I have just returned from my eighth weekly trip to New York to teach at Columbia. I travel Delta, which runs a number of short non-stop flights from Raleigh-Durham Airport to LaGuardia. I always book the 8:00 p.m. return flight when I do not stay over and the 9:30 a.m. return flight when I do. But on occasion, I arrive early enough at the airport to make the earlier 6:29 p.m. flight, and this morning, since I stayed across Grand Central from LaGuardia at the Aloft hotel, I actually got to the airport and through security in time to make the 6:30 a.m. flight. I buy the cheapest possible ticket [no checked luggage, no advance seating, and no changes.] Four times now I have tried to get on an earlier flight. Each time, I have presented my ticket to the Delta agent at the gate and requested a change. The first time, the agent put me on the earlier flight, no problem. The second time the agent said it would cost me $75 to change flights [I declined.] The third time, I decided to pay the seventy-five bucks, but was told even if I did my ticket could not be changed. This morning, the agent made the change and actually pre-boarded me [I chatted her up and was as pleasant as I could manage.]
Meanwhile, in our course, Todd Gitlin has just finished lecturing on Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy.
The reality does not always match the theory.
My favorite example of this comes from fifty-five years ago When I was a young Instructor at Harvard, I lived for two years, from 1959 to 1961 as a Resident Tutor in Winthrop House [free room and board and one is supposed to talk to the undergraduates, thereby enriching their education and relieving senior faculty of the necessity.] One of my colleagues in the Winthrop House Senior Common Room was Richard Taub, a sociologist doing a doctorate in what Harvard called the Social relations Department. By 1963, Richard had gone off to India with his wife, Doris, to do his doctoral research. [He has for many years been a distinguished senior member of the University of Chicago Sociology Department.] He wrote me several wonderful, long letters about his experiences there. I hope he will not mind of I quote from one of them. It is a perfect illustration of the gap between Weber’s formal analysis of bureaucracy and the reality on the ground. Here is what he wrote:
“Doris and I fit outside of the category system and we have a hell of a time. Whenever we visit a government office or do business with more than a few rupees, we must convert the relations into personal ones. Example and absolutely typical.
Me: I would like a coal permit.
Bureaucrat: You are coming from England?
Me: No, I am coming from America. I would like a coal permit.
Bureaucrat: For how many days you are staying?
Me: I have been here three months and I plan to stay another year. Now may I have a coal permit.
Bureaucrat (to peon): Cha Lao (bring tea). (To me): You are perhaps working for the government?
Me: No, I have come here to do Sociology. I would like a coal permit.
And so it goes. Until he knows all about me. We have then had tea and either his cigarettes (and I have given him some in return) or pan (betel leaves stuffed with spices which everyone around here is more or less addicted to) and then he asks, “now what is it that you are wanting.
This used to infuriate me – especially when we were in a hurry, or just wanted to make a purchase. But now, with the first question, I recite a speech which covers all the questions he will have, we have tea, and then get on with the transaction. The next time I see him, he will ask me how much money I am making, is my wife here with me, what kind of food I eat etc. But once the relationship is personal, the guys will do anything for you.”