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Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science. It refers to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules is socially organized. This office organization is characterized by standardized procedure, formal division of responsibility, hierarchy, and impersonal relationships.

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

Origin of the concept

Bureaucracy is derived from the word bureau, used from the early 18th century in Western Europe not just to refer to a writing desk, but to an office, i.e. a workplace, where officials worked. The original French meaning of the word bureau was the baize used to cover desks. The term bureaucracy came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, and from there rapidly spread to other countries. The Greek suffix -kratia or kratos - means "power" or "rule". Bureaucracy thus basically means office power or office rule, the rule of the officialdom.

In a letter of July 1, 1764, the French Baron de Grimm declared: "We are obsessed by the idea of regulation, and our Masters of Requests refuse to understand that there is an infinity of things in a great state with which a government should not concern itself." Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay sometimes used to say, "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to invent a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy". In another letter of July 15, 1765 Baron Grimm wrote also, "The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist." (Baron de Grimm and Diderot, Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, 1753-69, 1813 edition, Vol. 4, p. 146 & 508 - cited by Martin Albrow, Bureaucracy. London: Pall Mall Press, 1970, p. 16).

This quote refers to a traditional controversy about bureaucracy, namely the perversion of means and ends so that means become ends in themselves, and the greater good is lost sight of; as a corollary, the substitution of sectional interests for the general interest. The suggestion here is that, left uncontrolled, the bureauracy will become increasingly self-serving and corrupt, rather than serving society.

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

Karl Marx and bureaucracy

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

Thus, the earliest bureaucracies consisted of castes of religious clergy, officials and scribes operating various rituals, and armed functionaries specifically delegated to keep order. In the historical transition from primitive egalitarian communities to a civil society divided into social classes and estates, occurring about 10,000 years ago, authority is increasingly centralised in, and enforced by a state apparatus existing separately from society. This state formulates, imposes and enforces laws, and levies taxes, giving rise to an officialdom enacting these functions. Most importantly, the right of ordinary people to carry and use weapons of force becomes increasingly restricted; forcing other people to do things becomes increasingly the right of the state authorities only.

But the growth of trade and commerce adds a new, distinctive dimension to bureaucracy, insofar as it requires the keeping of accounts and the processing/recording of transactions, as well as the enforcement of legal rules governing trade. If resources are increasingly distributed by prices in markets, this requires extensive and complex systems of record-keeping, management and calculation, conforming to legal standards. Eventually, this means that the total amount of work involved in commercial administration outgrows the total amount of work involved in government administration. In modern capitalist society, private sector bureaucracy is larger than government bureaucracy, if measured by the number of administrative workers in the division of labour as a whole. Some corporations nowadays have a turnover larger than the national income of whole countries, with large administrations supervising operations.

A fourth source of bureaucracy inheres in the technologies of mass production, which require many standardised routines and procedures to be performed. Even if mechanisation replaces people with machinery, people are still necessary to design, control, supervise and operate the machinery. The technologies chosen may not be the ones that are best for everybody, but which create incomes for a particular class of people or maintain their power. This type of bureaucracy is nowadays often called a technocracy, which owes its power to control over specialised technical knowledge.

In Marx's theory, bureaucracy rarely creates new wealth by itself, but rather controls, co-ordinates and governs the production, distribution and consumption of wealth. The bureaucracy as a social stratum derives its income from the appropriation of part of the social surplus product of human labour. Wealth is appropriated by the bureaucracy by law through fees, taxes, levies, tributes, licensing etc.

Bureaucracy is therefore always a cost to society, but this cost may be accepted insofar as it makes social order possible, and maintains it. Nevertheless there are constant conflicts about this cost, because it has the big effect on the distribution of incomes; all producers will try to get the maximum return from what they produce, and minimise administrative costs. Typically, in epochs of strong economic growth, bureaucracies proliferate; when economic growth declines, a fight breaks out to cut back bureaucratic costs.

Whether or not a bureaucracy as a social stratum can become a genuine ruling class depends greatly on the prevailing property relations and the mode of production of wealth. In capitalist society, the state typically lacks an independent economic base, finances many activities on credit, and is heavily dependent on levying taxes as a source of income. Therefore, its power is limited by the costs which private owners of the productive assets will tolerate. If, however, the state owns the means of production itself, the state bureaucracy can become much more powerful, and act as a ruling class or power elite. Because in that case, it directly controls the sources of new wealth, and manages or distributes the social product. This is the subject of Marxist theories of bureaucratic collectivism.

Marx himself however never theorised this possibility in detail, and it has been the subject of much controversy among Marxists. The core organisational issue in these disputes concerns the degree to which the administrative allocation of resources by government authorities and the market allocation of resources can achieve the social goal of creating a more free, just and prosperous society. Which decisions should be made by whom, at what level, so that an optimal allocation of resources results? This is just as much a moral-political issue as an economic issue.

Central to the Marxian concept of socialism is the idea of workers' self-management, which assumes the internalisation of a morality and self-discipline among people that would make bureaucratic supervision and control redundant, together with a drastic reorganisation of the division of labour in society. Bureaucracies emerge to mediate conflicts of interest on the basis of laws, but if those conflicts of interest disappear, bureaucracies would also be redundant.

Marx's critics are however skeptical of the feasibility of this kind of socialism, given the continuing need for administration, and the propensity of people to put their own self-interest before the communal interest. That is, the argument is that self-interest and the communal interest might never coincide, or, at any rate, can always diverge significantly.

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.

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:

  • the historical and administrative reasons for the process of bureaucratization (especially in the Western civilisation)
  • the impact of the rule of law upon the functioning of bureaucratic organisations
  • the typical personal orientation and occupational position of a bureaucratic officials as a status group
  • the most important attributes and consequences of bureaucracy in the modern world

A bureaucratic organization is governed by the following seven principles:

  1. official business is conducted on a continuous basis
  2. official business is conducted with strict accordance to the following rules:
    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
  • exercises the authority delegated to him in accordance with impersonal rules, and his loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of his official duties
  • appointment and job placement are dependent upon his technical qualifications
  • administrative work is a full-time occupation
  • work is rewarded by a regular salary and prospects of advancement in a lifetime career

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 than 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 than 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 inertia 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 - zealotry, 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, and Hannah Arendt).

See also

da:Bureaukrati de:Bürokratie es:Burocracia fr:Bureaucratie gl:Burocracia he:ביורוקרטיה lt:Biurokratija nl:Bureaucratie pt:Burocracia ru:Бюрократия fi:Byrokratia sv:Byråkrati zh:科层制

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