Weber’s theory

1. Rationality

Weber listed four forms of social action based upon the principle of rationalization. They are, first, Zweckrationalität, making decisions according to planned results. This is a form of decision making in which the social actor chooses both the means and the ends of action. In bureaucracy, one effect of this form of rationality is to concen- trate control in the hands of managerial elites and legitimate this power on the basis of procedural rules, because they define the ends and police the means. Thus, as Berdayes suggests, ‘even as it becomes more uniform and pervasive throughout an organization, power is depersonalized, so much so that managerial personnel them- selves become subject to impersonal bureaucratic control’ (2002: 38).

Second, there is Wertrationalität, where one makes decisions according to an absolute value or belief, such as a religious or other ideological commitment, where there is a ‘self conscious formulation of the ultimate values governing the actor and the consistently planned orientation of its detailed course to these values’ (Weber 1978: 21). In this form of decision making, the actor chooses only the means of his actions because the ends are predestined. Now, it might seem, at first glance, that from the perspective of Zweckrationalität action, value rationality will always appear irrational, if only because Wertrationalität orients action to a chosen value or end, without regard for consequences. However, for one whose sense of calling in their belief in Zweckrationalität is unassailable, the inimicality disappears.

Means–ends calculation as a form of life can become an ultimate value; think, for instance, of the reliance of business on sophisticated legal advice concerning the probabilities of adverse action being contingent on a chosen course of action. A faith in the reasoning that creates such probabilistic advice represents an ultimate value. It would be faith in an ultimate value of formal rationality, the pursuit of the most efficient and technically correct, calculable, impersonal, and substantively indifferent choice of means guiding any social action. Weber seems to come close to this with his idea that formal rationality was, in his time, increasingly becoming characterized by abstraction, impersonality and quantification, even to the extent of seeking to quan- tify that which seems essentially unquantifiable (Gronow 1988).

Third, there is emotive rationality, where decisions are made in terms of specific emotional states of the action, which is usually interpreted in terms of affectual action. Finally, there is traditional rationality, when people make decisions accord- ing to an orientation to a specific tradition, producing traditional action. The forms of rational behavior most common to modernity are Zweckrationalität and Wertrationalität, but Weber claimed that industrial civilization produces a totally new form of formal rationality, which George Ritzer (1993) defines in terms of the rational search by some people for the optimum means to a given end, where that search is shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures.

2. The will to power

The institutionalization of formal rationality depends on a will to power becoming material. Weber saw relations of power (for which he employed a number of different concepts) as the absolutely central aspect of all organized social life, and politics as the expression of resistance to the imposition of their will. Two central Weberian categories, in the original German, were Macht and Herrschaft.

The precise translation of these terms is contested. Initially, they entered into usage as ‘power’ and ‘authority’, respectively. While there is little controversy sur- rounding the translation of Macht as ‘power’ (as an active verb rather than a pas- sive noun, although, it should be noted, that ‘might’ is seen by some scholars as a more appropriate translation), there is considerable dissent surrounding the trans- lation of Herrschaft as ‘authority’ that was initiated by Parsons and Henderson in their edition of The theory of social and economic organization (Weber 1947).

Later translators do not follow this lead but instead translate Herrschaft either as ‘rule’ or as ‘domination’, depending on the context of translation. For one thing, it is necessary in order to recover some sense of the indebtedness that Weber had to German philosophical and literary figures, such as Nietzsche and Goethe (Kent 1983; on the Nietzsche connections see Fleischmann 1964; Eden 1983; Schroeder 1987; Sica 1988; Hennis 1988; for the most obvious connection to Goethe see the new edition of his Elective affinities, 2005).

Weber (1978) introduces Macht and Herrschaft as fundamental concepts of interpretive sociology, and he does so after a discussion of social relationships and prior to a discussion of social action. It is evident that both concepts are sociolog- ically defined as relational concepts. To say that they are sociologically defined is to note only that they are framed within the context of a science ‘concerning itself with interpretive understanding of social action in order to arrive at a causal expla- nation of its course and consequences’ (1978: 4). A causal explanation that is ade- quate entails both understanding (Verstehen) and explanation (Erklärung). The former is an essentially interpretive activity, premised on the relation between a specific case and a general context of understanding within which it can be framed, as a type. The latter entails that ‘there is a probability, which in the rare case can be numerically stated but is always in some sense calculable, that a given observable event (overt or subjective) will be followed or accompanied by another event’ (1978: 11–12). It is such probabilities that define social relationships as an expec- tation of the continuity of a meaningful course of action (1978: 27).

Weber defined power in various but related ways in his writings, but his most concise definition is that power is ‘the possibility of imposing one’s will upon the behavior of other persons’ (1954: 324), and, as he often added, especially where this will is resisted by those over whom it is exercised, regardless of the basis on which the probability of obedience rested (1978: 53). We may recognize a debt to Nietzsche’s (1973) ‘will to power’ (Schroeder 1987) in the centrality of the notion of will to his conception of power.

3. Weber’s domination and Parsons’ authority

Weber introduced the term Herrschaft ‘as the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons’ (1978: 53). Where obedience occurs, we have an example of legitimate Herrschaft, which Parsons and Henderson appropriately translate as ‘authority’. The concept of legitimate Herrschaft refers to legitimate, non-coercive rule. Thus, authority is a relationship of legitimate rule, where the meaningfulness of the social relation rests on assump- tions accepted without imposition by all parties to that relationship.

Relations of both power and legitimate rule must occur within specific spheres. In organizations this is the structure of dominancy, an order ‘regarded by the actor as in some way obligatory or exemplary’ governing the organization (1978: 31). In a later parlance, the structure of dominancy might be thought of as an obligatory passage point (Clegg 1989), something that is decisive in framing how a phenomenon unfolds.

Without exception every sphere of social action is profoundly influenced by structures of dominancy. In a great number of cases the emergence of a rational association from amorphous social action has been due to domination and the way in which it has been exercised. Even where this is not the case, the structure of dominancy and its unfolding is decisive in determining the form of social action and its orientation towards a ‘goal’. Indeed, domination has played the decisive role in the economically most important social structures of the past and present. Viz, the manor on the one hand, and the large scale capitalistic enterprise on the other. (Weber 1978: 941)

The formal structures of dominancy will be experienced as differing substantive types of rule, within which it is probable that there will be willing obedience. Any bureaucracy is an example of a structure of dominancy, although they might vary in their substantive particulars; should it be the case that values infuse its members, binding them with commitments to its rule, then the structure of dominancy may be transformed into a structure of authority, perhaps where the rule is infused with an ultimate value or is taken for granted and accepted as a legally rational basis for constraining action.

In modern organizations, Weber argues, formal rationality would be best insti-tutionalized, and domination most complete, when rationality is accepted as legit- imate in its own terms. Such a state of affairs would be what Weber defined as ‘authority’. Thus, authority is legitimated domination, one leading to the other. They are not qualitatively different from each other. The differences between them are ones of degree, not of kind. In this regard power and authority are opposed to violence as a mode of dominance, and are themselves specific forms of dominance. Simmel (1971), Weber’s intellectual peer, argued that domination is dialectically related to freedom rather than violence, although coercion, especially when it is institutionalized, is important because of its form; it keeps people together. In its institutionalized form, such as the labor market, coercion (in this case to work rather than be idle) serves social ordering. For Weber, social relations of power often involve coercion when dominance is not legitimated and social action that seeks to intervene in social relations is enacted, whether proactively or reactively as resistance. To speak of authority, however, presumes that legitimacy is present.

In history, domination rarely is as one-dimensional as the Weberian ideal type deliberately represents it to provide an accentuated and heightened model of a real phenomenon to aid its recognition and analysis in empirical cases. For example, as Bendix (1977) notes following Weber (1954), fully consistent charismatic leadership is inimical to both rules and tradition, but disciples who wish not to see their dis- cipleship lose meaning seek to routinize that charisma, usually through instilling either a system of lineage based on sanguinity or rule by rules. The charisma is reconstituted on another basis of rule.

Somewhat confusingly, although Weber defines four types of rationality he only defines three types of domination, and it is not entirely clear what the relation is between them. It is evident that Zweckrationalität corresponds pretty closely to rational-legal domination, and that traditional rationality corresponds to traditional domination; while his third type, charismatic domination, where obedience is given because of a belief in the extraordinary grace and powers of the person deferred to, seems close to the type of emotive rationality. The absence of a specific category for Wertrationalität might suggest that as a category it is almost indivisible from the others. For instance, one could make decisions according to an absolute value or belief, such as a religious or other ideological commitment that is traditional, or they could be based on a belief that the absolute value is manifest in a particular charis- matic individual. Or, it might suggest that Weber thought that value-based authority would not be of significance in the modern world. Like all sociologists of his time, he underestimated nationalism and religious fundamentalism, which are paradigmatic instances of this type of authority (see Haugaard 2002b).

There is another possibility related to the missing value-based rationality: one could imagine the categories of Wertrationalität and Zweckrationalität becoming fused and intertwined, in a situation where rational-legal authority is so institu- tionalized that obedience to it becomes an absolute commitment or, as Weber (1947) termed it, a ‘vocation’. On such occasions, as Weber stated, ‘The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we can- not learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so per- fect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself ’ (1949: 57). Where Wertrational meaning surrounds, embeds and saturates the meaning of organiza- tion and its work as a call to duty, an obligation to some sense of a greater purpose than the nature of just doing the work itself, then this will surely be the case. Value- rational action, or Wertrationalität, is the ‘self-conscious formulation of the ulti- mate values governing the actor and the consistently planned orientation of its detailed course to these values’. From the perspective of Zweckrationalität, value- rational action will always appear irrational, since Wertrationalität orients action to a chosen value or end, without regard for consequences.

Although Weber is commonly construed as a theorist of authority, the three types of what he refers to as Herrschaft are, in fact, types of domination. Authority is a social relation that stands at the outer limits of a more probable range of social relations of domination. These relations constitute the normalcy of organization – where there is a probability of resistance – which only shades into authority when, for reasons of tradition, charisma, Zweckrationalität or Wertrationalität, the subject owes an allegiance that enables them to legitimate their subjection to an external source of domination. It should be evident that authority derives its legitimacy from the ruled, not those ruling. Hence, organizational politics, premised on the necessity of acts of power by putative authorities to counter resistance to their imposition of their will, is something to be expected as normal. It will usually be the case that, despite charisma, tradition, discipline or vocation, situations ensue where there is resistance by some to the will of some other.

Figure 4.1 The Weberian view of resistance as something to overcome

As we see in Figure 4.1, at the center of Weber’s conception is the notion of the individual having a will to power that seeks to overcome resistance through domi- nation, whether though values, emotions, tradition or rules. However, if any of these are to endure then they must eventually be routinized through rule by rules, as a more stable and authoritative form of domination. Rule by rules offers the prospect of legitimization – the alchemy that turns domination into authority and, through obedience, minimizes resistance.

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

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