The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







In sociological theories, bureaucracy is an organizational structure characterized by regularized procedure , division of responsibility , hierarchy, and impersonal relationships. The term can characterize either governmental or nongovernmental organizations.

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. See also: red tape. A stereotypical 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 could include government, armed forces, corporation, hospital, court, ministry, or school.

Etymology: Fr. bureaucratie, from bureau "office, desk" + Gk. suffix -kratia "power". First used by Fr. economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay .

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.

Note that the following discussion of bureaucracy attributes deals with Weber's ideal type concept.

Weber described the concept 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 concern:

  • 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 organisation is governed by the following principles:

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

See also

Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13