A bureaucracy is an organization characterized by hierarchy, fixed rules, impersonal relationships, strict adherence to impartial procedures, and specialization based on function. Bureaucratic organizations can be found in the private sector as well as the public sector. This definition of bureaucracy as a type of organization overlaps with other ways in which the word is used. Bureaucracy can be used as a synonym for a hierarchic mode of coordination—a usage based on the hierarchical nature of such coordination. It can be used as a synonym for the public administration—a usage that suggests the public sector is the archetype of a hierarchic organization. It can refer to the bureaucrats who work in the public sector or other large, hierarchic organizations. And it can describe bureaucratic conduct that rigidly applies general rules to particular cases—a type of conduct associated with officials in hierarchic organizations.
Etymologically bureaucracy combines bureau, which referred to a place of work for officials, with-cracy, which was the Greek term for a pattern of rule. Vincent de Gournay, an eighteenth-century economist, introduced the word bureaucracy as an addition to the classic typology of government systems: It was a form of government in which officials dominated.
Although the word bureaucracy first arose in the eighteenth century, social scientists have been quick to apply it to earlier times. They have argued that the Egyptian monarchy created a bureaucratic system to build waterworks projects throughout its empire; that the Romans used bureaucratic systems to govern their vast territories; or that the monarchs of medieval and early modern Europe used bureaucrats for tax collection, trade regulation, and early forms of policing. Generally, however, bureaucracy retains a clear association with the rise of modern industrial societies. Political scientists often argue that industrialization led to a shift away from small-scale craft production to a system of mass production, and the greater concentration of capital and the rise of factories then led to the rise of the modern bureaucratic corporation. They also often argue that industrialization created a myriad of new and increasingly complex social problems and that from the nineteenth century onward, the state began to establish departments and bureaus to govern and mitigate these problems. Hence, the argument goes, large-scale hierarchic organizations came to dominate both the private and public sectors.
Government bureaucracies expanded for much of the twentieth century. To some observers, bureaucracy appeared to be the ideal organizational type for the performance of complex repetitive tasks: It allowed separate parts of the state to specialize in particular tasks, while providing the center with effective control over each of the parts. Yet, by the late twentieth century, a growing number of critics argued that government bureaucracies had become too big and complex, leading to a lack of responsiveness and to inefficiency. Some critics argued that bureaucracies were inherently unresponsive and inefficient because they were shielded from the disciplines of the market. The backlash against bureaucracy led to attempts to reform government through privatization, internal markets, contracting out, private-sector management practices, and networks.
Max Weber, a German sociologist, has been far and away the most influential theorist of bureaucracy. Weber believed that societies evolved from the primitive and mystical to the complex and rational. He paid particular attention to changing forms of political authority in this process of evolution. In his view, political authorities secured obedience by acquiring various kinds of legitimacy. He identified three types of authority, each of which had a different source of legitimacy. Tribal societies, and also absolute monarchs, rely on traditional authority legitimized by the sanctity of tradition. Military, religious, and other leaders often rely on charismatic authority legitimized by the personal standing of the leader. Finally, rational-legal societies rely on legal authority legitimized by reason. Law defines the obligations and rights of rulers and ruled. Reason leads the ruled to obey the rulers. Weber argued that there was a general pattern of social evolution toward the kind of rational-legal authority found in modern states.
Weber described bureaucracy as the institutional form of rational-legal authority. Bureaucracy does not involve public officials dominating government. It requires only that full-time, professional officials are responsible for the everyday affairs of the state. Elected politicians might formulate policy, but officials implement it. Many aspects of bureaucracy derive, in Weber's analysis, from its rational-legal setting. The dominance of legal authority entails an impersonal rule in which abstract rules are applied to particular cases. Similarly, the dominance of rationality appears in the division of an organization into specialized functions carried out by experts.
Most social scientists endorse something akin to Weber's characterization of bureaucracy. Although Weber thought modern rationality was a mixed blessing, he is often read as claiming bureaucracy as the ideal and most efficient type of organization, and many critics disagree strongly with such claims.
Critics of bureaucracy often argue that the features of Weber's ideal type have self-defeating consequences. Rational-choice theorists argue that hierarchic organizations encourage bureaucrats to respond to their superiors at the expense of citizens. Neoliberals argue that the emphasis on general rules and stability leads to inertia and to an inability to respond to a rapidly changing environment. Institutionalists argue that the specialization of functions leads to fragmentation; it results in a plethora of subunits, each of which goes its own way, leaving the center facing problems of coordination and control. Yet other critics argue that bureaucracy threatens democracy: Whereas Weber suggested that bureaucracy offered a neutral and technical structure for implementing policies formed by elected politicians, these critics emphasize the impossibility of distinguishing policy implementation from policy formation and so bureaucratic administration from democratic decision making.
Today, Weber's concept of bureaucracy might seem an outdated relic. Certainly, the rational-choice, neoliberal, and institutionalist criticisms of bureaucracy helped to inspire various attempts to replace hierarchies with markets or networks. Still, we should not overemphasize the extent to which the reforms genuinely succeeded in supplanting elder bureaucratic structures. For a start, large parts of the public sector remain heavily bureaucratic. In addition, even when we do find a proliferation of markets and networks, these new organizations still operate within a realm constituted in part by the lingering presence of the bureaucratic state. Finally, bureaucracy appears to be as relevant as ever for organizations that have to impartially process vast numbers of similar, routine cases. We would not want immigration issues, welfare payments, airport security, and the like to depend on the whim of the particular official someone encountered. Hence, even if the state contracts out some of these tasks, the organizations that take them over are likely to appear rather bureaucratic. And there are tasks that we would rather the state did not contract out.
Bureaucracy remains with us. It is likely to do so for considerable time. Critics might say that its persistence reflects institutional inertia and the ability of bureaucrats to defend their fiefdoms. Others might say that bureaucracy persists because of its utility and desirability.
Accountability, Governance, Organization Theory, State, Weber, Max
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