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Wednesday, October 24, 2018


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.”


howard b said...

I believe Goffmann would have insights into that softening of an interpersonal relationship

Robert Paul Wolff said...

He would indeed.

Dean said...

Not bureaucracy, but my favorite example from real life of a similar circumstance at a diner where I used to sit at the counter to read and do homework over coffee. On occasion I'd order a sandwich for dinner.

SERVER: Can I take your order?
ME: I'd like a ham and Swiss on white, grilled.
SERVER: On what kind of bread would you like it?
ME: White.
SERVER: What cheese?
ME: Swiss.
SERVER: Grilled or toasted?
ME: Grilled.

Honest to gosh, one hundred percent true. Better, the sandwich was worth it.

Matt said...

On the two point: it's possible with the airline that this is just different behavior by different employees based on whim and temperament. That certainly happens. But, it's also possible that there are rules you're not seeing (and are perhaps not supposed to see) governing it. The airlines want every flight to be full, and there to be no "extra" passengers. So, if the early flight is under booked, they will be happy to let you on it. If there are people waiting to get on your later flight, it can be worth while to them to move to the earlier flight, so they might then do it for free. If, however, there are not people waiting to get on your later flight - perhaps especially if it is under booked - then they have no special incentive to move you, and so will see if they can get some money out of you for it, charging you the change fee. If you take it, good for them, but if not, it's no problem for them. If the earlier flight is full, you're out of luck, of course. I'm not _sure_ that's what's happening, but I'd be slightly surprised if something like that wasn't involved.

As for the situation in India, I am not sure enough about Weber's views to know what he says, but I have spent a good deal of time in a country where "connections" matter a lot (Russia) and so understand that situation very well. In these countries there is, of course, a bureaucracy - even a large and very ponderous one. But, it is not a bureaucracy of the sort a German, a Prussian, even, like Weber, would understand, or even an American or an Englishman. Those systems are rule-governed. (It's no surprise that Kant's view is the view of a Prussian and Bentham's an Englishman, I'd think.) These are not rule-governed systems. They are systems of personal relations or personal exchange. They have the _shape_ of a bureaucracy, but not the same inner workings. In function, they are much more like a family or a neighborhood, one where an outsider cannot expect good treatment until it's clear what he or she can provide to those with power. It is a truly oppressive system in most ways, though sometimes you can make it work to your benefit. (i.e., you don't have to play by the rules if you have connections or can pay. If you don't have those things, you are out of luck.) If seems as if your colleague wasn't understanding what was happening, thinking that this was, in fact, a bureaucracy in the British or German sense, when it merely had the outward form of it. Mistaking these institutions for a German or British bureaucracy is a bit like mistaking the Soviet Union (or Russia now) for a Democracy because people vote there, too.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Matt, I am afraid I did Taub a disservice by not quoting more from his letter. His deliberately humorous story was intended to make exactly the point you make in your comment, as the rest of his letter makes clear.

Matt said...

Thanks, Bob, and sorry for my misreading!

Anonymous said...

I was once given access to a secret web forum where mostly airline employees post horror stories. This was before they clamped down on such postings in recent years. Most of their posts end with how that particular employee or agent or airline resolved the issue. One thing that was clear was the ticket agents have plenty of leeway and they reward persons they "like". They never reward an unruly person. They also keep children, women, overweight, very old, etc., away from upgrading to first class so as not to "inconvenience" paying customers. Don't know if any of this still applies, but seems like chatting up still works.

In the case of India, chatting up also worked but entirely their doing. We just have to indulge. It can be frustrating, but in the overall scheme of things it's not as bad as some recent customer service horror stories from United and Delta (where passengers were dragged out of the plane).

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff,

Please write a post on Trump's Council of Economic Advisors report on Socialism

Howie said...

doesn't that kind of bureaucracy fit better with socialism than with capitalism? It must color either kind of system at any rate