THEORIES OF POWER (Weberian, Marxist and Structural Functionalist)

Weber's Theory of Power

Max Weber defined "power" as the ability to get things done your way in spite of resistance from others. Weber also discussed the concept of "authority" (power which is regarded as being proper, appropriate, legitimate etc. by subordinates or by others).

According to Weber, there are three kinds of authority, i.e., traditional authority, charismatic authority and legal-rational authority. Traditional authority refers to authority based on customs and traditions. In Malaysia, the sultans have traditional authority. Charismatic authority refers to authority which arises because a person is perceived as being one who possesses extraordinary/special qualities by one's followers. Political leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim, Mohandas Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler etc. possessed considerable charismatic authority and were able to attract a lot of followers. Religious leaders such as Jesus Christ and the Ayatollah Khomeini also possessed considerable charismatic authority.

Legal-rational authority arises from the position one holds in a bureaucracy or organisation. High government officials and top managers in private companies exert legal-rationality because of the positions they hold within the organisation. It should be pointed out that these three kinds of authority can overlap, e.g., when Anwar Ibrahim was Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, he had charismatic authority as well as legal-rational authority. A person like Princess Diana had charismatic authority as well as traditional authority.

Unlike Marx, Weber's view is that power does not arise from control of economic resources alone. Groups which do not possess much wealth can also be powerful. Weber's view of power is conflictual and zero sum, i.e., the exercise of power often benefits one group at the expense of another group.

Marxist Theory of Power

Marx and his followers argue that power arises from the control of economic resources. In other words, political power comes from economic power. Since the capitalist class owns or controls the means of production, this class will also have a lot of power. Even if the capitalist class is not the politically dominant group, it can still influence the state to achieve its goals. Marx said that the state is the "executive committee of the ruling class". The state serves to further the interests of the capitalist class, e.g., by ensuring social stability, by enforcing laws to protect private property, by helping to reproduce the labour force and by promoting values which support capitalism (by using the ideological state apparatus such as the schools, mass media etc).

Thus, power is a structural relationship and it exists independently of the will of individuals - power is relational (between the capitalist class and the working class). Power involves class conflict and not merely conflict between individuals (such as between a bad boss and the boss' workers). Marx, like Weber, has a conflictual and zero sum view of power.

Structural Functional Theory of Power

Structural functionalists like Parsons hold a benign view of power. Parsons argues that power is not zero sum - it is exercised by some for the benefit of the rest of society. For example, leaders use power in order to achieve the society's common goals. Power is given by the people to their elected leaders and it can be withdrawn if the people are unhappy with the performance of their leaders.

Power does not necessarily involve conflict and coercion, e.g., a common goal of society is to improve the health of the people. Thus, the government can use the power of taxation to raise money to spend on public health programmes to benefit the people.

Power is diffused in society and not concentrated in the hands of a small elite group. It can arise from many sources, e.g., wealth, political office, prestige etc.

Some structural functionalists also argue that interest groups compete against each other for power and influence over public policies. The result is that they will balance each other and prevent concentration of power.


"Bureaucracy" means rule by officials. These officials possess legal-rational authority by virtue of the positions which they hold in organisations. When discussing bureaucracy, we often begin with Max Weber's ideal type model of bureaucracy.

According to Weber, one major trend in society is increasing formal rationality. Formal rationality means goal-oriented, calculative behaviour. The rise of capitalism is a good example of rationality applied to economic behaviour while the growth of bureaucracy is an example of rationality applied to the organisation of work. It should be noted that Weber believed that too much formal rationality and growth of bureaucratic power could threaten the freedom of individuals. Weber called this the "iron cage of rationality". For example, the citizens of Singapore where rationality and efficiency is emphasised, often complain of too many rules and regulations.

Nevertheless, Weber argued that bureaucracy is the most technically superior way of organising work. It is characterised by the following:

1. Hierarchy of authority
2. Clear division of labour and task specialisation
3. Behaviour is rule-bound
4. Records are kept in the form of written documents
5. Impersonal relations exist between bureaucrats and clients
6. Recruitment is carried out on the basis of qualifications
7. There is long-term employment
8. Promotion is on the basis of seniority and merit
9. Staff are paid fixed salaries
10. There is separation of private and official income

Hierarchy of authority: This refers to the structure of authority within the organisation. In bureaucratic organisations, there is a chain of command whereby persons higher up have the authority to give orders to lower ranking people to carry out. There is clearly circumscribed areas of command and responsibility. The top person in private sector organisations is usually called the General Manager or the Chief Executive Officer.

Division of labour and task specialisation: Work done within the organisation is divided up among specialised staff, e.g., the finance department handles matters dealing with money and the budget, the marketing department deals with the challenge of attracting customers and so on. Theoretically, this division of labour will increase efficiency and productivity.

Rule-bound behaviour and the use of written documents: Rules governing behaviour within organisations together with the use of formal, written documents will enable predictability and prevent arbitary behaviour.

Impersonal relations between bureaucratic staff and their clients: This impersonality or "arm's length" relationship is designed to prevent favouritism and unequal treatment of clients.

Recruitment on the basis of qualifications, promotion on the basis of merit and seniority together with long-term employment on fixed salaries: Recruitment and promotion on the basis of merit is designed to ensure that the "most qualified" person is chosen to fill a particular bureaucratic position. Long-term employment on fixed salaries will ensure career stability and help to reduce the problem of corruption.

Separation of private and official income: The equipment used by the bureaucrat in the course of carrying out his or her official duties belongs to the organisation and not to the employee. In other words, the bureaucratic staff do not own the tools which they use while carrying out their duties.

Criticisms of Weber's model of bureaucracy:

In bureaucratic organisations, the real power structure very often does not coincide with the official hierarchy of authority. For example, the personal secretaries of top managers often become powerful also. Furthermore, those who control resources may also become powerful, e.g., those who control access to information, those who control the allocation of financial resources, those with technical expertise, those with connections to powerful outside people etc. Informal networks of power and influence may exist within the organisation - unofficial leaders, alliances etc.

The hierarchical structure of bureaucratic organisations may also give rise to communication problems. For example, downward communication can be distorted if there are too many layers of hierarchy. Upward communication can also be distorted because subordinates are often reluctant to report "bad news" to their higher-ups.

Division of labour and task specialisation can result in "turf battles" and refusal to do work, e.g., one department will claim that a specific project should be done by another department as it does not fall within their area of responsibility. If the divion of labour is too extreme, the staff may feel dehumanised. Assembly line work and data entry work are good examples of alienating work which arise from the divion of labour.

The problem with bureaucratic rules is that too many rules will lead to "red tape", unnecessary paperwork and inflexibility. Private organisations cannot afford to be slow-moving or rival companies will do better in attracting customers and thus, put them out of business. Bureaucrats who just "follow the rules" or "go according to the book" are often criticised for being overly cautious, lacking in initiative and so on.

Impersonal relations are alienating to customers and clients. In real life, in the private sector, good relations with customers are very important. If customers are treated too impersonally, they may leave and do business with another company. In the public sector, influential and powerful people are often treated better than ordinary citizens. It is difficult to imagine the Prime Minister of Malaysia waiting in line to renew his passport or waiting for weeks to get a response from a government bureaucrat!

Recruitment and promotion of staff is not always merit-based. In some countries, there is preferential hiring and promotion of certain groups of people. Malaysia has its affirmative action programme which favours the Bumiputera. In the private sector, there is preferential hiring and promotion of relatives and friends. This practice is a common form of nepotism.

Long-term employment on fixed salaries is the norm in government bureaucracies. However, in the private sector, this may not be the case. In American companies, employees are often laid-off or fired when the company is not profitable (and even when the company is making money but wishes to "downsize").

It can be difficult to separate private and official income. Top managers in private companies can often misuse company property such as company cars, entertainment allowances and so on. In the government, top bureaucrats may use inside and vital information for personal gain, e.g., if an official knows way in advance that a rural area will eventually be developed into a major township or transportation centre, he or she may use this information to quickly buy up some of the land first.


According to Max Weber, the growth of bureaucracies is inevitable because bureaucracy is the most technically superior form of organisation and it is part of the trend of increasing formal rationality in modern societies. Modern societies increasingly emphasise efficiency and productivity and a focus on formal rationality (goal-oriented, calculative behaviour) is necessary to achieve these ends. However, Weber was worried that too much emphasis on formal rationality at the expense of substantive rationality could be dehumanising and threaten individual freedom ("iron cage of rationality").

As for the structural functionalists, they picture society evolving from simple, hunter-gatherer, traditional to complex, industrial and modern societies with a high degree of division of labour. In other words, societies undergo structural differentiation and new institutions appear to perform vital functions over time. For example, in hunter-gatherer societies, there are no schools, courts, police etc whereas industrial societies would not be able to function without these bureaucratic organisations.

Durkheim argued that when society changes rapidly from simple to complex (and from a society held together by mechanical solidarity to one held together by organic solidarity), a breakdown in the value system may occur. He called this condition of breakdown "anomie" (normlessness). Durkheim believed that it is essential to recreate a moral consensus to prevent social problems arising from anomie. The school system and the legal system can be used to recreate a moral consensus. Thus, Durkheim and his followers would see the growth of bureaucracies such as schools and the courts as responses to social problems arising from anomie.

Marxists see the growth of bureaucracies in capitalist societies differently. Marxists argue that bureaucratic organisations grow because they help to reproduce the capitalist system and help the capitalists to remain in control of the system. For example, the schools with their hidden curriculum and streaming of working class kids into vocational streams help to reproduce the working class. The police, courts, army etc. help to protect private property and help the capitalist class to maintain their dominance over the working class. A related argument is that in Western countries with social welfare schemes such as unemployment payments and welfare payments, such schemes help to reduce discontent among the lower classes and keep them from rising up to overthrow the capitalist system.

Public choice theorists such as Anthony King and William Niskanen, on the other hand, argue that bureaucracies grow for other reasons. King argued that the "welfare state" grows in Western European countries because the different political parties compete for votes by making more and more promises to provide social services if they are elected into office. Once a particular political party wins the election, it will be under strong pressure to keep at least some of its campaign promises.

Niskanen argued that government bureaucracies grow because bureaucrats want them to grow. Niskanen said that bureaucrats like to "maximise their budgets" by pushing for more and more resources, hiring more and more staff, providing more and more public services and so on.

We should also be aware that there have been counter-trends, i.e., trends going against the growth of bureaucracy. For example, many American companies have been undergoing "delayering" and "downsizing" by reducing the number of their employees (including middle level managers). This process has been made easier by advances in telecommunications and computer technology. Many governments have also been privatising, i.e., converting public organisations to private sector companies and shrinking the number of civil servants accordingly. In Malaysia, the Lembaga Letrik Negara has been privatised and has become Tenaga Nasional. The Jabatan Telekom has also been privatised. When privatisation occurs, the number of civil servants shrinks (but there is a corresponding increase in the private bureaucracy to some extent).


"Bureaucracy" can be defined as rule by officials. Bureaucratic organisations can be found in the public sector as well as the private sector. Max Weber believed that bureaucracy is the most efficient way to organise work and is an example of the trend of increasing rationality in the modern world (bureaucracy as rationality applied to the organisation of work).

"Democracy" means rule by the people. In theory, democracy allows the people to choose their leaders (through elections, for example) and also allows the people to change their leaders by voting them out of office.

There are four possible relationships between bureaucracy and democracy, i.e.,

1. Bureaucracy having a positive effect on democracy (i.e. enhancing democracy)
2. Bureaucracy having a negative effect on democracy (reducing democracy)
3. Democracy having a positive effect on bureaucracy (i.e. making bureaucracies grow)
4. Democracy having a negative effect on bureaucracy (making bureaucracies decrease in size or number)

How can bureaucracy have a positive effect on democracy? One can argue that for democratic political systems to function effectively, certain bureaucratic organisations are necessary. Examples would include election commissions and other organisations which ensure that elections are carried out fairly, efficiently and cleanly. Bureaucratic organisations such as Parliaments, the court system etc. would also be necessary for democratic government to function effectively.

Bureaucracies can also exert a negative effect on democracy. For example, if civil servants in the government bureaucracy become too powerful, they may become a strong interest group and attempt to fight for their own interests at the expense of the rest of the people. In countries where the armed forces are strong such as in Nigeria, Indonesia and Guatemala, the military often pressures the government to carry out policies which benefit the armed forces. From time to time, they also seize political power and implement martial law.

Unelected bureaucrats who possess expert knowledge can try to ignore the policies passed by elected politicians or "drag their feet" in implementing policies which the bureaucrats dislike. Unelected bureaucrats can also outlast elected politicians.

Robert Michels talked about the "iron law of oligarchy", i.e., Michels argued that bureaucratic organisations have a tendency to be dominated and then taken over by a minority of people who will then use the bureaucratic organisation for their own ends. The original aims and goals of the organisation will thus be deflected and lost.

How can democracy have a positive effect on bureaucracy? Public choice theorist Anthony King argued that in democratic countries such as Britain, the many political parties compete for the votes of the people by making more and more electoral promises. Once a political party is elected into office, it would then be pressured to honour at least some of these election promises. Therefore, it will have to implement more social welfare programmes and hence, the civil service bureaucracy would grow in size and number.

On the other hand, the rise of democratic movements can also lead to the overthrow of governments and a decrease in the size of the bureaucracy. A good example is the rise of democracy in the ex-Communist nations of Eastern Europe such as Poland, Hungary and so on. After the overthrow of communism, organisations such as the secret police, army, Communist Party etc. lost much of their power and shrunk greatly in size or even disappeared.

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