Rationalization and Bureaucracy

In the early years of the 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber argued that modern society increasingly relies upon the “rationalization” of social organizations and institutions. He maintained that Western society is increasingly reliant upon reason, efficiency, predictability, and means/ends calculation. He further believed that modern society is highly dependent upon both public and private bureaucracies (e.g., the nation state and the modern corporation) as a way to achieve important societal goals (education, social welfare, medical care, business administration, governance, etc.) Bureaucracies are, “Highly organized networks of hierarchy and command structures (which are) necessary to run any ordered society – especially ones large in scope.” (See “Max Weber’s Theory of Rationalization: What it Can Tell Us of Modernity,” ) As one form of social organization, bureaucracy is distinguished by its: (1) clear hierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships. (For this and additional definitions, see the BusinessDictionary)

Weber and subsequent social theorists saw the process of rationalization and bureaucratization as replacing traditional modes of life, traditional values, and religious orientations with a society characterized by growing calculability, pursuit of individuals’ self-interest, efficiency, and ordered control. (Weber termed the loss of tradition that accompanied the increasing rationalization of Western society as the “disenchantment” of society.) As modernity transforms traditional social forms and social values, rationality and bureaucracy come to dominate the various spheres of contemporary society. Moreover, as society becomes ever more rationalized, it increasingly depends upon bureaucratic regimes of governance and management by impersonal rules and the exercise of technical knowledge by experts. Today, various social arenas—ranging from government to corporate organizations, from healthcare to public education—have become suffused with the ethos of bureaucracy and rationality. “…rationalization means a historical drive towards a world in which ‘one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.’” (See, Max Weber, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Bureaucracy

Although “bureaucracy’ is often thought of as a pejorative term, bureaucracy has some advantages over other forms of social organization.  Bureaucracy creates and utilizes rules and laws (vs. fiat decisions by a powerful notable, such as a king), mobilizes the knowledge of educated experts, promotes meritocracy, delineates and sets boundaries for the exercise of social power, establishes a formal chain of command and specifies organizational authority, and provides a technically efficient form of organization for dealing with routine matters that concern large numbers of persons. These advantages however, are accompanied by what are thought by many to be substantial disadvantages, including, compelling officials to conform to fixed rules and detailed procedures, sponsoring bureaucrats’ focus on narrow objectives, and supporting bureaucrats to become defensive, rigid, and unresponsive to the urgent individual needs and concerns of private citizens. “…individual officials working under bureaucratic incentive systems frequently find it to be in their own best interests to adhere rigidly to internal rules and formalities in a ritualistic fashion, behaving as if “proper procedure” were more important than the larger goals for serving their clients or the general public that they are supposedly designed to accomplish (i.e., the “red tape” phenomenon).” (See Bureaucracy)

Education and Bureaucracy 

If we look at public education in contemporary society, we see many features associated with bureaucracy. State education agencies, districts, and schools: 1) are run by trained experts (e.g., credentialed teachers and administrators), 2) feature rigid hierarchies of authority, 3) have a strict division of labor, 4) depend upon and are run by formal and impersonal rules of administration and control, and 5) credential students by relying on impersonal and standardized methods for assessing student achievement. Additionally, students are routinely segregated into age-specified categories (classes) and are subjected not to individually tailored curricula, but to routine and standardized curricula that attempt to teach students en masse.

Does Standardized Testing Support Educational Bureaucracy?

Standardized testing of student achievement is one of the bureaucratic characteristics of modern public education. Although assessment is thought to be a necessary means for measuring student learning, it is also a means by which educational organizations categorize students, assign them social statues, and allocate them to various social trajectories (“life chances” to use Weber’s terminology). Standardized testing regimes also assist the educational bureaucracy by creating different categories of clientele (i.e., students) who can then be served en masse by large-scale routinized educational programs and mass-produced textbooks. Some would even argue that students are made to fit school as much as schools are made to fit the student. (For a summary of the problems associated with standardized testing, see “What’s Wrong with Standardized Tests.”)

While students are subject to the rule of bureaucracy, so too are faculty and administrators. Like the students they teach and oversee, faculty and administrators are subject to formal structures of authority, adhere to a strict division of labor, follow formal rules and regulations, and must be credentialed and certified. Like their students, teachers are also subject to assessment and review. (See our previous blog post “Too Much Assessment in Higher Education,” for an example of the effects of assessment on higher education.) Schools are also reviewed and rated by State Departments of Education.

While some feel that the stultifying aspects of bureaucracy may be ameliorated, the original theorist of rationalization and bureaucracy, Max Weber, was pessimistic about the reform of bureaucracy. As he surveyed the early 20th century and considered the likely developmental direction of Western society, he said that citizens of society were likely to find themselves increasingly entrapped in what he termed the “iron cage of bondage,” which continued to be cemented by the growth of rationalization and bureaucracy. Whether this dark prognosis is generally true for Western society is still very much debatable. That said, it is difficult to imagine large-scale public education without many of the features of bureaucracy that Weber first described —including standardized student testing. (For examples of reform efforts as they apply to standardized tests, see The National Center for Fair & Open Testing)

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