Dusting off the Weber

Most of the time when I think about Weber, I mean one of these.


photo thanks to massdistraction.

Not this fellow, Max Weber.

Max Weber 1894.jpg

photo from Wikipedia.

While browsing through my feedreader  (actually I think it was on Techmeme) this morning I read this article, the Wisdom of the Chaperones.

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site’s edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.

Nick Carr, who often writes about wikipedia, said something similar a while ago.

The myth begins with the idea of radical openness, the idea that Wikipedia is a creation of the great mass of humanity in all its hairy glory. It’s a myth encapsulated in Wikipedia’s description of itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As we now know, that’s never been precisely true. According to cofounder Jimmy Wales, there have always been filtering mechanisms to restrict certain people’s ability to edit certain articles. Those mechanisms have been expanded and tightened over time. In Wikipedia’s early days, the encyclopedia asked contributors to maintain a “neutral point of view,” but, as the official history of Wikipedia notes, “There were otherwise few rules initially.” Since then, rules have proliferated, as the encyclopedia has adopted a de facto bureaucratic structure.

And Andrew McAfee at Harvard includes a wikipedia case study in his MBA course, and his picks on Wikipedia’s  bureaucratic nature.

Thinking about wikipedia, elites and bureaucracy took me back almost 20 years, to a sunny afternoon in Pietermaritzburg with Prof Irvine. We were discussing a paper I’d written about J.S.Mill and Max Weber on bureaucracy and democracy. Much of Mills’ thinking has since slipped into a dusty corner of my brain, but Max Weber has stayed with me ever since.

Although he was writing about 100 years ago, I don’t reckon he would have been surprised by how Wikipedia, or indeed most of the web 2.0 world is organised.

II. The principles of office hierarchy and of levels of graded authority mean a firmly ordered system of super- and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones. Such a system offers the governed the possibility of appealing the decision of a lower office to its higher authority, in a definitely regulated manner. With the full development of the bureaucratic type, the office hierarchy is monocratically organized. The principle of hierarchical office authority is found in all bureaucratic structures: in state and ecclesiastical structures as well as in large party organizations and private enterprises. It does not matter for the character of bureaucracy whether its authority is called ‘private’ or ‘public

From Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, part III, chap. 6, pp. 650-78. (more at this site).

Some learned commentary here.

Bureaucracy is in fact the division of labour applied to administration, and bureaucracy occupies the same place in Weber’s account of the development of modern civilization as division of labour in general occupies in Adam Smith’s account. For Weber this species of division of labour is more fundamental than the others because it initiates and orders other divisions of labour. Instructions come to the factory floor from the office. Just as Adam Smith saw division of labour in general as the cause of progress toward modern, generically commercial, society, so Weber sees bureaucracy as one of the most important causes of the development of capitalism specifically. He points to many cooperating causes (see Collins), and in The Spirit of Capitalism puts some emphasis on the moral causes – on the factors that made people strive for ever increasing profit, and to use their profits not for consumption but for further investment. But among the causal factors he often mentions the adoption of rational accounting methods: no amount of will to make a profit, or willingness to invest, would have had the desired result if investment and management had not been guided by systematic accounting, carried on of course increasingly by a bureaucracy. Once some began to be systematic others had to follow suit or go under. Labourers were ‘separated’ from the old-fashioned means of production by the superior effectiveness of production guided by systematic accounting – they could get a better living as employees. Capitalists adopted machinery and other innovations when their bureaucracy analyzing the possibilities of investment found that such innovation would be profitable. In fact a bureaucracy finds its own capitalists. As modern Weberians have pointed out, modern firms are run, not by owners, but by their managers, who often initiate the issuing of shares to raise capital, or seek loans or investments.

As I sit in the sunshine today, slightly more than a stone’s throw away from where Max Weber did much of his teaching and writing, I wonder what he would have made of today’s online world? What would have impressed him? What would disappoint? Would he find his Iron Cage and the polar night of icy Darkness, or would  he be pleasantly surprised?

The great social theory thinkers of the past 150 odd years;  Tonnies, Parsons, Durkheim, Comte, Spencer,  Mill, Bentham, Weber, and even Marx can teach us  a whole lot more about today’s online cultures, institutions and behaviours than we realise. 

I’m hoping that somewhere in a political science or sociology department there lurks a Weber 2.0, someone that will apply the same levels of rigour, research, insight and original thought to today’s world as Weber did at the turn of the last century.  I also hope that he/she has  a blog.

from wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “Dusting off the Weber”

  1. Thank you for a wonderful perspective. It is so easy to forget, while surrounded by gadgets and “revolutionary” innovations of the week, that our “brave, new world” is not that brave or new.

  2. I should have read this post through a long time ago. I never would have imagined seeing the words Parsons, Durkheim, Comte, and Weber in a fellow HR technology blogger’s post. I just about fell over.

    Weber has influenced my thinking perhaps more than any other social theorist out there. “The Protestant Ethic,” with all of its faults, is still in my opinion the definitive work on how ‘culture’ can impact the economy and economic structures, though some more contemporary thinkers have done a great job of building on these ideas. Ronald Inglehart of the Univ of Michigan and Christian Welzel of the Univ of Bremen are leading some truly incredible work here. Please check it out – http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org. If you take a look at their Map of the World, in fact, you’ll find a subject of a more recent blog post of yours sitting precisely where you’d expect.

    As always, thanks for expanding the dialogue.

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