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Bureaucratization of government

Problems of modern bureaucracy

Political control of public officials

The study of bureaucracy


This article deals with the historical development of bureaucracy as a mode of government. Some related aspects of governmental bureaucracies are discussed in Civilservice. Guides to more general and sociological topics in this area will be found under Administrationand Organizations.

The term “bureaucracy” is of recent origin. Initially referring to a cloth covering the desks of French government officials in the eighteenth century, the term “bureau” came to be linked with a suffix signifying rule of government (as in “aristocracy” or “democracy”), probably during the struggles against absolutism preceding the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century the pejorative use of the term spread to many European countries, where liberal critics of absolutist regimes typically employed it to decry the tortuous procedures, narrow outlook, and highhanded manner of autocratic government officials (Heinzen 1845). Since then this pejorative meaning has become general in the sense that any critic of complicated organizations that fail to allocate responsibility clearly, or any critic of rigid rules and routines that are applied with little consideration of the specific case, of blundering officials, of slow operation and buck-passing, of conflicting directives and duplication of effort, of empire building, and of concentration of control in the hands of a few will use this term regardless of party or political persuasion (Watson 1945). During the years following World War ii this common stereotype was given a new twist by the witty, mock-scientific formulations of Parkinson’s Law, which derided empire building, waste of resources, and inertia by implying that official staffs expand in inverse pro-portion to the work to be done (Parkinson 1957).

This popular, pejorative usage must be distinguished from “bureaucracy” used in a technical sense. Although the distinction is beset with difficulties, social scientists have employed the term because it points to the special, modern variant of age-old problems of administration, just as terms like “ideology” and “class” point to modern aspects of intellectual life and social stratification. The analytic task is to conceptualize this modern variant. At the macroscopic level, Max Weber’s definition of bureaucracy under the rule of law provides the best available solution to this problem; none of the critics of Weber’s analysis has as yet dispensed with his definition. According to Weber, a bureaucracy establishes a relation between legally instated authorities and their subordinate officials which is characterized by defined rights and duties, prescribed in written regulations; authority relations between positions, which are ordered systematically; appointment and promotion based on contractual agreements and regulated accordingly; technical training or experience as a formal condition of employment; fixed monetary salaries; a strict separation of office and incumbent in the sense that the official does not own the “means of administration” and cannot appropriate the position; and administrative work as a full-time occupation (Weber 1922a; Bendix 1960, pp. 423 ff.).

A government administration so defined must be understood, according to Weber, as part of a legal order that is sustained by a common belief in its legitimacy. That order is reflected in written regulations, such as enacted laws, administrative rules, court precedents, etc., which govern the employment of officials and guide their administrative behavior. Such authoritative ordering of the bureaucracy is never more than a proximate achievement; written regulations are often “out of step” with the conditions to which they refer, while codifications and legal and administrative reforms, although designed to cope with that problem, are subject to interpretation. The legal order remains intact as long as such difficulties are resolved through further elaboration of existing regulations and, in relation to the bureaucracy, as long as administrative behavior is oriented toward a system of regulations. In sum, these ideal types of administration and the rule of law are the more fully realized “the more completely [they] succeed in achieving the exclusion of love, hatred, and every purely personal, especially irrational and incalculable, feeling from the execution of official tasks” (Weber [1922b] 1954, p. 351).

A word is needed concerning the difficulties of these formulations. Weber himself always emphasized that an ideal type simplifies and exaggerates the empirical evidence in the interest of conceptual clarity. No actual government administration is bureaucratic in the strict sense of his definition; this follows from the simplifications needed to arrive at an ideal type. Concrete instances will, there-fore, lack one or several of the constituent elements or possess them in varying degrees; thus Weber speaks of mixed types like “patrimonial bureaucracy” when referring to specific examples. This approach involves methodological problems still under discussion (cf. Lazarsfeld & Oberschall 1965; Schweitzer 1964; Machlup 1960–1961; Martindale 1959). However, for present purposes it is sufficient to distinguish among and to discuss three possible uses of Weber’s definition: as a historical bench mark (modern bureaucracy); as a syndrome of social change (bureaucratization); and as a specification of the problems of bureaucracy in the modern nation-state.

The modern type of bureaucracy. Structures approximating Weber’s definition of bureaucracy have existed from time to time in different parts of the world. The historical bureaucratic empires, such as ancient Egypt, the Roman empire, and ancient and medieval China, exemplify this point [seeEMPIRES]. China, for example, witnessed a close approximation to bureaucracy in the sense that appointment to office depended upon qualifications tested by examination, and authority relations were ordered systematically. On the other hand, Chinese officials qualified through humanistic learning rather than technical proficiency; in the absence of a legal order based on abstract, written norms, administrative performance was based ideally on considerations of equity; and administrative work was not a full-time occupation strictly separated from the official’s personal and familial concerns—to mention at least three respects in which administration under the Chinese dynasties was nonbureaucratic or protobureaucratic (cf. Weber [1922c] 1951, chapters 2–4). In partial contrast with these approximations, Weber recognized a distinctive modern type of bureaucracy, and it is useful to follow him in this respect.

The several attributes specified in his ideal type have been approximated most closely under the conditions of the modern state. A product of absolutist regimes in Europe since the Renaissance and distinct from the bureaucratic empires mentioned above, the modern state is characterized by a government over a contiguous territory, which is stabilized on the basis of written regulations and the centralized appropriation of all means of administration. Such stability and centrally controlled administration are possible only on the basis of financial resources and revenue administration that are the exclusive prerogative of the central government. Similarly, an army and a police force are at the exclusive disposal of the government. This central appropriation of resources and means of coercion is paralleled by the establishment of a country-wide jurisdiction, both with regard to the creation and application of legal rules and with regard to the provision of public services considered to be in the general interest. It is in this sense that Weber defines the state as based on a monopoly of physical coercion, which is made legitimate by a system of legal norms binding on rulers and ruled alike and which entails the ultimate subordination of all less inclusive associations under this central jurisdiction (Winckelmann 1964). In the setting of the modern state, bureaucracy, as defined above, is the most characteristic form of governmental administration.

Both ideal types (of the state and of bureaucracy) may be considered historical bench marks designating over-all distinguishing attributes of an entire historical period. The meaning of these ideal types is most clear-cut when they are contrasted with their opposites. Political structures in preabsolutist Europe, for example, lacked a central government with such attributes of states as exclusive financial resources, administrative apparatus, military force, and territorial jurisdiction. Similarly, administration lacked dependence on written regulations, separation of office and incumbent, and several other attributes of bureaucracy (Bendix 1964). Such distinctions are the results of comparative study and are useful at their general level, but they are also starting points of further analysis. For the attributes defining these ideal types are themselves the several by-products of changes which have culminated in the historical constellations that we call state or bureaucracy (Delany 1963).

Bureaucratization of government

One area of comparative sociological analysis consists in examining the substitution of bureaucratic conditions of governmental administration for nonbureaucratic ones. The term “bureaucratization” serves to designate this pattern of social change, which can be traced to the royal households of medieval Europe, to the eventual employment of university-trained jurists as administrators, to the civilian transformation of military controllers on the Continent, and to the civil-service reforms in England and the United States in the nineteenth century. These several changes were related to other social trends, especially the development of the universities, a money economy, the legal system, and representative institutions; but the present discussion is confined to governmental administration.

Development of European bureaucracies. Bureaucratization may be traced to the royal or princely households of the early Middle Ages, which were composed in part of retainers who made up the military following of the ruler and also performed administrative functions in his service (the German word Amt, meaning “office,” goes back to a Celtic term meaning servant). Rulers would appoint these retainer–officials to the several offices of the royal household, including those charged with organizing and superintending supplies, finances, clothing, horses, weapons, written communications and records, etc. For a time the royal household traveled from place to place, administering the affairs of the realm, dispensing justice, and collecting (and in part consuming) the revenue owed to the ruler (Peyer 1964). However, eventually a separation occurred, in terms of personnel and location, between the offices of the royal household and the corresponding offices of government. In his classic work T. F. Tout (1920–1933) has shown for England, and in a briefer essay Otto Hintze (1908) has shown for several western European countries, how the several functions of the royal household provided the starting points of a development eventuating in the establishment of the several ministries of a modern government. This change from personal to public service on the part of officials involved a century-long development.

From an organizational standpoint, this development was partly a by-product of the size and complexity of governmental affairs. As the territory to be governed grew in size and the complexity of affairs increased, the households of kings and princes grew larger, since they provided lodging, food, and clothing for the officials of the ruler as well as for members of his family and his personal retainers and servants. Sooner or later the corps of officials became too large to be maintained in this manner, and officials came to live in households of their own and to be paid for their services in money rather than in kind. Several factors, both tangible and intangible, facilitated this change. Among the more tangible factors were improved means of transportation, the increased use of money, and the growth of the economy and, hence, of revenue; for the control of officials at a distance depends on the incentives available to the ruler and on the ease with which the officials can be reached. A more intangible factor was the sense of obligation or awe with which subordinate officials regarded those above them. That this partly patriarchal feature remained a part of government employment long after government through the ruler’s household had disappeared is suggested by the fact that until the nineteenth century public officials in Prussia were still obliged to obtain permission to marry from their official superior, who would pass judgment on the social standing of the prospective bride (Hintze 1911).

The development of modern public service has been less uniform in its political than in its organizational features. Service to a ruler in a capacity that combined household functions and official responsibilities soon resulted in honor and social standing for the incumbent, whether or not he originally possessed an aristocratic title. All royal officials came to constitute a lower nobility in contrast to a higher nobility, which was entitled to an autonomous exercise of authority on a hereditary basis. Yet the dividing line was neither clear nor stable, as high royal officials used their positions to gain more independence from the ruler in the conduct of government affairs as well as for their own advancement. This drive of high-ranking officials for greater independence was supported, moreover, by public demands for greater stability and for an administrative performance that was readily available. One can visualize the development as one alternating between a growing independence of one or another group of officials and a renewed endeavor by the ruler and his “party” to buttress his authority by increasing the dependence of his officials or obtaining the services of more dependent and dependable men. The vicissitudes of these struggles have much to do with the divergent development of representative institutions in the several European countries.

These vicissitudes could lead to nonbureaucratic as well as to bureaucratic conditions of government employment, which suggests that bureaucratization is neither an inevitable nor an irreversible development. The point may be illustrated by reference to developments in France. Under the Carolingian rulers, office holding and its attendant powers had been annexed to the fiefs granted by the king to his vassals, and these fiefs became hereditary. In this way dependent retainers and officials, exercising only a delegated authority, developed into a landholding aristocracy that exercised the powers of government autonomously, a process facilitated by the undeveloped condition of economy and transport (Peyer 1964). Later on, French rulers came to delegate authority by making grants of official functions directly rather than making grants of land, with its attendant powers. In so doing they followed the practice of the Catholic church, which had developed not only a well-organized, clerical officialdom but also a body of secular managers who exercised local authority over the extensive holdings of the church. From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, for example, French district officials (baillis) already possessed several characteristics of the modern bureaucrat: they were outside the fealty relationship, were frequently transferred or recalled, were subject to detailed controls by royal authority, were forbidden to acquire land where they performed their official duties or to have their children marry property owners in that locality, and were dependent upon a money income, albeit one partly derived from fees and tolls accruing to the office. These conditions of employment combined the personalized controls characteristic of the royal household with the personnel management (frequent transfers, detailed controls, monetary compensation) characteristic of bureaucracy.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries France witnessed a further commercialization of government offices. In response to the need for revenue and the demands of a well-to-do middle class, most positions became a form of property that could be purchased and could also be made hereditary for an annual fee. Soon, offices were created as a means of raising revenue rather than in terms of the functions to be performed. Also, wealthy families came to consider the purchase of an office a form of investment. Salary and office fees yielded a rent income; officeholding itself was exempted from direct tax payments (taille); and hereditary occupancy of a higher office conferred an aristocratic title on the incumbent (Göhring 1938). Parts of this noblesse de robe became an estate of great dignity which was represented in the provincial parlements and which, by the mid-eighteenth century, constituted a resurgence of aristocratic privilege (Ford 1953). This commercialization of office went furthest in France, but in the early modern period, officeholding as a form of property and as an opportunity for family investment was prevalent in many countries (cf. Swart 1949).

So far we have considered the subdivision of administrative tasks and their separation from the royal household as aspects of bureaucratization. The feudalization and the commercialization of public office facilitated that subdivision and separation, because they represented steps away from personal service to a ruler. However, neither process contributed for long or unequivocally to bureaucratization, because each represented a type of private appropriation of public office. Accordingly, European rulers resorted early to the employment of clerics (hence the English word “clerk”) in order to obtain the services of dependable men who possessed skills useful in administrative work. Owing to their celibate status, members of the clergy had no direct interest in using their position to enlarge a family inheritance, and from this view-point they were more reliable than landed aristocrats or men of wealth. On the other hand, in all conflicts between secular rulers and the church, the clergy’s subordination to the authority of the church jeopardized their dependability as royal servants. Accordingly, toward the end of the fifteenth century, clerics were increasingly replaced by laymen trained in the universities as jurists and humanists, a development associated on the Continent with the reception of Roman law (Koschaker [1947] 1958, chapters 12 and 13).

The employment of trained laymen introduced or greatly furthered the practice of public employment as a contractual relation entered into on the basis of stipulated conditions of service in exchange for a salary and subject to cancellation by either party. This was clearly a major step in the process of bureaucratization. Until the fifteenth century public service had been a temporary matter, since the knight or cleric still remained a landlord or priest and expected a fief or benefice at the termination of his service. With the employment of university-trained councilors and secretaries, a new status group developed and was greatly strengthened during the sixteenth century when temporary public service was transformed into life-long employment on a contractual basis.

In the provinces of Prussia persons of bourgeois origin predominated among those acquiring a university education and hence among officials of the new type, a situation often exploited by secular rulers to combat the influence of the aristocracy. However, as sons of aristocratic families came to attend the universities and enter public employment, the prestige of these trained officials, their interest in regular conditions of employment, and their covert resistance to the arbitrary commands of the ruler also increased (Hartung 1942–1948). Hence the old tendency toward independence among officials recurred, albeit on the new contractual basis; this development paralleled the growth of independence of the noblesse de robe in France.

Following Otto Hintze (1910), one may consider the absolutist measures taken against these tendencies a third foundation of modern bureaucracy. The Prussian kings appointed special officials (kommissarische Beamte) who were recruited among natives of other provinces and among foreigners and had nothing in common with the indigenous aristocratic cliques. In France the new office of the provincial intendants was made completely dependent upon royal authority, subject to cancellation at will, and entirely free from the commercialization of office mentioned earlier. Both the Prussian commissars and the French intendants originated in the procurement officers who accompanied the armies in the field and were then charged with maintaining peace and order in the conquered provinces on the basis of dictatorial powers. The institutionalization of these quartermasters for purposes of civilian administration retained the patriarchal features of government employment but also introduced a new measure of centralized control, which has remained an important feature of Continental bureaucracy.

Three antecedents of modern bureaucracy have been mentioned so far: subdivision of tasks in the service to a ruler and the eventual separation of officials from the ruler’s household; employment of university-trained jurists; and the transformation of military controllers into civilian officials. During the nineteenth century these antecedents eventuated in a regularization of public employment approximating the ideal type as defined by Max Weber. On the Continent, government officials themselves played a dominant role in this development in an endeavor to increase the security, remuneration, and social standing of their position. The independence and impartiality of administrators was also a political objective of groups seeking to curb royal prerogative and to combat privileged access to government employment. These developments on the Continent were paralleled by the civil-service reform movements in England and the United States, which exemplify recent antecedents of modern bureaucracy.

Administrative reform in England. Beginning as part of the royal household, English government administration was gradually separated out into the different branches of the executive, much as it had been in France and Germany. But in this process the cohesion of the country, the ease of communication, and the absence of a standing army and other factors combined to achieve a balance between royal authority and the local authority of the landed gentry. True, an administration approximating the Continental absolutist system was attempted, beginning with the Tudor monarchy in the late fifteenth century. Yet this absolutist interlude ended with the legislative supremacy of parliament rather than with the administrative absolutism of the king, while administration at local levels consisted of offices as a species of collective prerogative in the hands of the gentry and urban notables (Namier 1930, pp. 3–41 in 1961 edition). In France bureaucratization had already been advanced by royal absolutism, and when the revolution swept aside both the pouvoirs intermédiaires and the monarchy, the national system of administration that was instituted extended the bureaucratic measures of the ancien régime (Tocqueville 1856; Cobban [1957] 1965, vol. 2, pp. 18–38). In England, on the other hand, earlier bureaucratic developments had been arrested by the overthrow of royal absolutism, which was followed by a period in which the private appropriation of public office prevailed. Some reforms curbing a direct financial exploitation of public office and requiring the personal discharge of public duties by office-holders were instituted in the late eighteenth century, and some unsuccessful experimenting with examinations for the public service occurred during the 1830s (Cohen 1941). But administrative reform became effective only insofar as it was part of the movements for political reform and hence an attack upon the identification of office with family and property. Beginning in practice with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and the administrative centralization pioneered by Edwin Chadwick (Finer 1952), administrative reforms were extended to the personnel field on a programmatic basis by the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1853. Selection by competitive examinations and promotion by merit were instituted subsequently by Gladstone’s Order in Council of 1870. English bureaucratization was, therefore, in part a manifestation of increasing equalitarianism and in part evidence of the desire to detach the public service from its previous ties with familial and political privilege at a time when governmental services and controls were being expanded rapidly to cope with the problems of a maturing industrial society [seeCivil Service].

The United States. Bureaucratization in the United States was also the result of a movement for administrative reform, but the setting and course of this movement differed from the experience of England. In the first decades after independence, political life was largely in the hands of notables, and presidential appointments to the public service reflected not only the privileged access of the dominant upper-class groups but also their competence. Partisan activity as a basis of appointment increased in importance under Adams and Jefferson; in this respect Jackson’s administration merely continued previous practices, although because of the altered character of political life, family origin and connections as factors favoring appointment to office declined markedly in importance during this era (Aronson 1964). Jackson first articulated the ideology of the spoils system, but his reputation as its initiator is undeserved because the abuses incident to that system mounted rapidly only with the growth of machine politics (White 1954, pp. 347–362).

The movement for civil-service reform gained momentum in the years following the Civil War and had as its objective the elimination of machine politics from the public service. Accordingly, the reform measures, which were largely borrowed from abroad, were aimed at curbing the abuses of machine politicians rather than, as in England, at destroying privilege. Leadership of the movement for civil-service reform came from socially and politically prominent Eastern liberals. They saw in the destruction of the spoils system a needed emanicipation from moral corruption that was second only to the earlier abolitionist movement, in which many had been active as well (Van Riper 1958, pp. 78–86).

The Western experience. The common denominator of bureaucratization is that the earlier involvement of public employment with family prerogative and the identification of office with property have been superseded, in the course of long and diverse developments, by the emergence of the nation-state in which public officials administer “a service-rendering organization for the protection of rights and the enforcement of duties” of a national citizenry (Barker 1944, p. 6). That is, government is in charge of the currency, the postal system, the construction of public facilities, the provision of social services, the adjudication of legal disputes, the national educational system, the defense establishment, and the collection of revenue to pay for these and other public services. Although the policies that should govern such public functions are often in dispute, the relative neutralization of the civil service and hence the conception of administrators as employees in charge of a public trust may be due ultimately to the growth of consensus concerning the idea of government as a service-rendering institution that should not be pre-empted by any one of the individuals and groups contending in the political arena. This consensus is both cause and consequence of the growth of government and public employment. Official statistics on these developments in several countries are conclusive in this respect, but they are not standardized enough to be suitable for comparative study (cf. Ule 1961 and the sources cited there).

Developing areas. The preceding discussion of bureaucratization, which has been confined to the “Western experience,” has suggested the importance of at least two characteristics: the long-run continuity of this experience, and the central role played by the clergy and by law and legal experts in effecting the emancipation of government service from ties with personal service, kinship relations, and property interests. These and related preconditions have been absent from other types of bureaucratization, to which at least some reference ought to be made at this point. One type refers to problems of public employment in the so-called developing areas.

However diverse, these areas have at least three features in common. They are latecomers as far as industrial development is concerned. They show little of that diminution of “primordial” ties which preceded or accompanied the development of Western nation-states and their bureaucratization. At the same time, they greatly emphasize the importance of government and rapidly expand public employment (Shils 1959–1960; Fallers 1956, 1964; Chicago, University of … 1963, pp. 105 ff.). Under conditions of economic scarcity, government posts are much sought after, and the ideology of government initiative in economic development provides no basis for restricting public employment. As a result, such countries are characterized by top-heavy officialdom relative to economic growth; this severely strains the merit system of recruitment, which is a legacy of colonial regimes in many of these areas (Berger 1957, chapter 2; Braibanti 1963, pp. 360 ff.; Kingsley 1963, pp. 301 ff.).

Perhaps it is useful to consider public administration in these cases as an arena of fluctuating contests, in which the primordial ties between officials and the public, the exigencies of governmental planning under conditions of great poverty and in the context of the cold war, and the ideals of efficient public service by trained administrators all play a part. This novel setting calls for an analysis of bureaucratization in terms appropriate to it (Riggs 1964), but there is reason to think that these terms are as inappropriate to Western bureaucratization as concepts derived from the Western experience are inappropriate to the developing areas.

Communist countries . In the modern world the comparative study of bureaucratization must also deal with what may be called the “postbureaucratic” or “quasi-bureaucratic” type of governmental administration in communist societies. It is appropriate, but also easily misleading, to apply Weber’s definition of bureaucracy to these societies. Such criteria as experience or training as a condition of public employment, the separation of office and incumbent, the strict exclusion of familial ties, and administrative work as a full-time occupation are clearly applicable in the communist countries. In-deed, these countries appear to be “superbureaucratic,” in the sense that centralized planning swells the ranks of governmental employees. At any rate, in the Soviet Union organizations have been set up to deal in coordinated fashion with problems of personnel administration throughout the government hierarchy (Fainsod [1953] 1963, pp. 414–417).

Nevertheless, it would be misleading to treat communist countries as if their governments simply represented other instances of bureaucratization in the sense discussed above. This is evident in the policies governing the placement of executive personnel, which depends not only on the standards developed by the Soviet Ministry of Finance and on the separate procedures adopted by the various ministries and agencies concerned but also on decisions of the Central Committee of the Communist party. Agencies of the party work out lists of jobs that may not be filled without prior party clearance, and they also prepare rosters of trusted personnel available for placement (DeWitt 1961, pp. 463–466). The principle that decisions of any importance require political clearance in addition to their appropriate administrative surveillance applies throughout Soviet society; indeed, it is the distinguishing characteristic of this “postbureaucratic” society.

In order to mount the desired degree of political mobilization and control over the decision-making centers of an entire society, the Communist party is itself obliged to undergo a process of bureaucratization. In 1962 between 150,000 and 200,000 persons, or some 4 per cent of the membership, were paid party workers; the actual number was probably higher, since many held temporary assignments in various institutions. Through higher party schools, first established in 1946, this cadre of activists has become increasingly professionalized; by 1956 there were 29 party schools officially rated as institutions of higher education, offering a four-year curriculum and affording selected students a stipend from five to eight times higher than stipends at ordinary schools (Brzezinski & Huntington 1964, pp. 140–173; DeWitt 1961, p. 300; Armstrong 1959). Thus, the most characteristic feature of the “postbureaucratic” structure of communist societies is the bureaucratization not only of the public service but also of political life, so that the ruling party has the trained activists it needs to politicize the executive and the judicial branches of government and much of civilian life as well.

This degree of centralized, political manipulation indicates that these societies lack a concept of law in the sense of a system of relatively stable, impersonal, and nonpolitical norms and procedures. They are also distinguished from the societies whose further bureaucratization is considered below by their determination to centralize decision making under the auspices of a single party, by their injection of political controls at all levels of the administrative hierarchies, and by their effort to prevent the uncontrolled emergence of organized interests.

Problems of modern bureaucracy

We have seen that Weber’s concept of bureaucracy is serviceable as a macro-historical bench mark and that “bureaucratization” is a useful term to characterize an important pattern of social change. But it is also true that, in the course of that change, several elements of Weber’s definition have been transformed from political issues into administrative techniques. As long as government administration was in the hands of a social elite or a group of political partisans which had privileged access to office and conducted the “public” business as a species of private prerogative, administrative reforms were aimed at equalizing access, diminishing arbitrariness, and reducing private profiteering. The separation of office and incumbent, appointment by merit, the contractual regulation of appointment and promotion, fixed monetary salaries, and other, related measures can be understood as preventing the intrusion of kinship relations, property interests, and political partisanship upon the conduct of the public business. This negative effect was bound to decline in importance to the extent that government administration by a social elite or by party politicians became a thing of the past. The exclusion of “every purely personal feeling” remains an important desideratum as well as a proximate characteristic of official conduct. So does the effective separation of office and incumbent. But in most modern governments in the countries of Western civilization these and related aspects of public employment are handled routinely, if only proximately, by departments specializing in the several branches of personnel administration, which are themselves an example of bureaucratization as well as a means of promoting it.

Social composition of the civil service. In practice, appointment to public office on the basis of competitive examinations has succeeded in its primary objective of separating officeholding from partisan politics and the vested interests of a social elite. But recruitment to public office on this basis is not a “neutral” instrument, if we mean by this that it would result in a corps of public officials whose social composition corresponds to that of the general population. Rather, under the merit system, recruitment reflects the unequal distribution of opportunity characteristic of society at large. This implication has been the subject of several studies. Generally speaking, higher civil servants come from families in which the father is in an administrative, professional, managerial, or related middle-class occupation at a high or intermediate level, and they do so far in excess of the proportions of these occupational groups in the working population. By contrast, sons of families in which the father is a manual laborer are “underrepresented” among higher civil servants. Since the merit system makes educational qualifications a condition of entry into the public service, it tends to favor recruitment from social groups with a high level of education (Kelsall 1955; Bottomore 1952; Warner et al. 1963; Bendix 1949). Marked regional differences in economic development, as in Italy, may superimpose their own effects on these patterns: Italian higher civil servants come in disproportionate numbers from the disadvantaged south, and their social origin appears to be considerably below that of officials recruited from the north (Cappelletti 1966).

There have been efforts to make public employment at all levels more “representative” of the general population by adopting quota systems of selection favorable to those who come from disadvantaged families. In the Soviet Union and in other communist countries this policy was adopted for a time in order to dispense as quickly as possible with the dependence of the revolutionary regime upon old-time public officials. Subsequently, such quotas have been adopted from time to time when political considerations have suggested the advisability of populist appeals and measures against new “pockets of privilege.” However, experience has shown that an administrative apparatus dependent upon a skilled staff is limited in the degree to which it can manipulate quotas favoring the disadvantaged without jeopardizing its level of performance. As a result, educational policies favoring the disadvantaged tend to be preferred to quota systems in public employment (Fainsod 1953; Inkeles 1950; Feldmesser 1960). In India a public-employment policy and an educational policy are incorporated in the constitution. Quotas for positions in government employment and at the universities are reserved for members from “backward classes,” leading to the paradoxical result that various castes, tribes, and other groups seek to be classified as “backward” in order to provide their members with additional opportunities for employment and education (India … 1955–1956).

These instances are cited to suggest that the merit system reflects existing social differences in various ways and that within narrow limits it can be used deliberately to alter such differences. In either case, studies of the social composition of higher civil servants have more to teach us about the social and political structure of a society than about the exercise of governmental authority. The organizational problems encountered in that exercise and some of the divergent solutions found for them are discussed elsewhere. Such technical problems are bypassed here in order to discuss the critical question of political control.

Political control of public officials

The basic issue of control was formulated by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right in 1821, in which he pointed out that the bureaucracy will be prevented “from acquiring the isolated position of an aristocracy and [from] using its education and skill as a means to an arbitrary tyranny” by the sovereign working on it from the top and corporation-rights working on it from the bottom (Hegel [1821] 1942, pp. 296–297). Despite its dated and parochial references, the statement identifies three dimensions that should be considered in an analysis of control over the exercise of governmental authority: the tendency of high public officials to develop and display a consciousness of special rank and the dangers of an abuse of authority implicit in the secrecy that is a by-product of expertise; the problems thereby posed for the “sovereign” who seeks to control officials from on high; and, conversely, the problem of the influence on administrative procedure and decision making exercised by the individuals and organized groups who are subject to governmental authority.

The bureaucratic culture pattern. Consciousness of rank among public officials is part of a historically derived “bureaucratic culture pattern.” It may reflect the degree to which public office has been associated with the established privileges of a ruling class (Kingsley 1944, chapter 7), although an element of this consciousness may remain as an attribute of high public office even in the absence of such traditions (Shils 1965). Consciousness of rank is probably related to the prestige accorded to public employment and the confidence or trust with which the public at large regards the work of governmental officials (Almond & Verba 1963; Kil-patrick et al. 1964).

But there is no systematic evidence to indicate how public opinion concerning government is related to the discretionary exercise of authority. It is as plausible to assume that public officials will make responsible use of their public trust because they have high prestige and sense the confidence placed in them as it is to assume that they will do so in the absence of prestige and trust because they fear the consequences of abusing their power. One is probably on safe ground only with the empty assertion that both too much and too little prestige and privilege tend to be correlated with abuse, either because the incumbent official assumes that anything he does must be right or because he is so needy as to use his office “for all it is worth.” Generally, civil-service systems have provided public officials with a high degree of economic security and special legal protection in order to enhance their sense of responsibility in the exercise of discretionary powers. Yet such measures bear an un-certain relation to the conduct of the public business and specifically the exercise of discretion; with bureaucratization the importance of professional skills and administrative expertise increases, as does the difficulty of implementing the principles of accountability.

Bureaucracy and accountability. In his discussion of bureaucracy Max Weber noted one major obstacle standing in the way of accountability: the tendency of officials to increase their intrinsic superiority as experts by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret (Weber [1922a] 1946, p. 233). More recent analyses have examined the tensions typically arising in the relations between experts and top administrative officials in public bureaucracies (Merton [1949] 1957, pp. 219–224; Leighton 1949, pp. 129–173) and, more generally, the inherent difficulty of distinguishing between policy decisions and administrative implementation where executives must rely on professionals (Parsons 1960, pp. 66–69; Friedrich 1963, pp. 309–314). The intrinsic dilemma appears to be that ultimately all professional services involve an element of trust in the skill and wisdom with which the professional makes his judgments, whereas accountability of all administrative actions implies that on principle these actions are subject to scrutiny and criticism by higher authority. It is only somewhat exaggerated to say that the trust implicit in the employment of professionals is at odds with the distrust implicit in the accountability of administrators. This incompatibility is enhanced as governments make increasing use not only of technical and scientific expertise but also of professional administrative skills. To be “modern” a government must rely on such skills, but to be responsible it must nevertheless check on the discretionary judgments that are indispensable for both professional work and good government.

Genuine as this dilemma is, it should not be exaggerated. The unchecked exercise of discretion by administrators with professional training is not simply synonymous with an abuse of authority. A substantial part of such discretion is usually called for by the general legislative mandate under which officials do their work. Much of what is kept secret by government officials concerns types of information involving legitimate personal and social concerns of individuals, which under the rule of law should not be divulged despite periodic demands to this effect by partisans of all kinds. It may be the fundamental tendency of all bureaucratic thought, as Karl Mannheim has stated, to turn all problems of politics into problems of administration (Mannheim 1929–1931, p. 105in 1949 edition). Similarly, professionals tend to turn every problem of decision making into a question of expertise. However, such tendencies occur not only (or even primarily) because officials with professional training wish to exceed their authority but also because the perennial difficulties of decision making at higher political levels leave a vacuum of action. Then, indeed, officials will proceed in keeping with their interpretation of the public interest. In so doing they may be influenced by their professional pre-occupations, but they are still acting in the context of public authority. Under a system of laws, that context is circumscribed by the controls to which public officials are subject and by their own belief in legitimacy. Such controls and beliefs exert a constraining pressure upon them even in the absence of any direct checks on their performance.

The civic position of public officials. Among the controls to which public officials are subject are the rules pertaining to their civic position. Should these officials be permitted to retain all the rights enjoyed by private citizens, or should certain special restrictions be imposed on them in view of their powers and responsibilities as public employees? The question pertains to those political systems that give legal recognition to the rights of citizens against the government. Under these conditions one viewpoint would concede to public officials the full exercise of their rights as private citizens and hence reject any restriction on the political or trade-union activities of public employees. The other position demands of public officials that they accept special restrictions upon their expression of political views and their participation in partisan political activities in order to safeguard the impartiality of governmental administration as well as public confidence in that impartiality.

According to this second view, governmental employment involves a public trust that can be jeopardized if public officials make injudicious use of their rights as citizens; hence, efforts are made to draw a legally binding distinction between permissible and impermissible political activities (Kirchheimer 1941; Esman 1951). Related to this second position are the various efforts to regulate the relations between public officials and elected representatives, including the question whether and under what conditions officials should be permitted to stand for elective offices (Werner Weber 1930). Efforts to control the political activities of public officials have the same objective as the merit system, namely, to ensure the quality and impartiality of the public service. Hence, the importance of these efforts will diminish in proportion to the success of the merit system of personnel recruitment.

Legislative and executive supervision. Direct checks on the performance of administrators are, of course, a more important means of ensuring the responsible execution of policies than are general rules concerning the civic status of officials. In his incisive critique of Prussian bureaucracy, Max Weber emphasized parliamentary inquiries as a means by which politicians could check upon the administrative implementation of the legislative intent. He saw such inquiries as a proving ground for politicians in parliament. They would match wits with expert administrators in order to vindicate the supremacy of political decisions over the official’s use of his education and skill to preserve the technical integrity of an administrative program (Weber [1921] 1958, pp. 308–357). The problems that Weber noted have become, if anything, more complex. Under the conditions of the modern welfare state, legislatures increasingly delegate authority to administrative agencies. With the consequent proliferation of governmental functions and reliance on expertise, the difficulties not only of parliamentary but also of executive control over the administrative process mount. Elected representatives are too few in number in comparison with the officials under their authority, less expert than the latter, and necessarily restricted to spot checks on performance. Moreover, in a context of expanding government functions, political decisions already involve the active participation of top administrators and are then embodied in service-rendering institutions. To an extent, parliamentary control of officials is circumscribed, because past political decisions tend to engender a popular demand for the continuation of government services once these are initiated, even aside from the self-perpetuating momentum of the administration.

It is true that legislative controls have proliferated, as in the annual authorization of agencies or in statutory provisions requiring agencies to obtain legislative clearance for particular programs. But the result has not only been further legislative control of the administrative process. Legislative committees are also transformed into champions of particular administrative agencies, in part because politicians and administrators compete for the allegiance of the same constituency, albeit for different ends. In this way legislative committees combine control and advocacy in their relations with administrative agencies. At the same time the executive branch (in particular, the office of the president) has had to develop its own methods of supervision through the Bureau of the Budget and other instrumentalities, in order to keep pace with the expansion and decentralization of the administrative process (Neustadt 1965).

The influence of interest groups. We have noted several concurrent and interrelated developments of bureaucracy in the industrialized societies of Western civilization: the relative success of the merit system and the consequent decline of direct political interference with administration; the professionalization of public administration and the consequent difficulties of parliamentary and executive supervision; and the expansion of governmental functions and the consequent delegation of authority.

The mounting difficulties of supervision are associated, in turn, with the process of democratization. As long as a politics of notables prevailed, it was more or less accurate to think of decision making as a legislative and ministerial prerogative and of administration as an implementation of policies. Even in this setting, voluntary associations like the Anti-Corn Law League in England and the Bund der Landwirte in Germany were used to influence public policy. However, representatives of such associations had close social ties with political decision makers and thus appeared as little more than a specially organized section of the ruling elite. With democratization the number of those engaged in political activities has increased; organized interests have proliferated in interaction with the proliferation of governmental functions (Kaiser 1956), and so have the opportunities of individuals and groups to contact and influence administrators as well as legislators. Delegation of authority to administrators has developed along with the mobilization of interest in the government process on the part of the public (Selznick 1949).

Close and frequent contacts between bureaucracy and organized interests are encouraged where policies are general, where effective administration requires information that is often at the disposal of these interests, and where governmental responsiveness to the public, together with freedom of association, are considered major desiderata of a pluralistic polity. The result is policy formation at many levels of government and outside the government proper, as in licensing boards, advisory committees, and other such institutions. Under these conditions contacts between administrators and the interested public on matters of policy as well as on matters of procedure become frequent, especially if the legislature and the political executive fail to make needed decisions. With only very general policies to guide them, officials may function as resolvers of conflicting claims not previously resolved at higher political levels. In these and other cases there is reason to question how deeply the available controls can still penetrate into the network of interaction between organized interests and the bureaucracy, and it cannot be taken for granted that by gaining ascendancy over the controls exercised by politicians the administrator is also increasing his own autonomy.

Where interest groups do not exist, officials may help to create them in order to have organs of consultation and cooperation, and under certain conditions frequent contacts may lead to a mutual support between interest group and clientele administration (Ehrmann 1961; Woll 1963a; 1963b). Even in this case, it may be said that groups which obtain a hearing in the executive agency directly concerned with their affairs probably also endorse the political system which grants them that hearing, so that here again it is appropriate to emphasize the important, if imponderable, belief in legitimacy. A spirit of moderation may be created by the consensus of the public as well as by the prudential neutrality of the administrators, but this certainly need not happen. And even where it does, there is still the question of how much decision making can be decentralized without jeopardizing the capacity for concerted action on the part of the national political community.

The developments sketched here have recurred in the several countries usually considered together under the term “welfare state,” and they have evoked certain predictable responses. In the United States, as direct political interference with the administrative process has become less and the influence of interest groups has become more important, conflict-of-interest legislation has been elaborated. By distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable types of contact between officials and the spokesmen for interest groups, such laws seek to safeguard the impersonal character of public employment and day-to-day administration (Perkins 1963; Manning 1964). Where such controls are successful, they probably do more than provide general discouragement and occasional penalties for the worst abuses engendered by close relations between administrators and the interested public. For they also provide the administrator with a ready buttress to his neutrality, which he can use in his handling of the conflicting claims pressed upon him. The same consideration applies to the established legislative and executive controls over the administrative process, which vary in the degree to which they penetrate the contacts between administrators and private interests [see Office, misuse of].

That this penetration is felt to be insufficient is perhaps best exemplified by the Scandinavian institution of the ombudsman, a parliamentary commissioner who is charged with the task of screening complaints against the administrative arm of the government and of vigorously prosecuting transgressors, whether they have violated the law or merely neglected the performance of their official duties. The need for an opportunity to redress individual grievances is widely recognized, but the institution of the ombudsman is not easily transferred from one constitutional framework to another, in part because similar functions may be performed in other ways (Rowat 1965). It remains to be seen whether such new devices, as well as old ones like administrative courts, will be sufficient to counteract the unwitting and undesired effects of interest-group activity upon the impartiality and effectiveness of a corps of professional administrators.

The study of bureaucracy

The preceding discussion of recruitment patterns and political controls has certain general implications for the comparative study of bureaucracy. The old argument over the amateur generalist versus the expert technician is a case in point. At one time, the former tended to be the man of privilege, while the latter was the man of technical reasoning. But with the disappearance of privilege, the generalist may be open to considerations of broad policy, while the technician, with his commitment to expertise and perhaps a disinclination to entertain political considerations, may be open to influence by special interests clothed in technical arguments. In an increasingly specialized administration, considerations of technical efficiency can hide a political judgment (Selznick 1957). Hence, the view that bureaucracy is the most efficient type of administrative organization remains valid only on the very narrow ground that it is more efficient than an administration governed by kinship ties and property interests. Such considerations suggest that today we are less concerned with bureaucratization as such than with the exercise of administrative authority.

With this shift in orientation the study of bureaucracy comes close to the analysis of organizations, although this is no warrant for neglecting the separate significance of governmental authority. The analysis of organizations has called into question the utility of assuming the unequivocal unity of organizational goals, the unilateral determination of administrative conduct by the commands of superiors, the hierarchical ordering of superior-subordinate relationships, and hence the significance of hierarchical organizations as a means to the attainment of well-defined ends (Long 1962; Crozier 1963). Oriented as it is to the macroscopic contrast with patrimonialism, Weber’s model of bureaucracy does not provide guidelines in these respects, but three elements of his analysis may be noted (Bendix 1956; 1964; Luhmann 1964).

The emphasis on the belief in legitimacy as the foundation of administrative conduct already precludes an interpretation of organizational behavior in terms of specific ends. Thus, democratic beliefs in legitimacy implicitly endorse the many diverse ends that are pursued in the interaction between bureaucracy and interest groups. A second basic characteristic of bureaucracy is the emphasis on an orientation toward abstract norms as an integral part of the rule of law. Organizational analysis can be related to the study of bureaucracy if it takes cognizance not only of informal relations in hierarchical organizations but also of the continuing efforts to offset their effects on the organization or to subject these relations to norms developed for this purpose. Third, the defining characteristics of bureaucracy have one common denominator, namely, the effort to insulate officials from all effects of society that militate against the probability of a faithful and efficient implementation of policies. This is necessarily a proximate achievement that requires continuous reinforcement. We have seen that its original objective—the insulation of officials from the effects of kinship ties and property interests—has become less important with time, while the new problems posed by the contact between officials and interest representatives may not be amenable to over-all solutions. In this respect the managements of large industrial organizations have been more successful, to the extent that they have insulated their top officials by providing their families with a luxurious but manipulated style of life. These perspectives suggest the possibility of linking the study of bureaucracy, with its historical and comparative approach, and the study of organizational behavior, to the benefit of both.

Reinhard Bendix

[Directly related are the entries Administration; Civil service; Empires. Other relevant material may be found in Interest groups; Law, article onthe legal system; Legitimacy; Mass SOCIETY; Organizations, article ontheories of organizations; and in the biographies of Hegel; Hintze; Weber, Max.]


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The idea of bureaucracy formally begins with Max Weber (18641920); indeed, the idea of bureaucracy ends with Weber as well. Prior to Weber's explication of the "ideal type" of rational, efficient organization of public or private business as a bureaucracy, the idea was simply a commonsense, practical method for the organization of economic or government action. While the original idea of bureaucracy was a prescription for social organization for both public and private organizations, the contemporary usage of the term is limited nearly exclusively to public organizations.

The association between Weber and the concept of bureaucracy is readily apparent; however, Weber himself did not explicate a definition of bureaucracy as such. Rather, he simply elaborated on a form of social organization according to specific characteristics and suggested that these were the elements of what would become bureaucracy. It is important to note that Weber was a sociologist committed to explaining the organizational forms within the world around him; bureaucratic forms of social organization were certainly in existence before Weber's ideal typology came to light.

The Practical Form of Social Organization
Later Known as Bureaucracy

Prior to the coinage of the term bureaucracy in the nineteenth century, organizations that functioned essentially as bureaucracies had long existed throughout the world. As early as the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.220 c.e.), Chinese bureaucracy was taking on the form of a merit-based, centralized administrative apparatus of the state. Other early civilizations, including the Egyptians and the Greeks, included active administrative arms, but unlike the Chinese, were not selected primarily on criteria of merit. The early practice of bureaucracy was nominally a system of individuals employed (often permanently) in court advisership, tax collection, and the implementation of imperial/monarchical policy. This form of bureaucratic social organization dates back to the early Chinese dynasties as well as the early Egyptians, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, and other ancient societies, all of whom employed a designated body of loyal officials to implement the various policies of the ruling classes. Throughout the early common era, bureaucracy remained an arm of the ruling powers and the aristocracy; imperial, monarchical, and feudal systems employed bureaucratic-type organizations primarily to implement taxation and land-use policies.

The Middle Ages saw the expansion of another form of public bureaucracy. The ecclesiastic bureaucracy was designed to implement policies and maintain the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The church was certainly not alone in its use of formal hierarchical structures for the purpose of efficient implementation of policy: early Protestant faiths and the Islamic faith also employed bureaucratized structures for the coordination of their ever-growing populations of clerics and faithful. The bureaucratization of modern life is intimately tied to religion, in Weber's case, Protestantism. The alliance between ecclesiastic and secular bureaucracies would dominate the greater part of the millennium. For example, the Crusades to the Holy Land were in many ways marvels of imperialist-expansionist uses of both bureaucratic structures. The use of the two bureaucratic forms in the foreign occupation and domination of foreign lands would be an important idea in the late-twentieth-century rejection of colonialism. As Rodney argues, the church was also a colonizing force, "[meant] primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism " (p. 253), and had to be dealt with as a colonizing bureaucratic power.

The key elements of the early practical bureaucracies (from the early Han Dynasty bureaucracy to the nascent Prussian state administration) included significant loyalty to the court, (very) limited policy discretion, frequent abuses of government power for organizational and individual gain, and the erection and maintenance of significant barriers to entry into the public service. The earliest practicing bureaucrats were rightfully accused of coveting and vehemently defending their titles as well as unduly influencing court decisions in favor of maintenance of the bureaucratic structure. This tendency of bureaucratic officials would be a perennial argument against the use of bureaucracy, particularly for the organization of government business. Later, within the early modern era (particularly the time of the prerevolutionary French administration) bureaucracy was used primarily as an aristocratic tool of domination of the many by the few. However, the inefficiencies and graft of rational-legal and formalistic bureaucratic systems are unlikely to be noted as particularly heinous compared to earlier, traditional forms of imperial and aristocratic abuses.

Max Weber and the Idea of Bureaucracy

What is notable about the very idea of bureaucracy is its severe rational modernism. Political modernity and bureaucracy are largely symbiotic; the rise of the state paralleled the rise of the bureaucracy. One of the philosophers of the modern economizing state and the modern bureaucratic idea is Adam Smith (17231790), whose defense of the division of labor promoted the bureaucratization of the early Westphalian state. Indeed, Smith's ideas are elemental to Weber's core tenets of bureaucracy: the rigid division of responsibilities and tasks and the economization of organizational forms. Whereas Smith advocated the division of labor in order to promote efficient economic growth, Weber suggests the division of labor for the efficient production of goods or services. Inevitably, bureaucracy was conceived as, and has become, an economizing tool for the rationalization of complex and ambiguous environments.

The rationality of bureaucracy is a central idea within Weber's ideal type. In fact, Weber himself suggests that bureaucracy be a rational-legal form designed to promote the rationalization of organizational tasks and goals. The rationalizing tendency of bureaucracy, while being one of the elements most open to contemporary criticism, was also its most attractive quality for the architects of Enlightenment-guided governance, who sought alternatives to earlier forms of despotic and aristocratic dominance. The adoption of the bureaucratic form by theorists of liberal government has its roots in the legal protection of natural (rational) rights for all. In fact, embedded in the rationalization structure of bureaucracy is the elimination of particularismthe diminishment of universal individual rights for the sake of traditional forms of class or ethnic domination. Those responsible for the French Revolution pined, within their writings, for the rational nonexceptionalism of the bureaucratic form. Indeed, as Maximilien de Robespierre (17581794) and later Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) identified, the ancien régime was epitomized by the irrational occupation of power by a centralized bureaucracy of the ruling class.

The products of mid-modern European thought on the liberalizing and economizing role of government produced the context in which Weber penned his essay "Bureaucracy." Within the essay he establishes the criteria elemental to the ideal bureaucracy. Foremost, he recommends that bureaucracy be the instrument of rational-legal authority, which he defines as that manner of authority "resting on a belief in the 'legality' of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands" (Scott, p. 44). This supplanted traditional forms of authority such as the sanctity of hereditary rule or charismatic authority such as the leadership of Napoleon. The bureaucratic organization of rational-legal authority involves the following necessary criteria: the specification of jurisdictional areas, the hierarchical organization of roles, a clear and intentionally established system of decision-making rules, the restriction of bureau property to use by the bureau, the compensation by salary (not spoils) of appointed officials, and the professionalization of the bureaucratic role into a tenured lifelong career. The idea of bureaucracy suggests that rules, norms, merit, regulations, and stability are paramount to the operation of government. The rule-bound nature of bureaucracy has been widely critiqued in modern political and sociological analyses; however, the number of alternative forms of organization that have received as much consideration is limited.

Criticism of and Advancements in the Idea
of Bureaucracy

Critics primarily attack the practice of bureaucracy, but a few notable scholars attack or enhance the very idea of a bureaucracy and/or a bureaucratic state. Oddly, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) was a reformer of the idea of bureaucracy without being an outright critic of the form. The Hegelian notion of the neutral universalizing civil service devoted to the common good contradicts Weber's notion of the bureaucracy that unquestioningly serves the rational-legal authority of the state. Hegel expands the role of bureaucracy beyond simply the implementation of rules to a universalizing and constitutive, productive artifact of modern society. This notion of the constitutive and productive bureaucracy is picked up by later political scientists such as Brian J. Cook. Despite the positive contribution that Hegelian philosophy has upon the idea of bureaucracy, followers of Hegel, such as Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt, have damned the practice of bureaucracy as a dominating instrument of rationalized capitalist will. However, they have not notably expanded upon the idea of bureaucracy but have rather simply recast the rules already understood to be elemental to the idea and defined them as ills of modernity.

One avenue of expansion upon the idea comes from the criticism that postcolonial and postmodern theorists have directed toward bureaucracy. Weber initially argued for bureaucracy to be a tool for internal organization of offices that served to legitimate the power of the organization's authority through rationalization and rules. What postcolonial and postmodern theorists have charged is that bureaucracy is also designed for domination of the organization by those external to it. Weber's idea was, according to later critics, formed within a social vacuum and neglected the role of environment and context upon bureaucratic behavior. However, Weber likely did not intend to explicate a form of social organization void of social context; rather, he espoused one that could potentially work within a multitude of situations with or without being extensively tailored to individual societies. As such, Weber's original idea is decidedly impersonal and lacks space for exceptionalism. Consequently the organizational form is also ideal for discipline and domination; as an organizational tool within the public, bureaucracy has, as Hegel suspected, a tendency toward projection of a universal standard (of rationality, in this case). As Robert K. Merton suggests, the "formalism, even ritualism [of bureaucracy], ensues with an unchallenged insistence upon punctilious adherence to formalized procedures" (p. 106). The bureaucratic insistence upon rule-based formality codifies conformance, the primary tool of bureaucratic dominance.

Bureaucracies, particularly in modern democratic societies, have significant roles to play as channels of representation. Theorists of representative bureaucracy have expanded upon the idea itself to suggest that the practice be a conduit of effective and well-rounded governance. Similarly, as suggested by Michael Lipsky, lower-level bureaucrats can serve as advocates for citizen needs within their official capacities. Theorists of representative or advocative bureaucracy clearly reject the Weberian characteristic of neutral servants of authority and by doing so expand the idea of bureaucracy from a micro-level instrument of social organization to a macro-level system of social responsibility.

Criticisms of the Practice of Bureaucracy

The speculation that bureaucracy will bear bad fruit within society began with criticisms of government practice across history. These criticisms came from various philosophical schools as well as from the rapidly decolonized nations, particularly following World War II. However, many of the philosophical criticisms of bureaucracy are leveled against the practice rather than the idea. As Charles T. Goodsell notes, there are three broad typologies of antibureaucratic criticism within academia. These are a focus on unacceptable performance, the fear of bureaucracies serving elite interests over the interests of the entire polity, and the fear of bureaucratic oppression through formalism and a general lack of concern for particular needs of clientele. Of these criticisms, the focus on the unacceptable performance and antihumanitarianism of bureaucracies seems to dominate the majority of the literature. For example, Thorstein Veblen, James Dewey, and D. Warnotte identify ills in bureaucratic practice that include, respectively, "trained incapacity," "occupational psychosis," and "professional deformation" (Merton, p. 104). However, each of these criticisms is lodged against practical states of bureaucratic employment rather than the idea of bureaucracy itself. Additional critical thought on the practice comes largely from contemporary organization theorists who have concerned themselves with the impact of bureaucratic structure on employees' motivation and attitudes. Additionally, theorists of public administration have speculated upon the role of bureaucracy within other organizational forms such as democratic governance. While these criticisms are decidedly useful as a pedagogical tool for understanding the nature of bureaucracy, they represent neither a critical reflection upon nor notable additions to the idea itself.

Goodsell's third typology has been largely taken up by postmodernists, critical theorists, and postcolonial critics of bureaucracy. The use of government bureaucratic domination as well as ecclesiastic bureaucratic domination was highly effective in the overtaking of colonial properties. However, bureaucratization was an ineffective tool for the reformation of decolonized states. Perhaps Weber was correct in his assertion that "bureaucracy, thus understood, is fully developed in political and ecclesiastical communities only in the modern state, and, in the private economy, only in the most advanced institutions of capitalism" (p. 73). The bureaucratization of juridical states and the rise of capitalist economy are inextricably related; the bureaucratic form is unnatural in societies where charismatic or traditional authority still dominates. The modernist preference for rational-legal authority suggests that bureaucracy should be the natural form of organization, but for decolonizing states in a situation of authoritative flux, bureaucracy may be an unnatural and in many cases falsely dominating form of organization.

Another form of critique against the practice of bureaucracy has come from scholars of gender relations. These critiques center primarily upon the rejection of the rationalist-modern form of organization as decidedly male-centered. Feminist scholars have argued that bureaucratic structures privilege male forms of communication, deemphasize intuitive and experiential knowledge, diminish the creative capacities of employees, and encourage conformity with historically male institutions, such as government. Again, while these critiques address some structures of bureaucracy as suggested by Weber, the idea itself is not augmented in the address.

Contrary to the thesis that bureaucratic organizations are consistently dominating is the thesis that bureaucracies (as Hegel supposes) can be neutral civil services devoted to the benefit of all in the society. Particularly because of its rational character and nonparticularistic method of organizing client needs, the bureaucracy can ideally serve all within a given community at an equally efficient level. However, according to some critical theorists, Jürgen Habermas being the most notable, the current conditions of social interaction within society are prohibitive of appreciative discourse between equal parties capable of reaching mutually acceptable and operable conclusions. Whether the bureaucracy offers itself as a neutral public servant or not, the social structure of government in capitalist societies in particular unconsciously promotes unequal dialogue and domination by bureaucracies.

Summary of the History of the Idea of Bureaucracy

The history of the idea of bureaucracy is also marked by changes in the public perception of the term. Prior to Weber's defining the idea of bureaucracy, the practice of rational organization of government services according to neutral merit-based qualifications was viewed as a positive antidote to the nepotism and hereditary domination of traditional monarchical or ethnocentric forms of government. However, across most of the globe, the recent history of the term suggests that it has had a largely negative influence upon society. Indeed, the term bureaucracy now evokes epithetical connotations that refer exclusively to perceived inadequacies in government policy implementation.

One final characteristic of the history of the idea of bureaucracy is the multitude of synonyms that have evolved to describe the practice or the idea of bureaucracy in more neutral or passive terms, particularly within the past century. These synonyms include public administration, public management, public service, and governance or policy implementation. In fact, within much of the contemporary literature on bureaucracy, or public administration in particular, the two concepts are used coterminously. This tendency to conflate the idea of bureaucracy with the idea of public service, management, or administration demonstrates that the term has expanded from its original sociological implications. However, this is not to suggest that the idea of bureaucracy as the social organization of complex tasks according to rational-legal authority has lost any of its original appeal. It merely suggests that changing public preferences have altered the disciplinary significance of historical ideas and distorted them to reflect current social contexts, even if it leads to the incorrect hijacking of what once was a neutral academic term.

See also Democracy ; Liberalism ; State, The .


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History discloses political orders different from each other. These orders evolve as a result of each societys self-organization toward representative structures that confer validity on its rules and continuity. It was German sociologist Max Webers insight that these structures rely on systems of authority, such that every system attempts to establish and cultivate the belief in its legitimacy, as the grounds of authority, for which he found three pure types: charisma, tradition, and instrumental reason.

Bureaucracy, a term that literally means government by offices or agencies with prescribed functions, exemplified for Weber the organizational structure associated with legitimacy grounded in instrumental reason. He devoted considerable attention to bureaucracy in part because he believed that, despite exhibiting no unilinear development or progress, history had demonstrated a trend toward increasing rationalization, or what he referred to as a dis-enchantment, so that bureaucracy represents in organizational structure a deeper cultural tendency, especially in the West. In order to grapple with increasing rationalization, he had to understand what it meant for the ordering of society.

Bureaucracy has a distinct character, which Weber delineated. Individuals with documented qualifications fill positions circumscribed by rules, in order to ensure the perpetual fulfillment of the bureaus function. These rules tend to be stable and exhaustive. The resulting structure trends toward hierarchy. Incumbents are expected to keep their work separate from their private lives, so they can concentrate on their duties, which are based more on the processing of documents or files in the abstract and not on interactions with individual persons directly. Consistent with this tendency toward abstraction, the official is then rewarded abstractly by means of job security and a salary in a money economy, thereby making this career a distinct profession.

James Burnham examined the significance of bureaucratic administration as a profession in The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941. Burnham worried as a disillusioned leftist that the managerial revolution would derail the transition from capitalism to socialism. His work influenced the British futuristic novelist George Orwell, author of Animal Farm (1944) and 1984 (1949). It also inspired social scientists to conduct empirical studies of his primary thesis, and even in the 2000s Burnhams book occupies a prominent place in postindustrial theories of society (Demers and Merskin 2000, p. 105). Burnham foresaw the rise of a new ruling elite composed of managers with organizational skill and technical knowledge. These managers were going to displace owners and capitalists in day-to-day operations. The research conducted since tends to bear him out.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith extended Burnhams argument in The New Industrial State (1967), noting that managers as a ruling elite had given way to a group even more embedded in the staff of bureaucracy, a group named by Galbraith as the technostructure. Due to increasing complexity, decision making in bureaucracy requires the specialized scientific and technical knowledge, talent, and experience of multiple persons exchanging and testing information. In this group, one might include engineers, accountants, and lawyers. Without the requisite mastery and information, managers must rely on the resulting apparatus for group decision. Although the apparatus known as the technostructure puts a check on individual initiative and ambition, taken as a whole it works toward its collective survival, autonomy, and growth, in that order. For Galbraith, the technostructure is the decision-making apparatus emblematic of bureaucracy. Seventeen years later, Galbraith saw no reason to amend these findings, except to emphasize the technostructures deteriorative tendencies (1988, p. 375).

At one time, scholars such as Ludwig von Mises might have wanted to isolate bureaucracy as a phenomenon that thrives only in the public sector, in government, but the evidence suggests that it is precisely in the technostructure described by Galbraith that the public and private sectors intertwine to share an overlapping fate, as large firms in the private sector attempt to manage their environment and as the government increasingly executes the laws by means of the technostructure within private firms. According to Galbraith, bureaucracy has emerged in every sector.

Bureaucracy not only has a distinct character, it also plays a distinct role in the routinization of charisma, the ordering of society into a rational form. Bureaucracy exerts pressure to domesticate creativity and genius, removing the element of mystification that accompanies charisma, in order to bring it into service without allowing it to supplant instrumental reason as the legitimating ground for authority. Bureaucracy thereby tends to channel or frustrate freedom, with astonishing success, which is why Weber famously lamented the iron cage that rationalization was building throughout society.

In the second chapter of Images of Organization (1986), Gareth Morgan echoed Weber by associating bureaucracy with an image of organizations that would be construed as mechanistic, structures invented and developed to perform a goal-oriented activity. Not surprisingly, with the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution came the widespread mechanization of organizational structures. Writers such as Frederick Taylor then made the process conscious, offering a scientific approach to managing organizations, on the principle that mechanistic thinking had succeeded in so many other aspects of life. And it had.

Bureaucracy contributes to the goal-oriented activities of any organization. Weber listed these advantages: [p]recision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs. (1958, p. 214). In contradistinction to previous structures, bureaucracy exists to remove less predictable elements such as individual favor from the conduct of business. This means it offers stability to a regime. Disputes are more easily resolved by appeals to reason and rules, which guide officials in their work. Bureaucracy also fits many purposes of large-scale government especially, where other bases of legitimacy have been outlawed or discredited. Since the Enlightenment, Western culture especially has preferred legitimacy based on instrumental reason.

Despite its promise of efficacy, bureaucracy meets with considerable resistance, especially from two sources. One source of resistance has been the concern previously expressed already by Max Weber that bureaucracy inhibits freedom and all that freedom promises. Ralph Hummel sharpened the critique in The Bureaucratic Experience (1994): Over time, given its prevalence and power, bureaucracy shapes human psychology, language, and culture, transforming what it means to be human in exchange for values including security and efficiency. Critics such as Orwell, Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, and in cinema Terry Gilliam (e.g., Brazil, 1985) have depicted an implicit terror and malaise in bureaucratic regimes that can only be described as inhuman. In his 1995 book Kinds of Power, for example, psychologist James Hillman cited the predatory practices of bureaucratic fascism and communism as the logical extension of the Enlightenments emphasis on instrumental reason.

The resistance to bureaucracy from this source emphasizes the trade-off that comes with empowering an elite of professionals at the expense of democratic participation in the decisions that affect our lives, since bureaucrats are not supposed to be directly responsive to voters, to markets, or even to beneficiaries of the services provided by that bureau. Weber noted that bureaucracy accompanies the rise of mass democracy, in that it promises status only in exchange for meritorious service and not kinship, for example, or race, yet bureaucracy by no means enhances the power of the people to govern themselves directly.

Principles of diversity challenge the basis for choosing officials as somehow biased in favor of certain privileged social groups who acquire credentials disproportionate to their numbers in the population.

The second source of resistance to bureaucracy derives from the claim that there are more effective ways for organizations to work, since bureaucracy has a number of limitations. For instance, bureaucracy tends to hide its work from scrutiny, even from one bureau to another, whereas in an information age secrets impede innovation and cast doubt on a bureaucracys legitimacy. Bureaucracy also offers persistence at times that organizational structures should adapt to changing circumstances. The bureaucrats loyalty to the bureau might displace his or her loyalty to the bureaus originating purpose; accusations leveled at fascist administrators who were only doing their jobs have been especially vivid.

Since the 1970s, organizational theorists such as Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot have called for flattened hierarchies, cross-functional coordination, greater transparency, and shorter timelines than a conscientious bureaucracy can meet. These theorists borrow principles from the marketplace, urging bureaucracies to cultivate a more entrepreneurial spirit, taking risk and competing. Theorists also notice the power of flexible networks, rather than rigid silos. Writing in 1999, Richard Brinkman uncovered as evidence of bureaucracys weakening hold the tendency of management to pursue short-term profit in part by downsizing elements of the technostructure, yet it can be said that reports of bureaucracys demise are greatly exaggerated.

SEE ALSO Bureaucrat; Weber, Max


Brinkman, Richard. 1999. The Dynamics of Corporate Culture: Conception and Theory. International Journal of Social Economics 26 (5): 674694.

Burnham, James. 1960. The Managerial Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (Orig. pub. 1941).

Demers, D., and D. Merskin. 2000. Corporate News Structure and the Managerial Revolution. The Journal of Media Economics 13 (2): 103121.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1988. Time and the New Industrial State. The American Economic Review 78 (2): 373376.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1971. The New Industrial State. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (Orig. pub. 1967).

Hillman, James. 1995. Kinds of Power. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Hummel, Ralph. 1994. The Bureaucratic Experience: A Critique of Life in the Modern Organization. 4th ed. New York: St. Martins Press.

Morgan, Gareth. 1986. Images of Organization. New York: Sage.

von Mises, Ludwig. 1983. Bureaucracy. Grove City, PA: Libertarian Press. (Orig. pub. 1944).

Weber, Max. 1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Trans. H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford University Press. (Orig. pub. 1922).

Nathan W. Harter

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BUREAUCRACY. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the federal bureaucracy consisted of 2.8 million people; almost 19 million Americans work for governments of some type, from federal to local units. In a famous lecture given in 1918, the great sociologist Max Weber predicted that the twentieth century would be an era in which governments would be dominated by professional politicians and professional bureaucrats. In most advanced industrialized democracies, Weber's prediction was born out fully. In the United States, however, the bureaucracy has not attained the degree of power or influence that Weber anticipated. The reasons for this relate to the special history of the bureaucracy in the United States.

Most advanced, industrialized democracies developed a professional, permanent bureaucracy around the middle of the nineteenth century. European reformers argued that the expanding role of government in a more urbanized and industrialized society required professional bureaucrats to make government work. Bureaucracies should consist, particularly at their highest levels, of highly educated and trained people organized rationally, not of people who were selected on the basis of whom they knew or had supported in the previous election. Such arguments were made forcefully in the United States as well, particularly later in the nineteenth century by Progressive reformers. However, the shift from patronage to a professionalized, merit-based bureaucracy ran into problems in the United States. First, the notion that making government work required special skills, talents, or education had been rejected by the Jacksonians as incompatible with American values of equality and participation. In the Federalist era, the United States had taken some limited steps along the road toward the creation of a bureaucracy composed of socially superior and educated men. Andrew Jackson reversed these trends, firmly establishing the notion that any (white) man could run government. Second, government jobs were crucial to the workings of American political parties until well into the twentieth century; "to the victor the spoils" was a key principle of party organization. Supporters expected to be rewarded with, among other things, government jobs if their party won. Parties were naturally unwilling to hand over as crucial an element in securing power as government jobs to a merit-based bureaucracy.

In spite of these problems, reformers did ultimately secure the creation of a merit-based system. The assassination of President James A. Garfield by a disappointed job seeker also highlighted the difficulties of operating a patronage system. The triumph of the Progressive reformers seemed to be completed by the New Deal, which resulted in a vast expansion in the number of government agencies and jobs. The practical problems of staffing the much-expanded government machine with political appointees, and the scale of political power that such vast opportunities for patronage could produce, were compelling reasons for completing the transition to a bureaucracy recruited and promoted on the basis of merit. From the New Deal onward, the majority of government jobs were awarded on the basis of merit, not patronage.

Yet the special factors inhibiting the growth of a professional bureaucracy in the United States insured that the reformers' triumph was never total. American government remained distinctive compared with other advanced industrialized democracies in retaining a thick layer of political appointees at the top of government departments. For much of the twentieth century, it seemed as though this layer of political appointees would gradually diminish in the face of practical problems and pressures from reformers. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth century, the number of political appointees began to increase again. In contrast to the situation in other advanced, industrialized democracies, the permanent bureaucracy was largely excluded from participation in policy making and was relegated to mere policy implementation.

Although American political parties no longer depended on patronage for their support as heavily as in the past, several trends emerged that discouraged reliance on the permanent bureaucracy. First, presidents, particularly Republican presidents, believed that the bureaucracy was ideologically predisposed against them and their policies. There is evidence that this belief had some empirical foundations in the Nixon era, though by the end of the twentieth century, bureaucrats had become noticeably more conservative and less Democratic in their personal politics. Second, all presidents found that the vast federal bureaucracy had become a "fourth branch of government" that was difficult to control. The bureaucracy had its own opinions on what constituted good policy and its own political alliances with interest groups and Congressional committees. Third, new styles of thinking, derived from microeconomics, emerged after World War II. In these "rational choice" perspectives, bureaucrats were not the selfless servants of the public good that Progressive reformers had intended but rather selfish maximizers of the size of their staffs and budgets. Writers in this school, such as William Niskanen, were particularly influential with Republican politicians. It followed that the power of bureaucrats should be reduced. Wherever possible, government work should be privatized or "contracted out" to privately owned firms. Senior bureaucrats should be limited in the role they played in developing policy and subordinated to political appointees whose loyalty to the administration was likely to be greater. However, it was a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who pushed through legislation that addressed these concerns by moving the most senior bureaucrats into a Senior Executive Service. With this, the president had far more control in the ability to reassign officials than over the rest of the civil service. Carter's reforms were invaluable in helping President Reagan impose radically conservative perspectives on the bureaucracy.

The distinctive history of the bureaucracy in the United States has had both advantages and disadvantages. Advantages have included the facilitated participation in government by large numbers of people from business, academic life, and other backgrounds who have served as political appointees in Washington. Political appointees have brought with them fresh perspectives and attitudes that a permanent bureaucracy may not provide. Most obvious among the system's disadvantages is the continued appointment of people to government service whose qualifications only include the payment of the large sums of money or services to the victorious presidential candidate. Additional disadvantages include the length of time it takes to appoint and secure Senate approval for the thousands of political appointees who arrive with a new administration, which complicates the smooth running of government. Although bureaucracies can be self-interested and slow to change, they can also provide politicians with much-needed advice and perspectives; good governance may result from the effective combination of the perspectives of bureaucrats and politicians.


Aberbach, Joel D., and Bert A. Rockman. In the Web of Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001.

Light, Paul C. Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995.

Skowronek, Stephen. Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1876–1922. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Graham K.Wilson

See alsoCivil Service ; Jacksonian Democracy ; New Deal .

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bureaucracy A body of administrative officials, and the procedures and tasks involved in a particular system of administration, for example a state or formal organization. Max Weber did not invent the concept of bureaucracy (the term was coined in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century) but he is generally recognized as having made the most original contribution to the study of the phenomenon. Almost alone, among early contributors, his treatment is not pejorative.

Although the concept is usually understood as one of Weber's ideal types concerned with rational and efficient organization, comprising specific attributes for both positions and personnel, it is much more than this. Its full value can only be gleaned by seeing bureaucracy not just as an outcome of the broader process of rationalization but also in terms of Weber's work on democracy and domination. Domination, or the legitimate and institutionalized exercise of power, requires some kind of administration, and therefore a role for the functionary interposed between leader and electorate within a democratic system. The type of organization which emerges depends on the nature of the legitimation elaborated when the powerful justify that power to their subordinates. Bureaucracy develops when that legitimation is of the rational-legal variety, emphasizing the impersonal exercise of power, according to rational rules.

The characteristics of bureaucracy are a hierarchy of offices and the channelling of communication through hierarchical levels; files and secrecy; clearly defined spheres of authority determined by general rules and governed by regulations; and the administrative separation of official activities from private affairs. Bureaucratic officials, according to Weber, are appointed from above (rather than elected); enjoy life-long tenure and high status; have a fixed salary and retirement pension; and a vocation and sense of loyalty to their career and office.

Bureaucracy has a purely technical superiority over all other forms of domination, although this does not necessarily imply greatest efficiency in goal attainment, since rationality and efficiency must always be measured in relation to a clearly stated objective. Above all else, bureaucracy is tied to the capitalist market economy, which demands the unambiguous and continuous discharge of public and private administration. Bureaucracy implies rationality, and this in turn implies calculability, which minimizes uncertainty in risk-taking activities. Such calculability also involves mass democracy, a levelling process by which all become formally equal before the law, so that arbitrary treatment diminishes.

Weber's pessimistic view of the rationalization process is evident in his concern about the indestructibility of fully established bureaucratic structures. Once in place, the rulers cannot dispense with the trained personnel, as the example of post-communist Eastern Europe illustrates clearly. The professional bureaucrats are also chained to their activity and thus seek its perpetuation. Finally, politicians (elected or otherwise) are increasingly in the position of a dilettante with respect to the expert bureaucrat, who wields administrative secrecy as a weapon against public scrutiny and oversight. Bureaucratic knowledge is thus power, not only in the sense of expert knowledge, but also as concealed knowledge which enables officials to hide behind routines and procedures. Not surprisingly, the term has since come to be used in reference to every situation in which officials wield excessive power, or the organizational structure itself malfunctions. Bureaucracies can cease to be efficient, in terms of the purposes for which they are intended, when personnel proliferate beyond what is needed for the task in hand; when responsibilities are shunned and passed around the system; when rules, formalities, and files proliferate, again beyond what is necessary; and officials stick rigidly to the letter of the regulations without regard for the purpose they are supposed to serve (in other words slavish adherence to the bureaucratic means becomes an end in itself).

Bureaucracy tends to breed experts with educational credentials who, Weber was concerned, could emerge as a self-recruiting caste. In a Marxian aside, Weber argues that capitalism and socialism can be subsumed under the broader process of bureaucratization; namely, the separation from the means of production, destruction, research, and administration of the worker, soldier, academic, and administrator respectively.

Stanislav Andreski (Max Weber's Insights and Errors, 1984) has argued that there are in fact now four distinct meanings which can be attached to the term. ‘Bureaucracy’ can refer to the set of people who perform the administrative functions in the manner described by Weber; the network of relationships in which they are enmeshed; the amount of power they wield as a body; and the various kinds of malfunctioning of the administrative machine. All four are evident in the contemporary sociological literature. Andreski himself argues that the term ought to be reserved for the third of the aforementioned meanings: that is, ‘the condition when the power of the administrators is greater than that of any other group of leaders or holders of authority’. Weber himself did not live to see a complete bureaucracy in this sense—the first example being the depersonalized government of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. However, the Chinese Empire offers a pre-industrial approximation, since no other class could challenge the mandarins, although their power was subject to and limited by the prerogative of the emperor and his relatives (an unstable form of political domination which Weber refers to as patrimonialism).

Without a doubt Weber's writings on the nature of bureaucracy not only became a fruitful source of what emerged as organization theory but also contributed to the study of the conditions for the democratic exercise of power in an increasingly complex world. Though conceptually untidy, and in places empirically questionable, his studies of bureaucracy are unrivalled as a survey of the development and functioning of administrative machines. While most of the other early sociologists foresaw progressive movements towards democracy and liberty, Weber could see only increasing bureaucratization, and in that sense his analysis has stood the test of time. However, his treatment is scattered, and by no means an easy introduction to the subject. The best starting-point for the student of sociology is still Martin Albrow's Bureaucracy (1970).

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The term bureaucrat refers to a professional administrator, a career official employed to serve a bureau or office. Often used pejoratively, the term describes a predominantly stabilizing function in which the career interests of the administrator align with the bureaus norms and values.

The German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) embedded in his classic analysis of bureaucracy in Economy and Society (originally published in 1925 and translated in 1958) a section on the position of the official whose activities are fixed and ordered by rules, so that authority will be seen to derive from a rational and impersonal basis. For Weber, the bureaucrat is simply intrinsic to this process of rationalization that so typifies modernity. Such an official would have been expected to possess certain qualifications in order to occupy the position in the first place, presumably as a result of rigorous training in management generally and in the rules of the bureau. At all times, official activities are supervised by a higher authority within the organization; nevertheless, the official owes loyalty not to the supervisor, but to the bureau and its purpose. A bureaucrat assumes appointment to the office by accepting a specific obligation of faithful management in return for a secure existence (Weber 1958, p. 199). As a result, the official is meant to enjoy a status commensurate with rank. An officials expertise and authority will tend to protect the officeholder from arbitrary dismissal or transfer (Weber 1958, p. 202). Weber held that for the sake of stable employment the bureaucrat will accept a lower salary compared to the private sector, although presently bureaucrats appear in every sector, including the private sectorto the consternation of critics. One critic, James Burnham, famously warned in 1941 against their domination as a class.

According to the economist Ludwig von Mises in Bureaucracy (1944), allegiance to the bureau and relative insulation from arbitrary dismissal or transfer contributes to the perception that bureaucrats tend to be unresponsive to external complaint. The primary reason is that there exists no way to calculate the bureaucrats performance, except of the extent to which he or she adheres to the prescribed rules and stays within budget.

Bureaucrats stabilize the office in part because they learn not to take risks. Ralph Hummel explains in The Bureaucratic Experience that the supervisor assumes the role of conscience and ego function, deciding what needs to be done and how, and leaving it to the bureaucrat to fulfill the explicit terms of the employment contract. Any other than instrumental rationality is not required. Mises spoke for many critics when he argued that bureaucracy kills ambition, destroys initiative and the incentive to do more than the minimum required (Mises 1983, p. 61). Rather than undertake risk, a prudent bureaucrat will not only conform but also take steps to secure the future by protecting the bureau from threat of dissolution. For this reason, whatever the originating and legitimating purpose had been for the creation of the bureau, the bureaucrat owes a primary allegiance to the perpetuation of the bureau itself. Keeping a job becomes more important than doing the job, which is goal displacement. For example, in 1978 the communist Rudolf Bahro identified bureaucrats in socialist states as jealous and exploitative rulers, responsible for alienated consciousness and preventing further liberation.

The virtue of bureaucrats, according to Gareth Morgan (1986), lies in professionalism based on expertise, concentration, a relatively transparent mission, and the impersonal nature of workplace relationshipsall of which fulfilled the ambition of rational administration consistent with a mechanistic model of organizations, in contrast to prior models based for example on kinship, personal loyalty, or profit seeking.


Bahro, Rudolph. 1978. The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: New Left Books.

Burnham, James. 1960. The Managerial Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (Orig. pub. 1941).

Hummel, Ralph. 1994. The Bureaucratic Experience: A Critique of Life in the Modern Organization. 4th ed. New York: St. Martins Press.

Mises, Ludwig von. 1983. Bureaucracy. Grove City, PA: Libertarian Press. (Orig. pub. 1944).

Morgan, Gareth. 1986. Images of Organization. New York: Sage.

Weber, Max. 1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Trans. Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press. (Orig. pub. 1922).

Nathan W. Harter

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bureaucracy (byŏŏrŏk´rəsē), the administrative structure of any large organization, public or private. Ideally bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical authority relations, defined spheres of competence subject to impersonal rules, recruitment by competence, and fixed salaries. Its goal is to be rational, efficient, and professional. Max Weber, the most important student of bureaucracy, described it as technically superior to all other forms of organization and hence indispensable to large, complex enterprises. However, because of the shortcomings that have in practice afflicted large administrative structures, the terms bureaucracy and bureaucrat in popular usage usually carry a suggestion of disapproval and imply incompetence, a narrow outlook, duplication of effort, and application of a rigid rule without due consideration of specific cases. Bureaucracy existed in imperial Rome and China and in the national monarchies, but in modern states complex industrial and social legislation has called forth a vast growth of administrative functions of government. The power of permanent and nonelective officials to apply and even initiate measures of control over national administration and economy has made the bureaucracy central to the life of the state; critics object that it is largely impervious to control by the people or their elected representatives. The institution of the ombudsman has been one means adopted in an attempt to remedy this situation. Others has been collective decision making and organizational structures that emphasize minimize hierarchies and decentralize the power to make decisions. Administrative bureaucracies in private organizations and corporations have also grown rapidly, as has criticism of unresponsive bureaucracies in education, health care, insurance, labor unions, and other areas. See also civil service; industrial management.

See M. Dimock, Administrative Vitality: The Conflict with Bureaucracy (1959); R. Bendix, M. Weber (1960); C. Barnard, Functions of the Executive (1980); M. Albrow, Bureaucracy (1970); P. M. Blau, Bureaucracy in Modern Society (2d ed. 1971); J. Hage, Theories of Organization (1980); K. Ferguson, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy (1984); C. Perrow, Complex Organizations (3d ed. 1986).

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62. Bureaucracy

See also 185. GOVERNMENT .

the world of petty and officious bureaucrats. Cf. bumbledom .
the world of petty and incompetent officials.
1. a government typified by a rigid hierarchy of bureaus, administrators, and minor officials.
2. a body of administrators; officialdom.
3. administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine. bureaucratie, adj.
turgid, misleading language, as typical of bureaucracies. Cf. federalese, officialese .
an obsession with public employment.
language typical of the U.S. federal government, especially bureaucrtic jargon. Cf. bureaucratese, officialese .
1. the realm or position of officials.
2. excessively close adherence to bureaucratie procedure.
language characteristic of officialdom, typified by polysyllabism and much periphrasis. Cf. bureaucratese, federalese .
1. any official regulations or procedures.
2. an excessive emphasis on official regulations or procedures.
3. officials in general or collectively.
designation for a pompous official, taken from a story by Samuel Foote(1755).
red-tapeism, red-tapism
the practice of requiring excessive paperwork and tedious procedures before official action can be considered or completed. Also called red-tapery . red-tapist n.

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90. Bureaucracy

  1. Bridoison, Judge jurist who loves red tape. [Fr. Lit.: Marriage of Figaro ]
  2. Catch-22 concerned with the frustration of red-tape mechanisms. [Am. Lit.: Catch-22 ]
  3. Circumlocution Office, the department of efficient bureaucratic evasiveness. [Br. Lit.: Little Dorrit ]
  4. Inspector General, The drama highlighting foibles of petty officialdom. [Russ. Lit.: The Inspector General ]
  5. M ° A ° S ° H bitter farce on bungling bureaucracy in a Korean Army hospital. [Am. Cinema and TV: Halliwell, 474475]
  6. red tape excessive formality; bureaucratic paperwork. [Am. and Br. Usage: Misc.]
  7. Secretary, the repeatedly refuses permission to see the Consul. [Am. Opera: Menotti, The Consul, Westerman, 552553]
  8. Trial, The novel of individual accused of crime by impersonal bureaucracy. [Ger. Lit.: The Trial ]

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bu·reauc·ra·cy / byoŏˈräkrəsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives. ∎  a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system. ∎  the officials in such a system, considered as a group or hierarchy. ∎  excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of such a system: the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government.

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bu·reau·crat / ˈbyoŏrəˌkrat/ • n. an official in a government department. ∎  an administrator concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people's needs. DERIVATIVES: bu·reau·crat·ic adj. bu·reau·crat·i·cal·ly adv.

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A system of administration wherein there is a specialization of functions, objective qualifications for office, action according to the adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority and delegated power.

Organizations such as the armed forces or administrative agencies are common examples of bureaucracies.

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BUREAUCRATESE. A pejorative non-technical term for the language of bureaucrats. See -ESE.

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bureaucratic orientation to work

bureaucratic orientation to work See WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF.

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government officials collectively, 1848.

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bureaucratic socialism

bureaucratic socialism See COMMUNISM.

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bureaucracy •radiancy •immediacy, intermediacy •expediency • idiocy • saliency •resiliency • leniency •incipiency, recipiency •recreancy • pruriency • deviancy •subserviency • transiency • pliancy •buoyancy, flamboyancy •fluency, truancy •constituency • abbacy • embassy •celibacy • absorbency •incumbency, recumbency •ascendancy, intendancy, interdependency, pendency, resplendency, superintendency, tendency, transcendency •candidacy •presidency, residency •despondency • redundancy • infancy •sycophancy • argosy • legacy •profligacy • surrogacy •extravagancy • plangency • agency •regency •astringency, contingency, stringency •intransigency • exigency • cogency •pungency •convergency, emergency, insurgency, urgency •vacancy • piquancy • fricassee •mendicancy • efficacy • prolificacy •insignificancy • delicacy • intricacy •advocacy • fallacy • galaxy •jealousy, prelacy •repellency • valency • Wallasey •articulacy • corpulency • inviolacy •excellency • equivalency • pharmacy •supremacy • clemency • Christmassy •illegitimacy, legitimacy •intimacy • ultimacy • primacy •dormancy • diplomacy • contumacy •stagnancy •lieutenancy, subtenancy, tenancy •pregnancy •benignancy, malignancy •effeminacy • prominency •obstinacy • pertinency • lunacy •immanency •impermanency, permanency •rampancy • papacy • flippancy •occupancy •archiepiscopacy, episcopacy •transparency • leprosy • inerrancy •flagrancy, fragrancy, vagrancy •conspiracy • idiosyncrasy •minstrelsy • magistracy • piracy •vibrancy •adhocracy, aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, democracy, gerontocracy, gynaecocracy (US gynecocracy), hierocracy, hypocrisy, meritocracy, mobocracy, monocracy, plutocracy, technocracy, theocracy •accuracy • obduracy • currency •curacy, pleurisy •confederacy • numeracy •degeneracy • itinerancy • inveteracy •illiteracy, literacy •innocency • trenchancy • deficiency •fantasy, phantasy •intestacy • ecstasy • expectancy •latency • chieftaincy • intermittency •consistency, insistency, persistency •instancy • militancy • impenitency •precipitancy • competency •hesitancy • apostasy • constancy •accountancy • adjutancy •consultancy, exultancy •impotency • discourtesy •inadvertency • privacy •irrelevancy, relevancy •solvency • frequency • delinquency •adequacy • poignancy

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bureaucrat •Eurocrat • ziggurat • muskrat •theocrat • jurat • Ballarat • democrat •technocrat • bureaucrat • aristocrat •autocrat • plutocrat • babysat •Comsat • Randstad • Darmstadt •diktat • habitat • Eisenstadt •Kronstadt • cryostat • aerostat •aegrotat • rheostat • haemostat •thermostat • photostat

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bureaucraticachromatic, acrobatic, Adriatic, aerobatic, anagrammatic, aquatic, aristocratic, aromatic, Asiatic, asthmatic, athematic, attic, autocratic, automatic, axiomatic, bureaucratic, charismatic, chromatic, cinematic, climatic, dalmatic, democratic, diagrammatic, diaphragmatic, diplomatic, dogmatic, dramatic, ecstatic, emblematic, emphatic, enigmatic, epigrammatic, erratic, fanatic, hepatic, hieratic, hydrostatic, hypostatic, idiomatic, idiosyncratic, isochromatic, lymphatic, melodramatic, meritocratic, miasmatic, monochromatic, monocratic, monogrammatic, numismatic, operatic, panchromatic, pancreatic, paradigmatic, phlegmatic, photostatic, piratic, plutocratic, pneumatic, polychromatic, pragmatic, prelatic, prismatic, problematic, programmatic, psychosomatic, quadratic, rheumatic, schematic, schismatic, sciatic, semi-automatic, Socratic, somatic, static, stigmatic, sub-aquatic, sylvatic, symptomatic, systematic, technocratic, thematic, theocratic, thermostatic, traumatic •anaphylactic, ataractic, autodidactic, chiropractic, climactic, didactic, galactic, lactic, prophylactic, syntactic, tactic •asphaltic •antic, Atlantic, corybantic, frantic, geomantic, gigantic, mantic, necromantic, pedantic, romantic, semantic, sycophantic, transatlantic •synaptic •bombastic, drastic, dynastic, ecclesiastic, elastic, encomiastic, enthusiastic, fantastic, gymnastic, iconoclastic, mastic, monastic, neoplastic, orgastic, orgiastic, pederastic, periphrastic, plastic, pleonastic, sarcastic, scholastic, scholiastic, spastic •matchstick • candlestick • panstick •slapstick • cathartic •Antarctic, arctic, subantarctic, subarctic •Vedantic • yardstick •aesthetic (US esthetic), alphabetic, anaesthetic (US anesthetic), antithetic, apathetic, apologetic, arithmetic, ascetic, athletic, balletic, bathetic, cosmetic, cybernetic, diabetic, dietetic, diuretic, electromagnetic, emetic, energetic, exegetic, frenetic, genetic, Helvetic, hermetic, homiletic, kinetic, magnetic, metic, mimetic, parenthetic, pathetic, peripatetic, phonetic, photosynthetic, poetic, prophetic, prothetic, psychokinetic, splenetic, sympathetic, syncretic, syndetic, synthetic, telekinetic, theoretic, zetetic •apoplectic, catalectic, dialectic, eclectic, hectic •Celtic •authentic, crescentic •aseptic, dyspeptic, epileptic, nympholeptic, peptic, proleptic, sceptic (US skeptic), septic •domestic, majestic •cretic •analytic, anchoritic, anthracitic, arthritic, bauxitic, calcitic, catalytic, critic, cryptanalytic, Cushitic, dendritic, diacritic, dioritic, dolomitic, enclitic, eremitic, hermitic, lignitic, mephitic, paralytic, parasitic, psychoanalytic, pyritic, Sanskritic, saprophytic, Semitic, sybaritic, syenitic, syphilitic, troglodytic •apocalyptic, cryptic, diptych, elliptic, glyptic, styptic, triptych •aoristic, artistic, autistic, cystic, deistic, distich, egoistic, fistic, holistic, juristic, logistic, monistic, mystic, puristic, sadistic, Taoistic, theistic, truistic, veristic •fiddlestick •dipstick, lipstick •impolitic, politic •polyptych • hemistich • heretic •nightstick •abiotic, amniotic, antibiotic, autoerotic, chaotic, demotic, despotic, erotic, exotic, homoerotic, hypnotic, idiotic, macrobiotic, meiotic, narcotic, neurotic, osmotic, patriotic, psychotic, quixotic, robotic, sclerotic, semiotic, symbiotic, zygotic, zymotic •Coptic, optic, panoptic, synoptic •acrostic, agnostic, diagnostic, gnostic, prognostic •knobstick • chopstick • aeronautic •Baltic, basaltic, cobaltic •caustic • swordstick • photic • joystick •psychotherapeutic, therapeutic •acoustic • broomstick • cultic •fustic, rustic •drumstick • gearstick • lunatic

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bureaucratize •excise • queen-size • laicize •Anglicise, Anglicize •polemicize • classicize • fanaticize •elasticize • poeticize • parenthesize •mythicize •photosynthesize, synthesize •synopsize • apotheosize • emphasize •circumcise • exercise • metastasize •hypostasize •affranchise, enfranchise, franchise •fetishize • alphabetize • concretize •poetize • palletize • pelletize •unitize • remonetize • syncretize •securitize • synthetize • robotize •narcotize •anagrammatize, epigrammatize, melodramatize, overdramatize •emblematize, lemmatize •legitimatize • dogmatize • aromatize •problematize • automatize •bureaucratize • advertise •telepathize • televise •collectivize, objectivize •relativize • supervise • improvise

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