No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Safety: Paperwork and Practice

Safety practitioners play a critical role in ensuring the safety of organizations by facilitating hazard and risk analysis, developing physical, procedural, and behavioral controls, and monitoring safety through management systems, plans, procedures, and rules. However, the legal-bureaucratic rule that guides their activities, as studied by sociologist Max Weber a century ago, can also have its limitations. What is needed for a shift towards a (slightly) more adaptive approach?

Legal-Bureaucratic Rule

Max Weber emphasized bureaucracy's strengths: a clear and standardized system of rules, a hierarchical order for tasks, and the selection of functionaries based on technical competence, leading to increased efficiency and effectiveness in processes, as well as high levels of legitimacy. Additionally, the separation of ownership and function can provide a level of impartiality and objectivity in decision-making.

The Logic of Practice

However, looking from the perspective of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's Practice Theory, the structures and habits (habitus) of safety management within legal-bureaucratic rule may perpetuate a culture of compliance and lack of decision-making autonomy for front-line workers, making it difficult for them to effectively identify and manage safety hazards. The focus on means-end rationality and precision can lead to an over-reliance on rules and procedures, and a lack of adaptability to changing circumstances. The emphasis on formality and codifying rules can also create a disconnect between the bureaucracy and the people it is meant to serve. Additionally, the separation of ownership and function can also lead to a lack of accountability in decision-making, as it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for a particular decision or outcome. Furthermore, the focus on legal-bureaucratic rule can lead to the creation of an over-bureaucratized system that is more focused on complying with the rules than on improving the safety of the organization.

A (slightly) more adaptive approach

To overcome these limitations - while keeping the positive functions of bureaucracy - safety practitioners could adopt a more adaptive approach that acknowledges the complex and dynamic nature of safety in modern organizations. This approach involves understanding the organization's current operations, supporting local practices, and facilitating adaptability. It also involves reducing goal conflict and negotiating the redistribution of resources, facilitating information flows, generating future operational scenarios, and facilitating learning.

How such a shift could take place

By understanding how structure, habitus, doxa, and cultural capital shape the practices and perceptions of safety within the organization, as outlined by Pierre Bourdieu's practice theory, safety practitioners together can shift the way individuals and groups within organizations understand and interact with the social and cultural structures that shape their actions. This includes recognizing and challenging the existing power dynamics and institutions that shape safety practices, as well as creating new ways of thinking and acting that promote safety (or: work) in an adaptive and dynamic way.

Underlying Presuppositions and Cultural Capital

Bourdieu’s concept of doxa, or the internalized societal or field-specific presuppositions that inform an individual's actions and thoughts within the field of safety management, can also play a role in these challenges. For example, societal presuppositions about the role of safety professionals as solely responsible for ensuring compliance and monitoring controls may lead to a focus on conformance and compliance rather than understanding and fixing the system. The use of cultural capital, such as educational background and qualifications in safety management and safety science, professional certifications, and strong communication and leadership skills, can also play a role in addressing these challenges. 

Conclusion

While legal-bureaucratic rule has its strengths in providing a clear and standardized system of rules, a hierarchical order for tasks, and the selection of functionaries based on technical competence, it also has its limitations and unintended consequences. We do NOT need and we do not want to abolish all bureaucracy. Safety practitioners could adopt a (slightly) more adaptive approach that acknowledges the complex and dynamic nature of safety in modern organizations and shifts the way individuals and groups within organizations understand and interact with the social and cultural structures that shape their actions.

Sources:

Bourdieu, P. (1992), The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Provan, D., Woods, D.D., Dekker, S.W.A., Rae, A.J. (2020), Safety II professionals: How resilience engineering can transform safety practice, in: Reliability Engineering & System Safety, Volume 195, March 2020, 106740.

Weber, M. (2013 [1922]), Economy and Society, Oakland; University of California Press.