Note from Prof. Clarke: You will see the word "zweckrational" in this article. It is a German word that means, as Prof. Elwell explains, "technocratic thinking." That, in turn, means approaching all problems as if they were simple matters of lining up all the issues and solving them, much as engineers pursue their craft. Such an approach works well if you want to build a bicylce or plan a trip to Disney World. But the approach entails serious costs to humanity and morality, when it is allowed to drive human affairs. It is zweckrationality that I'll talk about in class, although I won't use that word. Elwell uses it because Max Weber distinguished between several kinds of rationalities. In class, I'll talk about only one of those kinds.
Weber's focus on the trend of rationalization led him to concern himself with the operation and expansion of large-scale enterprises in both the public and private sectors of modern societies (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977). Bureaucratic coordination of human action, Weber believed, is the distinctive mark of modern social structures. In order to study these organizations, both historically and in contemporary society, Weber developed an ideal-type bureaucracy:
Some have seriously misinterpreted Weber and have claimed that he liked bureaucracy, that he believed that bureaucracy was an "ideal" type of organization. Others have pronounced Weber "wrong" because bureaucracies do not live up to his list of "ideals." But Weber described bureaucracy as an "ideal type" in order to more accurately describe their growth in power and scope in the modern world. His studies of bureaucracy still form the core of organizational sociology.
The bureaucratic coordination of the action of large numbers of people has become the dominant structural feature of modern societies. It is only through this organizational device that large-scale planning and coordination, both for the modern state and the modern economy, become possible. The consequences of the growth in the power and scope of these organizations is key in understanding our world.
Again, it should be kept in mind that Weber is describing an ideal type; he was aware that in empirical reality mixtures will be found in the legitimation of authority. The appeal of Jesus Christ, for example, one of the most important charismatics in history, was partly based on tradition as well.
Weber's general theory of rationalization (of which bureaucratization is but a particular case) refers to increasing human mastery over the natural and social environment. In turn, these changes in social structure have changed human character through changing values, philosophies, and beliefs. Such superstructural norms and values as individualism, efficiency, self-discipline, materialism, and calculability (all of which are subsumed under Weber's concept of zweckrational) have been encouraged by the bureaucratization process.
Bureaucracy and rationalization were rapidly replacing all other forms of organization and thought. They formed a stranglehold on all sectors of Western society:
It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving toward bigger ones--a state of affairs which is to be seen once more, as in the Egyptian records, playing an ever increasing part in the spirit of our present administrative systems, and especially of its offspring, the students. This passion for bureaucracy ...is enough to drive one to despair. It is as if in politics. . . we were to deliberately to become men who need "order" and nothing but order, become nervous and cowardly if for one moment this order wavers, and helpless if they are torn away from their total incorporation in it. That the world should know no men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught up, and the great question is, therefore, not how we can promote and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parceling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life.Elwell, 1999). Again, the rationalization process is the increasing dominance of zweckrational action over rational action based on values, or actions motivated by traditions and emotions. Zweckrational can best be understood as "technocratic thinking," in which the goal is simply to find the most efficient means to whatever ends are defined as important by those in power.
thinking can be contrasted with wertrational, which involves the assessment
of goals and means in terms of ultimate human values such as social justice,
peace, and human happiness. Weber maintained that even though a bureaucracy
is highly rational in the formal sense of technical efficiency, it does
not follow that it is also rational in the sense of the moral acceptability
of its goals or the means used to achieve them. Nor does an exclusive
focus on the goals of the organization necessarily coincide with the broader
goals of society as a whole. It often happens that the single-minded pursuit
of practical goals can actually undermine the foundations of the social
1999). What is good for the bureacracy is not always good for the
society as a whole--and often, in the long term, is not good for the bureaucracy
An Insider's Example:In a chapter entitled "How Moral Men Make Immoral Decisions," John De Lorean a former General Motors executive (and famous for many things) muses over business morality. "It seemed to me, and still does, that the system of American business often produces wrong, immoral and irresponsible decisions, even though the personal morality of the people running the business is often above reproach. The system has a different morality as a group than the people do as individuals, which permits it to willfully produce ineffective or dangerous products, deal dictatorially and often unfairly with suppliers, pay bribes for business, abrogate the rights of employees by demanding blind loyalty to management or tamper with the democratic process of government through illegal political contributions" (J. Wright, 1979: 61-62). De Lorean goes on to speculate that this immorality is connected to the impersonal character of business organization. Morality, John says, has to do with people. "If an action is viewed primarily from the perspective of its effect on people, it is put into the moral realm. . . .Never once while I was in General Motors management did I hear substantial social concern raised about the impact of our business on America, its consumers or the economy" (J. Wright, 1979: 62-63).
One of the most well-documented cases of the irrationality factor in business concerns the Chevrolet Corvair (Watergate, the IRS, the Post Office, recent elections, and the Department of Defense provide plenty of government examples). Introduced to the American Market in 1960, several compromises between the original design and what management ultimately approved were made for financial reasons. "Tire diameter was cut, the aluminum engine was modified, the plush interior was downgraded and a $15 stabilizing bar was deleted from the suspension system" (R. Wright, 1996). As a result, a couple of the prototypes rolled over on the test tracks and it quickly became apparent that GM had a problem (J. Wright, 1979; R. Wright, 1996). De Lorean again takes up the story.
(J. Wright, 1979: 65-68).
An Extreme Case:An extreme case of rationalization was the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. The goal was to kill as many people as possible in the most efficient manner, and the result was the ultimate of dehumanization--the murder of millions of men, women and children. The men and women who ran the extermination camps were, in large part, ordinary human beings. They were not particularly evil people. Most went to church on Sundays; most had children, loved animals and life. William Shirer (1960) comments on business firms that collaborated in the building and running of the camps: "There had been, the records show, some lively competition among German businessmen to procure orders for building these death and disposal contraptions and for furnishing the lethal blue crystals. The firm of I. A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, manufacturers of heating equipment, won out in its bid for the crematoria at Auschwitz. The story of its business enterprise was revealed in a voluminous correspondence found in the records of the camp. A letter from the firm dated February 12, 1943, gives the tenor:
To The Central Construction Office of the S.S. and Police, Auschwitz:
Subject: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp.
We acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators for raising corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting ashes" (Shirer, 1960: 971).
The “lethal blue crystals” of Zyklon-B used in the gas chambers were supplied by two German firms which had acquired the patent from I. G. Farben (Shirer, 1960). Their product could do the most effective job for the least possible cost, so they got the contract. Shirer (1960) summarizes the organization of evil. “Before the postwar trials in Germany it had been generally believed that the mass killings were exclusively the work of a relatively few fanatical S.S. leaders. But the records of the courts leave no doubt of the complicity of a number of German businessmen, not only the Krupps and the directors of I.G. Farben chemical trust but smaller entrepreneurs who outwardly must have seemed to be the most prosaic and decent of men, pillars--like good businessmen everywhere--of their communities” (972-973). In sum, the extermination camps and their suppliers were models of bureaucratic efficiency using the most efficient means available at that time to accomplish the goals of the Nazi government.
corporations went beyond supplying the government with the machinery of
death, some actively participated in the killing process. "This
should occasion neither surprise nor shock. I.G. Farben was one
of the first great corporate conglomerates. Its executives merely
carried the logic of corporate rationality to its ultimate conclusion...the
perfect labor force for a corporation that seeks fully to minimize costs
and maximize profits is slave labor in a death camp. Among the great
German corporations who utilized slave labor were AEG (German General
Electric), Wanderer-Autounion (Audi), Krupp, Rheinmetall Borsig, Siemens-Schuckert
and Telefunken" (Rubenstein,
Why Irrationality?The fact that individual officials have specialized and limited responsibility and authority within the organization means that they are unlikely to raise basic questions regarding the moral implications of the overall operation of the organization. Under the rule of specialization, society becomes more and more intricate and interdependent, but with less common purpose. The community disintegrates because it loses its common bond. The emphasis in bureaucracies is on getting the job done in the most efficient manner possible. Consideration of what impact organizational behavior might have on society as a whole, on the environment, or on the consumer simply does not enter into the calculation.
The problem is further compounded by the decline of many traditional institutions such as the family, community, and religion, which served to bind pre-industrial man to the interests of the group. Rationalization causes the weakening of traditional and religious moral authority (secularization); the values of efficiency and calculability predominate. In an advanced industrial-bureaucratic society, everything becomes a component of the expanding machine, including human beings (Elwell, 1999).
The result is a seeming paradox-- bureaucracies, the epitome of rationalization, acting in very irrational ways. Thus we have economic bureaucracies in pursuit of profit that deplete and pollute the environment upon which they are based; political bureaucracies, set up to protect our civil liberties, that violate them with impunity; Agricultural bureaucracies (educational, government, and business) set up to help the farmer, that end up putting millions of these same farmers out of business; Service bureaucracies designed to care for and protect the elderly, that routinely deny service and actually engage in abuse. The irrationality of bureaucratic institutions is a major factor in understanding contemporary society. Weber called this formal rationalization as opposed to substantive rationality (the ability to anchor actions in the consideration of the whole). It can also be called the irrationality of rationalization, or more generally, the irrationality factor (Elwell, 1999). The irrationality of bureaucratic institutions is a major factor is understanding contemporary society.
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