translated into English (Weber 1930; 1946; 1947; 1949; 1954; 1962; 1965; 1970; 1974; 1976; 1978). However, in a measure of the limited distribution that still pertains, in 1981 Mohr Siebeck (a German editorial house in Tübingen) announced the publication of an edition of the full works of Weber in 34 volumes with approximately 21,000 pages. Such data give us an idea of the still limited knowledge of Weber’s work in English at the time that his ideas were being introduced into the language.

In some respects, even if the founders of modern management theory had known something about Weber, it is doubtful that they would have been able to make much of him. For one thing, despite being lauded in some (mistaken) quar- ters as a founder of value-free science, he did not represent himself as anything other than an engaged scholar. The nature of his engagements with certain schol- arly and liberal imperatives that were closely related to national values were pre- eminent (see Weber’s 1946 two essays on ‘vocation’) and are barely explicable to postwar American concerns. His attitude to work, as a vocation, did not resonate with the values of Taylor’s pragmatism, which saw work as little more than a set of efficient tasks sequentially stitched together.

Weber was rather less a classical management theorist and rather more a student of culture; indeed he practiced what today we might call ‘cultural studies’. He con- centrated on subjectivity, the relation of culture to the individual, and its historical genealogy. His concerns were light years away from the more pragmatic interests of Taylor and his followers. For instance, Weber did not use the term ‘efficiency’, pre- ferring instead to write about technical rationality and the formally most rational mode of political domination. Today, efficiency is not only taken for granted as a pre-eminent value but is also bundled up with other cultural values such as the pursuit of ‘innovation’ or ‘profit’.

Weber (1978) noted that Taylor’s scientific management hastened the ratio-nalization of the world. Taylor’s innovation was to create a practice of domina- tion in which the employee became oriented towards a new external disciplinary regime. Not only did they orient externally; they also learnt a rationalized self- discipline. Taylor’s interventions represented a historical ‘switching point’, a moment when a new rationalized regime of work became possible. For Weber, rationalization meant the ordering of beliefs and action according to specific cri- teria. While Taylor’s practice of rationalization dwelt on the corporeal dimen- sion, with its political economy of the body, Weber’s account of contemporary rationalization focused more on the imposition of bureaucratic routines on intellectual labor (Berdayes 2002: 37). However, these forms of rationalization, which stressed the relation of means and ends, were not the only ways of being rational.

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

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