From Academic Kids

This page is about the sociological concept. Bureaucracy is also the name of a computer game.

Bureaucracy is a sociological concept of government and its institutions as an organizational structure characterized by regularized procedure, division of responsibility, hierarchy, and impersonal relationships.

In modern usage, bureaucracy often equates with inefficiency, laziness, and waste. It is oftentimes characterized in the popular imagination as existing solely for itself and only achieving results which end up in enlarging the size of the bureaucracy. It is thus generally used as a pejorative word. A stereotypical red tape bureaucracy would consist of many levels of management which require many signature approvals to make any decision, no matter how trivial.

Examples of everyday bureaucracies include governments, armed forces, corporations, hospitals, courts, ministries, or schools.

Max Weber on bureaucracy

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

However, contrary to popular belief, "bureaucracy" was an English word before Weber; the Oxford English Dictionary cites usage in several different years between 1818 and 1860, prior to Weber's birth in 1864. The term can characterize either governmental or nongovernmental organizations and comes from the French word bureaucratie, from bureau "office, desk" and the greek suffix -kratia "power". It was first used by 18th century French economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759).

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

According to Weber, the attributes of modern bureaucracy include its impersonality, concentration of the means of administration, a leveling effect on social and economic differences and implementation of a system of authority that is practically indestructible.

Weber's analysis of bureaucracy concerns:

A bureaucratic organisation is governed by the following seven principles:

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

A bureaucratic official:

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

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


As Max Weber himself noted, in reality no ideal type organisation can exist. Thus the real bureaucracy will be less optimal and effective then his ideal model. Each of Weber's seven principles can degenerate:

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

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

  • overspecialisation, making individual officials not aware of larger consequences of their actions
  • rigidity and intertion of procedures, making decision making slow or even impossible when facing some unusual case, and similarly delaying change, evolution and adaptation of old procedures to new circumstances;
  • a phenomenon of group thinking - overzealousy, loyalty and lack of critical thinking regarding the organisation which is perfect and always correct by definition, making the organisation unable to change and realise its own mistakes and limitations;
  • a phenomenon of Catch-22 (named after a famous book) - as bureaucracy creates more and more rules and procedures, their complexity raises and coordination diminishes, facilitating creation of contradictory rules;

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

See also

de:Brokratie es:Burocracia fr:Bureaucratie nl:Bureaucratie ja:官僚制 pl:Biurokracja sv:Byrkrati zh:科层制


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