Classical Theory of Formal Organizations

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  • 0:04 Formal Organizations &…
  • 0:42 Max Weber
  • 2:16 Taylorism
  • 3:57 Administrative Theory
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll go over some major theories of organizations that informed our earliest understandings of how organizations work. We'll talk about three major theories that helped define the study of organizations within sociology.

Formal Organizations & Classical Theory

What is an organization? This might seem like a simple question. It's a place where we go to work and produce or create different products, right? In reality, organizations are actually complex forms that tell us a lot about society. Because of this, sociologists have had quite a lot to say about organizations. Organizational sociology is an entire subfield of sociology that deals with what organizations are, what they do, and why it matters. In this lesson, we'll talk about some of the most important classical theories of organizations. Now, let's get to work - no pun intended.

Max Weber

Max Weber is considered a father of sociological thought and wrote some of the earliest and most influential work on organizations. Weber was interested in a particular organizational form: bureaucracy. The emergence of bureaucracy was, for Weber, basically the most important feature of modern society.

Weber wrote about what he considered an ideal type bureaucracy, meaning he felt bureaucracies have some specific characteristics that defined them. People in Weber's bureaucracy are impersonal. This means that bureaucrats are supposed to be emotionless and treat everyone the same. Bureaucrats are also supposed to follow orders from their superiors without question.

Bureaucracies, according to Weber, were also hierarchies. This means that there is a very clear division of labor and power within them. Everyone has a specialized task they must complete. Your advancement in a bureaucracy, according to Weber, is based on achievement, so you can climb the organizational ladder once you've proven your achievements.

For Weber, Bureaucracy involves a process he called rationalization. This basically means that Weber saw traditional values or actions guided by emotion as being replaced by the desire to do everything in the most efficient way possible. He saw this rationalization taking over all aspects of our lives.

Weber had a pretty dark outlook on bureaucracies. He worried about their expansion and grew concerned that bureaucrats would have too much power. He also was worried that society wouldn't be able to respond to the growing power of bureaucrats.


A lot of the early theorists of organizations were concerned with how workers can perform tasks in the best and most efficient way possible. Frederick Taylor was no different. He came up with a theory known as scientific management, which was all about the control of employees. Basically, Taylor figured that employees didn't really like to get their work done; they needed a lot of oversight by management or productivity would plummet.

Taylor himself worked in steel factories and was successful in increasing the production of his assembly line. He encouraged managers to breakdown workers' tasks into small units. Employees would then be paid on a piece by piece basis. Taylor believed that workers would work harder to complete more pieces, seeking to maximize their own efficiency.

There are a few major components to Taylor's ideas. First, he thought management and managing workers is a science. In other words, we could do experiments, just like in chemistry, to figure out the best way to perform a task. Based on this, he also thought that hiring was a science. Management needed to figure out what task an employee was suited for and assign employee tasks based on this. Once they did this, management needed to train workers to be the best they could be. Taylor also thought there needed to be a collaboration between workers and employers. Employers were responsible for figuring out the best way to do work, and workers were responsible for carrying this out.

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