The original French word bureau denoted the baize material used to cover the top of a desk. The Greek suffixes kratia and kratos mean “power” or “rule.” Thus, bureaucracy literally means to rule from a desk or office to conduct governmental affairs. Alternatively, bureaucracy is an instrument used by big business to define means of production. As a sociological concept, bureaucracy specifies the objective discharge of business, through hierarchical administrative structures, according to calculable rules without regard for personal prerogatives or preferences, transforming social inclinations into rationally organized action. This entry briefly describes how bureaucracy works and then looks at the most prominent explanatory theories.
How Bureaucracy Works
In bureaucracies, complex tasks are broken into individual activities and assigned as official duties that clearly define the responsibilities, rights, scope or authority, and competencies of the office. Rationality determines rules and procedures that are administered by trained experts, and objective purposes guide the conduct of both officials and their subordinates. Notably, documents are used extensively to facilitate a flow of information throughout the organization and to establish fixed rules and procedures for each individual task.
Bureaucracy operates under strict principles of hierarchy. A chain of command organizes superior offices, which supervise lower offices. Discharge of authority is based on rules without regard to personal judgment or favoritism. The correctness of authoritative rules is rationalized and well established. Procedures are established for the regulated appeal of lower offices to corresponding superior authorities for additional information and direction.
Thus, in the modern office, management is reduced to a standardized set of rules and procedures administered abstractly and impersonally. Employees are hired after prescribed special examination and according to predetermined qualifications, usually tied to educational certifications. Compensation is based on the specific duties of an office and not the individual characteristics of the person who holds the office. Conditions for career advancement are clearly delineated.
Official business is the primary concern of officials; their duties demand their complete attention, whatever the length of obligatory working hours. Officials do not own their means of production. Regulations require the clear separation of an official’s private funds and personal property from public funds and resources, with clear and public accounting for resources used to discharge official business.
Early use of the term bureaucracy includes a letter, dated July 15, 1765, wherein Baron Grimm and the French philosopher Denis Diderot said that bureaucracy in France meant that officials of all kinds were appointed to benefit public interests and that public interest is necessary for offices—and officials—to exist.
The characteristics of bureaucracy were articulated first quite fully by German sociologist Max Weber early in the twentieth century. Weber described bureaucracy as technically superior to all other organizational forms because it levels economic and social differences while providing administrative functions or services. Accordingly, he thought that public bureaucratization increases as the possession of consumption goods rises, raising the basic standard of living shared by a society: As communications, technology, and public infrastructures become more complex, the need for personally detached, objective experts becomes greater, and bureaucratic offices or officials fulfill this function.
Further, Weber viewed bureaucracy and capitalism as highly compatible, with capitalism acting as a catalyst for the growth and development of bureaucracy because it benefits from an administration that can be discharged precisely, unambiguously, continually, and quickly. With regard to the state, these characteristics constitute a bureaucratic agency; with regard to the private economy, they constitute a bureaucratic enterprise.
Weber also thought that bureaucratic systems would operate efficiently because employees know their duties precisely, allowing for quicker, more efficient task performance. Standardized rules enable the organization to respond readily to a variety of demands and aid decision making. Rules and procedures based on rationality allow a greater sense of purpose and direction.
Further, Weber identified historical examples of clearly developed, though not pure, “big state” bureaucracies: (a) Egypt, during the period of the New Kingdom (the oldest bureaucratic state administration); (b) the Roman Catholic Church; (c) China, from the time of Shi Hwangti to the twentieth century; and (d) modern states in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. He suggested that states with a political organization utilizing officials to perform specific duties were the genius of modern bureaucracies. Bureaucracy’s origins are traced to the creation of standing armies; to power politics; to the development of public finance and commerce; and, with the modern state, to increased complexity of and demands for order and safety. According to Weber, the modern state requires six types of bureaucratic structures: the judiciary, the modern government agency, the military, religious communities, states, and economies.
From another perspective, Karl Marx traced the historical origins of bureaucracy in his theory of materialism to four similar sources: religion, the formation of the state, commerce, and technology. Marx differs with Weber in that he did not see bureaucratization and rationalization as the ultimate organizational structure, but only as a transitional stage from a world of necessity to a world of freedom through communal means. He did, however, agree with Weber that rationalization and bureaucratization are inescapable and that they can produce individual alienation. Also, both viewed bureaucracy as increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations.
However, Weber was not naive about bureaucratic challenges. As he saw it, bureaucratization is limited by the tendency to have bureaucracies assume more tasks than they can manage or that they have funds to support. Cultural influences, such as manipulation by political forces for personal benefit, might also create difficulty. Given the ubiquity of bureaucracy, challenges to Weber’s theories are legion. Elements insufficiently or altogether unaddressed by traditional conceptions of bureaucracy include, for example, external competition, collaborative decision making, the quality of performance and product, innovation, management characterized by emotional intelligence, customer-driven outcomes, protection of minority rights, and teamwork. These gaps have led to the evolution of new forms of bureaucratization: total quality management, new public management, and digital-era governance. Inevitably, most concepts are refined or replaced in time, yet Weber’s conception remains active and descriptive of small to large organizations and governments worldwide.
- Albrow, M. (1970). Bureaucracy. London: Pall Mall Press. Draper, H. (1979). Karl Marx’s theory of revolution: The state and bureaucracy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Fredrickson, G., & Smith, K. (2003). Public administration theory primer. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Hawkesworth, M., & Kogan, M. (Eds.). (1992). Encyclopedia of government and politics. New York: Routledge.
- Weber, M. (1947). The theory of social and economic organization. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Weber, M. (1968). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. New York: Bedminster Press.
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