From New World Encyclopedia

Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science referring to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules is socially organized. This office organization is characterized by standardized procedure, formal division of responsibility, hierarchy, and impersonal social relationships. Examples of everyday bureaucracies include governments, armed forces, corporations, hospitals, courts, and schools. The general opinion of bureaucracies tends to focus on their drawbacks, and potentially negative impact on efficiency and individual rights. However, when those working in such an organization live for the sake of others more than for their own individual needs, the division of labor and clear regulation of responsibilities of bureaucracy support the efficient operation of any social institution.

Origin of the Concept

Bureaucracy is derived from the word bureau, used from the early eighteenth century in Western Europe to refer not only to a writing desk, but to an office, or a workplace, where officials worked. The original French meaning of the word bureau was the baize used to cover desks. The Greek suffix kratia or kratos means "power" or "rule." Bureaucracy thus basically means office power or office rule, the rule of the officialdom. The term bureaucracy came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, and from there spread rapidly to other countries.

In a letter of July 1, 1764, Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm declared: "We are obsessed by the idea of regulation, and our Masters of Requests refuse to understand that there is infinity of things in a great state with which a government should not concern itself." Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay sometimes used to say, "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to invent a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy." In another letter of July 15, 1765 Baron Grimm wrote also, "The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors, and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist." (Albrow 1970: 16)

Such excerpts illustrate a traditional controversy about bureaucracy, namely the perversion of means and ends so that means become ends in themselves, and the actors lose sight of the greater good. The suggestion here is that, left uncontrolled, the bureaucracy will become increasingly self-serving and corrupt, rather than serving society.

However, bureaucracy existed long before words and theories were devised to describe it in detail. The Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279), for example, constructed a centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar-officials. This system of rule led to a much greater concentration of power in the hands of the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than was achieved in previous dynasties.

Max Weber on Bureaucracy

Max Weber has been one of the most influential users of the term bureaucracy in its social science sense. He is well-known for his study of bureaucratization of society, and many aspects of modern public administration go back to him. A classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the continental type is—if basically mistakenly—called "Weberian civil service."

Did you know?
Max Weber saw the ideal of bureaucracy as a means for achieving maximum efficiency

Weber described the "ideal type" bureaucracy in positive terms, considering it to be a more rational and efficient form of organization than the alternatives that preceded it, which he characterized as "charismatic domination" and "traditional domination." According to his terminology, bureaucracy is part of legal domination. However, he also emphasized that bureaucracy becomes inefficient when a decision must be adapted to an individual case.

According to Weber, the attributes of modern bureaucracy include its impersonality, concentration of the means of administration, a leveling effect on social and economic differences, and implementation of a system of authority that is practically indestructible. Thus, bureaucracy goes beyond division of labor in a broad sense, although that is a necessary condition for the existence of bureaucratic systems. It involves precise, detailed definitions of the duties and responsibilities of each person or office. Administrative regulations determine areas of responsibility and control the allocation of tasks to each area.

In Weber's analysis, a bureaucratic organization is governed by the following seven principles:

  1. official business is conducted on a continuous basis
  2. official business is conducted with strict accordance to the following rules:
    • the duty of each official to do certain types of work is delimited in terms of impersonal criteria
    • the official is given the authority necessary to carry out his assigned functions
    • the means of coercion at his disposal are strictly limited and conditions of their use strictly defined
  3. every official's responsibilities and authority are part of a vertical hierarchy of authority, with respective rights of supervision and appeal
  4. officials do not own the resources necessary for the performance of their assigned functions but are accountable for their use of these resources
  5. official and private business and income are strictly separated
  6. offices cannot be appropriated by their incumbents (inherited, sold, etc.)
  7. official business is conducted on the basis of written documents.

Weber described the bureaucratic official as having the following characteristics:

  • is personally free and appointed to his position on the basis of conduct
  • exercises the authority delegated to him in accordance with impersonal rules, and his loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of his official duties
  • appointment and job placement are dependent upon his technical qualifications
  • administrative work is a full-time occupation
  • work is rewarded by a regular salary and prospects of advancement in a lifetime career.

He also noted that an official must exercise his judgment and his skills, but his duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority. Ultimately he is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his personal judgment if it runs counter to his official duties.

From Bureaucracy to Oligarchy

Weber saw bureaucracy as a system of control based on rational rules, with the goal of achieving maximum efficiency:

Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge. This is the feature of it which makes it specifically rational. (Weber 1947:339)

Weber saw bureaucracy as a means of increasing the efficiency of government. However, just as any tool can be misused in the wrong hands, he recognized that it would not necessarily function in this ideal fashion. Indeed, bureaucracy has been seen as having the potential to develop into an oligarchic system of political domination. Robert Michels saw this outcome as inevitable, a sentiment he expressed in his "Iron Law of Oligarchy."

Karl Marx on Bureaucracy

In Karl Marx's theory of historical materialism, the historical origin of bureaucracy is to be found in four sources: religion, the formation of the state, commerce, and technology.

According to Marx's analysis, the earliest bureaucracies consisted of castes of religious clergy, officials, and scribes operating various rituals, and armed functionaries specifically delegated to keep order. In the historical transition from primitive egalitarian communities to a civil society divided into social classes and estates, occurring from about 10,000 years ago, authority is increasingly centralized in, and enforced by, a state apparatus existing separately from society. This state formulates, imposes and enforces laws, and levies taxes, giving rise to an officialdom enacting these functions. But the growth of trade and commerce adds a new, distinctive dimension to bureaucracy, insofar as it requires the keeping of accounts and the processing/recording of transactions, as well as the enforcement of legal rules governing trade. A fourth source of bureaucracy inheres in the technologies of mass production, which require many standardized routines and procedures to be performed. This type of bureaucracy is nowadays often called a technocracy, which owes its power to control over specialized technical knowledge.

In Marx's theory, bureaucracy rarely creates new wealth by itself, but rather controls, coordinates, and governs the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. The bureaucracy as a social stratum derives its income from the appropriation of part of the social surplus product of human labor. Wealth is appropriated by the bureaucracy by law through fees, taxes, levies, tributes, licensing etc. Bureaucracy is therefore always a "cost" to society, but this cost may be accepted insofar as it makes social order possible, and maintains it.

Conflict Theory and Bureaucracy

The Marxist offshoot, Conflict Theory, regards each member or group in an organization as attempting to maximize their benefits at the cost of the others. Conflict theory contrasts directly with Talcott Parsons' functionalism, which states that each part of an organization has a well-defined role with no need to alter that position. Conflict theorists argue that bureaucracy can never be perfectly effective due to competition, structural inequalities, and the conflict among the parts that results from these.

Robert Merton on Bureaucracy

Robert K. Merton believed society could develop alternatives to current institutions by analyzing their dysfunctions. His essay "Bureaucratic Structure and Personality" (Merton 1957) describes the "red tape" and other inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

Merton suggested that, if the predominance of rational rules, and their close control of all actions, favors the reliability and predictability of the bureaucrat's behavior, as Weber believed, it could equally lead to his lack of flexibility and his tendency to turn means into ends. Instead of serving as means to an end, these rules become ends in and of themselves:

Such inadequacies in orientation which involve trained incapacity clearly derive from structural sources... (1) An effective bureaucracy demands reliability of response and strict devotion to regulations. (2) Such devotion to the rules leads to their transformation into absolutes; they are no longer conceived as relative to a set of purposes. (3) This interferes with ready adaptation under special conditions not clearly envisaged by those who drew up the general rules. (4) Thus, the very elements which conduce toward efficiency in general produce inefficiency in specific instances. Full realization of the inadequacy is seldom attained by members of the group who have not divorced themselves from the meanings which the rules have for them. These rules in time become symbolic in cast, rather than strictly utilitarian. (Merton 1957)

Merton called this phenomenon "goal displacement." He observed that this occurred when formalistic goals become more important than the main substantive goal of an organization. Merton concluded that bureaucratic characteristics can have both beneficial and harmful effects on organization.

Assessment of Bureaucracy

While the emergence of bureaucracy may enable more efficient and stable government, it also has been found to have many drawbacks, both in theory and in practice.


Weber's bureaucracy is an ideal model. There are numerous ways in which it can degenerate, some leading only to inefficiency, others with more serious consequences for the maintenance and development of the society:

  • Vertical hierarchy of authority can became chaotic, some offices can be omitted in the decision making process, and there may be conflicts of competence;
  • Competences can be unclear and used contrary to the spirit of the law; sometimes a decision itself may be considered more important than its effect;
  • Nepotism, corruption, political infighting, and other degenerations can counter the rule of impersonality and can create a recruitment and promotion system not based on merit, but rather functioning as an oligarchy;
  • Officials can try to avoid responsibility and seek anonymity by avoiding documentation of their procedures (or creating extreme amounts of chaotic, confusing documents)

Even a non-degenerated bureaucracy can be affected by common problems:

  • Overspecialization, making individual officials not aware of larger consequences of their actions;
  • Rigidity and inertia of procedures, making decision-making slow or even impossible when facing an unusual case, and similarly delaying change, evolution, and adaptation of old procedures to new circumstances;
  • The phenomenon of "group thinking": zealotry, loyalty, and lack of critical thinking regarding the organization which is viewed as "perfect" and "always correct" by definition, making it unable to change and realize its own mistakes and limitations;
  • Disregard for dissenting opinions, even when such views suit the available data better than the opinion of the majority;
  • The Catch-22 phenomenon (named after the novel by Joseph Heller): as bureaucracy creates more and more rules and procedures, their complexity raises and coordination diminishes, facilitating the creation of contradictory rules.

In the most extreme examples, bureaucracy can lead to the treatment of individual human beings as impersonal objects. This process has been criticized by many philosophers and writers (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt) and satirized in the comic strip Dilbert.


Bureaucracies emerged as society moved into its most developed form, the state. As such, it provides the possibility for government to function effectively and efficiently, leading the larger and larger societies, with increasingly complex and diverse ways of life for its citizens. Beyond government, numerous other social organizations, both in the public and private sectors have developed bureaucratic forms of leadership, which have succeeded in advancing the goals of their organizations.

Some specific advantages of bureaucracies include:

  • Standardization of procedures creates the ability to easily pass knowledge to future workers as well as facilitating better communication among colleagues.
  • Division of labor creates economies of scale within organizations, enhancing productivity.
  • Formal hierarchy can also increase efficiency, as there is a clear chain of command eliminating the potential for some conflicts.
  • Impersonal relationships also lead to easier dismissal of workers, which contributes to greater efficiency.

Despite many actual and potential drawbacks, bureaucracy is the most ubiquitous form of dividing labor among members of an organization, town, state, or nation. It is indeed the hallmark of modern society throughout the world. While bureaucracies may not always function in the ideal form that Weber described, when the people working within the structure live for the sake of others rather than for self-centered pursuits the bureaucratic system offers the most efficient method of maintaining a social institution.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Albrow, Martin. 1970. Bureaucracy. London: Pall Mall Press. Originally published in de Grimm, Baron, and Diderot. 1813. Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, 1753-69. 4: 146, 508.
  • Draper, Hal. 1979. State and Bureaucracy. Vol. 1 of Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Merton, Robert K. [1957] 1968. "Bureaucratic Structure and Personality" in Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. ISBN 0029211301
  • Watson, Tony J. 1980. Sociology, Work and Industry. Routledge. ISBN 0415321654
  • Weber, Max. [1947] 2012. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Martino Fine Books. ISBN 978-1614272571

External links

All links retrieved November 22, 2023.


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