essays

Jun 1, 1980

Bureaucracy in Weber & Kafka

“Bereft of even a human name, K…symbolizes the valid human being who seeks meaning in a mechanized world [which works only for] its own perpetuation.”

“Weber and Kafka on Bureaucracy: A Question of Perspective.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 78 (Summer 1979):361–375.

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Western civilization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has witnessed an unprecedented growth of bureaucratic institutions. Both Max Weber and Franz Kafka, two seminal German thinkers of the early twentieth century, noted the growth of bureaucracy in the West. Yet, they drew quite different conclusions concerning the significance of this development.

Max Weber championed bureaucratic administration as the most efficient and equitable method of social organization. Characterized by a “rational-legal” form of authority, the bureaucratic order replaces the traditional “charismatic” (or personal) exercise of power. In a bureaucracy, relationships among officials and relations between officials and the public are categorical rather than individual, rule-governed rather than idiosyncratic. Like the modern assembly-line, this friction-free, self-regulating machine with standardized interchangeable parts serves humanity to the extent that it is “dehumanized.”

Methodologically, Weber, the social scientist, understood that we cannot unravel the skein of objective and subjective elements in culture as efficiently as we can problems in the physical sciences. In order to attain greater “cleanliness” in the study of human problems, Weber devised the method of “ideal types.” With this technique, Weber theorized about individual social structures conceived in a hypothetically “pure” state—unhampered by peripheral influences and social ills. Later sociologists, like Talcott Parsons, rejected this methodology in favor of more empirical techniques. They repudiated theories based on ideal types which were unrelated to the larger social system in the “real” world or detached from the often determining influences of individual psychology.

For Franz Kafka, administration by functionaries represented the most inefficient and irrational social organization imaginable. His critique of the bureaucratic order parallels in many regards the denunciations proffered by modern-day “dysfunctionalists.”

In his novel The Castle, Kafka presents the frightening portrait of an individual confronting the baffling vagaries of a thoroughly bureaucratic society. Seeking validation for his status as land-surveyor in a small village, K, the hero of the novel, explores every avenue of appeal, diplomacy and alliance to gain audience with the elusive Kramm, the head of a mammoth establishment of unaccountable procedures and inaccessible documents. The faceless, humorless officials he encounters are mere fragments of an ever-rising pyramid of authority which has no discernable summit. Bereft of even a human name, K nonetheless symbolizes the valid human being who seeks meaning in a mechanized world which runs for no reason except its own perpetuation.

Prof. McDaniel counsels social researchers to consider the insights into human problems which literature provides. In this regard, he cites Jules Langsner: “Science interprets the phenomenal world with reference to the coherence of structure and behavior. Art transforms the phenomenal world into poetic metaphors with reference to experience unique to man. Both are indispensable to the enrichment of life in our civilization, and each can only benefit from a mature reciprocity with the other.”