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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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views updated May 18 2018


Don K. Rowney

"Bureaucracy" is a name given to hierarchical authority structures in modern, complex organizations. Historically, the term has applied to state organizations and to the structure of the behavior of officials until well into the twentieth century. Increasingly, after World War I, bureaucracy has been a concept and term that scholars have applied to firms and large civic organizations, often with the implications of cumbersome inefficiency and impersonal insensitivity in dealings with the public or clients.


Scholars' use of the terms "bureaucracy" and "bureaucratization" is largely owing to the influence of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), who applied it mainly to agencies of the state. But to think of a bureaucracy merely as an office for the transaction of public business is similar to thinking of supersonic aircraft as a means of conveyance from point A to point B. Historically, the term has embodied an array of political, cultural, and philosophical viewpoints that, in turn, reflect the increasingly pervasive and intrusive presence of state and other large organizations into the modern history of European society. The continuing interest in Weber's work on this process, and the important contributions to this body of scholarship by students and critics of Weber, oblige any extended consideration of bureaucracy to be as much a history of ideas as one of institutions.

Students of modern European history often associate the extension of state administration with the "inevitable" secularization, rationalization, and extension of royal household functions. These developments are characterized as responding to the increasing complexity of military and political functions, commercial and industrial enterprise, as well as to urbanization and the European compulsion to create impersonal legal authorities in public life. This view is especially associated with Weber's work. Weber's near monopoly over thinking about bureaucracy and bureaucratization in modern Europe, however, did not take hold until the 1960s. Between the time of his death in 1920 and the mid-twentieth century—an era that witnessed an explosion in the number and scope of bureaucratic organizations—Weber's influence in Europe generally, and in Germany specifically, was comparatively limited. With the appearance in the 1950s and 1960s of several important studies of his work and influence by scholars such as Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and the convening of the Fifteenth Congress of the German Sociological Association in 1964, commemorating the centenary of his birth, the dominance of Weberian views of bureaucracy and bureaucratic development—the process of bureaucratization—was assured.

In the English-speaking world, Talcott Parsons's Structure of Social Action (1937) stimulated interest in German sociology and Weber's ideas about the origins of capitalism and bureaucracy in modern Europe. Later in his career, Parsons would adopt a more nuanced and critical view of Weberian organizational behavior. Nevertheless, Parsons's early understanding of Weber and bureaucratic structural development reinforced the growing importance of structural functionalism in the 1940s and 1950s and the work of the most influential American student of Weber, Reinhard Bendix.

Interpretations of Weber's understanding of bureaucracy are, in fact, based on syntheses of a vast and diverse array of his writings, in particular Economy and Society, The Religion of China, The Religion of India, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and General Economic History. Owing, moreover, to a proliferation of special editions and translations (especially into English) of Weber's original works, it can be difficult to trace the provenance of Weber's most famous and influential theories, including his views on bureaucracy and bureaucratization. This accounts, at least in part, for the continuing controversy over what Weber actually understood the phenomenon to be.

Weber thought that authority structures were the core of social organization but that such structures required validation, or legitimation, by underlying social values. Across an extraordinary range of historical and sociological studies, Weber developed a typology of authority that, depending upon historical circumstances, was reducible to one of three forms: traditional, charismatic, or legal. He thought, moreover, that legal authority was most (although not exclusively) typical of modern societies and expected this authority to broaden its scope and intensify over time. A continuing point of controversy among students of Weber is whether this view of authority and its role in society was prescriptive (or normative) or merely descriptive. In any case, the extension of written legal norms, together with an increasing dependence upon rational (as opposed, for example, to religious) standards of conduct in public life demanded the creation of the organizational structures and behavior that he called bureaucratic. While Weber recognized the importance of bureaucracies in premodern societies, he thought that the fusion of legal norms and rationality with such characteristics of modern life as complex technology, large concentrations of population, and widespread education created a circle of social, political, and economic energies that continually stimulated bureaucratic development in the contemporary world.

Although Weber's view of bureaucracy was explicitly and expertly rooted in historical research, his work, for the most part, does not seem intended to serve as detailed narrative descriptions of the emergence of modern state administrations. Thus, while histories of state and large nonstate bureaucracies written by other scholars are "Weberian" in the sense that they quite frequently draw upon Weber's ideas and use his terminology, the narratives themselves—their factual foundations and developmental sequences—often differ markedly from Weber's. Moreover, as is shown below, there are intellectual perspectives upon which one can draw for constructing and interpreting historical narratives of administrative development that are quite distinct from those that adopt the viewpoint that the history of administration is, in fact, the history of "bureaucratization."

Max Weber was born in Germany and grew up during the Second Empire, an era of remarkable efflorescence in the arts, science, and politics. The son of a successful lawyer, he was educated in the classics and received collegiate and postgraduate training at the Universities of Heidelberg, Göttingen, and Berlin, primarily in law. Eventually he received an appointment as a professor of economics at the University of Freiburg and, later, the University of Heidelberg. Weber's analyses of social structures, religion, and social behavior pervaded North American sociological writing from the late 1930s until the 1980s. His influence in Europe was more restricted than in the United States until the post–World War II period. He continues to dominate scholarship in the field of bureaucracy, although this influence is more limited today owing to increased use by firms and governmental bodies of research from fields such as organizational psychology.

One way of distinguishing schools of different historical narratives that use Weber's concepts and terminology is to ask how they understand the preconditions or generative circumstances for European bureaucratic development. These schools fall into two broad categories. The first is a school of political culture that lays great emphasis on a specific combination of historical circumstances—the need of central governments (usually monarchies) for the management of increasingly complex organizations of growing size and an increasing reliance, over time, upon formal legislation that serves as rules of public conduct. The second is a school of explanation based in economics that owes much to the rise, in the nineteenth century, of large-scale manufacturing and commercial enterprises. Although this work is often set within a Weberian frame of terminology, it also often integrates the analytic and interpretive work of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Literally, of course, the two schools do not form exclusive categories; in fact, Weber himself frequently combined economics and political culture as independent variables in models or typologies of bureaucratic development.


It is not difficult to find examples of hierarchical and functionally specialized bodies of officials in medieval Europe (for example, in both the court offices of the Holy Roman Empire and the curia of the Roman Catholic Church). Nevertheless, the transformation of secular territorial administrations into specialized administrations for war, finance, the operations of royal courts, and diplomatic and tax administration is generally a phenomenon of the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries throughout Europe, and not just in western and northern Europe, as some narratives would have it. Certain central government roles (such as taxation and warfare), however, were often coopted by regional territorial authorities or even transformed into commercial activities, with the erstwhile official—a tax farmer or a mercenary soldier, for example—assuming an entrepreneurial role between the state and the taxpayer. Thus it is difficult to find examples of the bureaucratization of state functions that develop in a linear process, moving straight from a traditional, patriarchal system rooted in the society of the royal court to a full-blown system of specializations and hierarchy legitimated by law and rationality.

Part of the reason why bureaucratization (or administrative development of any kind) was tentative and subject to reversal is owing to the limited functions of European states in society before 1800. Generally speaking, even in the eighteenth century state roles were overwhelmingly monopolized by waging war, preparing for war, and paying for recently concluded wars. Other state or court functions were comparatively modest, confined to intermittent diplomacy, the formal organization of the court itself, and, of course, the comparatively complicated functions of administering tax collections. As Fernand Braudel notes in The Wheels of Commerce, these fiscal operations were more smoothly accomplished in some states than in others. But, over time, the political control of military organizations and technology and especially management of the expense of warfare, obliged states to create offices that were staffed by full-time trained officials. As Weber notes, such individuals were often drawn, early on, from the clergy. These constituted one of the few small reservoirs of men in western Europe who were both educated and independent of the landed nobility with whom the monarch often competed.

Gradually, European states began to reach into unattended spheres of social life or, at any rate, to assume responsibility for activities previously in the charge of religious organizations, local communities, and families. For example, some states began, in the eighteenth century, to take an interest in primary education, the redistribution of land, the technical education of farmers, and relief of the circumstances of the poor. The resulting modest extensions of state roles became an occasion for bureaucratization. Eighteenth-century extensions of state roles into uncharted social waters were also often the occasion of virulent political debates over the quality and substance of state administrative roles, their efficiency, honesty, and what today would be called their cost-effectiveness.

Most famously, the effect of the English cleric Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was to convince some policymakers that the only effect of poor relief could be to enlarge the numbers of the poor through encouraging reproduction by a proportion similar to the degree of aid. Applied without limit, such unwise but well-intended aids would extend the problem of want indefinitely until all economic resources were exhausted. By the early nineteenth century, political confrontations over such issues introduced additional elements into what Weber would see as a self-reinforcing circle of bureaucratic enhancement. Demands for increased efficiency, reduced corruption, and the introduction of university-educated officials who, in contrast with officials of earlier generations, were not necessarily members of noble social elites or the clergy would intensify the process of bureaucratization itself.

This new era in the development of state administration often involved the expansion of bureaucracy into previously undergoverned segments of society and began the very slow inclusion of social groups—castes or classes—that previously were excluded from state roles. These developments, in turn, were accompanied by a growing need for formally specified organizational roles, a clearly defined authority structure, and rules that protected and legally defined the authority of officials who were not necessarily born into the ruling classes. By the nineteenth century the demand for administrators who were educated in the increasingly secular settings of universities or in institutions specially designed for the training of state officials, as in France, was strong and growing.

As John Armstrong notes in The European Administrative Elite (1973), however, various artificial roadblocks to the inclusion of lower classes in state administration were virtually universal. As a consequence, at least up to World War I, attempts at civil service reforms (such as those proposed in Britain by Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan in 1853) were very slow to take effect. Many seemingly practical structures and controls had the effect of slowing both social and operational change within services. These included the explicit division of state service into "higher" and "lower" echelons, and practical divisions into a favored and relatively influential central service and a disfavored, relatively obscure provincial service. Such service divisions combined with examination and educational criteria such as the "classics barrier," an educational bar that essentially excluded individuals who had not learned Greek and Latin by attending elite primary and secondary educational institutions. These constructions meant that, in civil administration and the military, "open elites" were rare until well after World War II. Indeed, a study published by the Economist magazine on 19 March 1994 showed that, again in Britain, the most senior positions in the civil service (the twenty offices of the permanent secretaries) were staffed exclusively by males who were overwhelmingly the products both of elite, private grammar schools and the Oxbridge universities. But the increasing pressure on both military and civil administrations to master and apply complex technologies as part of their operations often provided the wedge for lower class entrance into state service, at least at low and middle levels.

With urbanization, industrialization, and growth in population size, state roles—from mass education to welfare and public health—had expanded by the end of the nineteenth century. State offices increased in number and authority, as did the numbers of officials and the size of agency budgets. This increased bureaucratization also broadened opportunities for social mobility via official roles, gradually exceeding the capacity of upper classes to staff even elite offices in some European states.


As noted above, many students of the history of bureaucracy explain bureaucratization in terms of the emergence of political and cultural factors—for example, rational and legal systems of valuing public behavior and political needs of rulers. Others understand the process of European bureaucratization within a framework of economic—rather than cultural and political—stimulus. In other words, they understand the experience as a product of other factors in addition to, or besides, growing rationality and legalism, and they see it as more varied across different European states, owing to the different tempos of the state's economic development. The weight of this second view results from the fact that much of the growth of large, complex organizations has historically occurred outside the boundaries of state institutions. Manufacturing and commercial firms, even early in the nineteenth century, illustrated many of the characteristics of bureaucracy that Weber found in state organizations. Moreover, as Adam Smith showed in the eighteenth century, specialized functions and expert roles were as important in efficient manufacturing as they were in the management of state budgets or artillery brigades. Economies of scale and control of markets that made trusts and combines common in many European countries, and conditions of secure employment that were gradually forced upon employers by professional and trade associations, made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between state and industrial bureaucracies. Moreover, the densely argued view of Karl Marx that large-scale capitalism would continue to expand until it was consumed in revolution meant that, as early as the second half of the nineteenth century, Europeans started to think of themselves as living in a world comprehensively dominated by bureaucracy. This was a vision that haunted such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and became a touchstone for much of leftist politics before World War I.

In fact, the relative importance of both economic and political structures and behavior in accounting for the tempo of European bureaucratization sharply differentiates the experience of European societies in general. In eastern Europe and Russia as well as in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, different conditions applied, and narratives of bureaucratization have to be written that are different from those of the earliest industrializers. These differences are owing to significant variations both in political structures and in commercial and industrial behavior.

For example, studies of formal administrative systems in Italy have shown that the endurance of patrimonial forms of local government depended more on the survival or disappearance of forms of social organization than on the presence or absence of legal systems of a specific type. Robert Putnam, in Making Democracy Work (1993), in particular, sees long-enduring patterns in public and civic life as critical to differences in social adaptation to administrative systems, whatever the underlying system of law. These differences in forms of civic associations and of the public behavior of private citizens were central to Putnam's explanation of the variations in political development between northern and southern Italy in the late twentieth century.

Similarly, in his study of the history of bureaucratization in Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, and England, Rolf Torstendahl found substantial differences in the levels of both political centralization and bureaucratization over long periods of time. While they were fairly similar with respect to economic measures such as per capita income, urbanization, and levels of employment in manufacturing and commerce, these societies nevertheless demonstrated important differences in social and political traditions, "formed," as he put it, through their different histories.

Eastern Europe and especially Russia present unique problems for anyone interested in creating a narrative history of European bureaucratization. This is owing both to relatively delayed political and economic development and to the introduction of communist political systems in the twentieth century, with their highly centralized state civil administrations and centrally planned economies. Each of these historical circumstances presented special opportunities for the extension of state administrative roles. As Alexander Gerschenkron, among others, showed, the delayed introduction of industrialization and capitalism seems to have required enhanced state roles throughout eastern Europe and especially in Russia. There the need for rapid industrialization was underscored by the catastrophic failure of state foreign and military policy in both the Crimean War (1853–1856) and the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). In both instances the weak performance of Russian arms in the face of strategic and tactical challenges that, fifty years earlier, Russia had successfully mastered, drove home the significance, in practice, of Russia's economic and technical backwardness. It was the state, rather than private enterprise, that took the lead in making the investment decisions essential to the development of heavy industry and the economic and social infrastructures essential to early industrialization.

Russian decisions to industrialize were thus not free of political and administrative freight. By the end of the nineteenth century, state roles in the national economy had burgeoned, with hundreds of new oversight agencies and scores of new programs designed to manage the social behavior of emerging working and middle classes and of the new civic entities—such as urban administrations, schools, and medical facilities—that accompanied industrialization. In detail, these new organizations were not equal in quality to those of France or Germany. Officials were less well trained. Corruption was more common. Bureaucratic self-interest intruded more frequently between an agency and the public it was meant to serve. Much is made in scholarly studies of these organizations of the potential arbitrary intervention of the monarchy and other members of elite society into their activities. In fact, this was a relatively rare occurrence. With advancing industrialization and the integration of the Russian state and economy into European orbits of power, the balance of authority between the monarch and the state bureaucracy was shifting in favor of the latter. In terms of their broad characteristics, the agencies of Russian state administration at the end of the nineteenth century were true bureaucracies in the Weberian sense of the word: hierarchical, legally bound, subdivided according to specialization, and defensive of officials' authority.

Following the Communist revolution of 1917, state intrusion into society became even more pervasive in Russia and, after 1945, in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. The vehicles for fresh state intervention were increased political centralization; the rapid development of state-controlled infrastructures such as mass education, medical, electrical, and transport systems; and especially centralized economic planning, pricing, and resource allocation. It seems unlikely, however, that the state organizations which governments created to manage these activities were Weberian bureaucracies. Owing to the arbitrary roles of political police, increasing corruption, gray and black market activities, and especially to the continuing intervention of Communist parties or their surrogates, Weberian prerequisites of legal norms of operation and professional independence of officials were often absent. It may be more reasonable to think of these organizations as systems of "dual supervision," as Reinhard Bendix would have it in Work and Authority in Industry (1956), since that term implies a system that cannot tolerate any degree of worker independence and attempts to avoid this by simultaneous managerial and ideological, or political, supervision. It is important to recognize, however, that arbitrary police and party roles were not universal in the Soviet and Communist bloc states and that there were administrative offices in higher education and scientific research, for example, that operated relatively independently and effectively.

The Weberian view that a circle of mutually reinforcing energies would continually expand bureaucracy in modern European society has been an important touchstone for policy debates and narratives of post-World War II bureaucratization. In the 1950s and 1960s economists such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Wassily Leontief, and Gunnar Myrdal seem confidently to have expected that state roles in planning and development were essential and certain to grow in all three major types of social system—advanced capitalist, communist, and developing. As early as the 1940s, however, proponents of "privatization," deinstitutionalization, and devolution of state functions such as transport, power generation, criminal incarceration, education, and even of poor relief called aspects of the bureaucratization narrative into question. Economists such as Friedrich von Hayek challenged the expectation that increases in the scale of enterprises (whether state or private) would offer proportionate increases in efficiency (economies of scale), lowering the cost of output. Moreover, changes in the cost and structure of many technologies—most notably, computers beginning in the 1970s—also made the decentralized operation of social and economic infrastructures and even policymaking feasible. In Industrial Constructions (1996), Gary Herrigel, for example, noted a symmetry in Germany between the "centralization and integration in the economy" on the one hand and state centralization on the other in the 1960s, as contrasted with the economic decentralization in the 1980s that stimulated a "similar reversal in state structure." It could certainly be argued, however, that the opposite has been true at the administrative level of the European Union in Brussels and Strasbourg. There, the last few decades of the twentieth century witnessed a nearly unprecedented expansion of oversight and regulatory administrations in economic, fiscal, educational, and cultural affairs, as well as in some areas of international relations.

Policy and technological change in the 1970s and 1980s also placed the bureaucracies of huge multinational and conglomerate corporations in the private sector under pressure. In the short run (during the 1980s and early 1990s, in particular) this resulted in some corporate "downsizing" and restructuring as well as in the divestiture of enterprises from state ownership. In the longer run, however, there appears to have been a renewed emphasis on bureaucratization in the private sector, taking the form not only of expanding firm size and scope but also of internationalization (or "globalization"). This trend has also increased the importance of organizations made up of other organizations, such as trade and professional associations that engage in political lobbying and negotiate or coordinate wage bargaining nationally or across industries, leading to what Torstendahl calls "corporative capitalism."


While Weber tended to be preoccupied with state roles and their embeddedness into bureaucratic organizations, large nonstate organizations increasingly captured the attention of other writers. At the same time, these scholars also offered interpretations of organizational and official behavior that were at variance with Weber's views, emphasizing, for example, the unpredictability of participants' behavior in bureaucratic settings.

Roberto Michels, in Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915), studied large political associations representing lower-class interests in Germany. These organizations were created, in the teeth of much opposition, to represent the interests of laborers against large manufacturing organizations, such as the Krupp metal industries trust, and the political interest groups that supported them. Michels (with considerable critical assistance from Weber) concluded that in order to achieve their goals, these labor organizations adopted many of the bureaucratic characteristics of the huge firms with which they competed, obeying an "iron law of oligarchy." They became, that is, bureaucracies with authoritarian leaders in their own right in spite of organized labor's avowed antibureaucratic values. With the passage of time, internal requirements for the survival of working-class organizations conflicted with the workplace objectives of union members. This phenomenon, eventually known as goal displacement, is now recognized as common in formal organizations of all kinds.


In his analysis of bureaucratization in the modern world, Max Weber thought that components of bureaucratic systems would interact so as to assure the continued expansion of bureaucratic systems. Beginning in the 1970s, research in political science, economics, and history has suggested that growth in the power and scope of authority of nation-states and firms in the contemporary world may not be inevitable. For example, Charles Sable and Jonathan Zeitlin published a pathbreaking article in 1985 that called attention to "exceptions" to the rule that successful enterprises always became mass producers and thus bigger, more dominant in their industries, and more bureaucratic. In 1987 the historian Paul Kennedy published a highly successful comparative history of several major European states in which he called attention to the factors accounting not only for their historic rise to power, wealth, and global influence but to their "fall" in the later twentieth century.

Decentralization and even breakup of a firm, an industry, or a state, however, do not necessarily lead to a reduction in bureaucracy. The sources of bureaucratization, as Weber noted, arise from the need, in modern society, for managerial and service organizations that are staffed by personnel in whom the public (or the organization's clients) have confidence or whom they regard as "legitimate." The foundations of such legitimacy seem to rest, in most cases, on demonstrations of expertise, detachment, and, above all, professional authority on the part of the organization's staff—the very components that Weber thought would stimulate bureaucratization.

Similarly, Frederick W. Taylor's detailed studies of the behavior of workers in large industrial and commercial settings indicated that, whatever the content of formal bureaucratic rules of behavior, workers often performed below levels of job output that might easily achieve in different circumstances. Universal, formal rules governing the behavior of employees or officials, that is, could be impediments to optimum performance. Taylor set about attempting to reconstruct job site conditions in ways that would enhance worker output and summarized his findings in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). He focused attention on the microstructures of workplace behavior, in contrast to the attention that Weberian analysis paid to the macrostructures. Taylor's time-and-motion studies became famous as examples of strategies that were designed to affect performance in ways that went beyond the global rules and definitions to which Weber attached importance.

After 1910, Taylorism became one of the twentieth century's first management fads. Taylorism's influence became pervasive in some firms in North America and western Europe where management sought to improve workplace productivity without significant additional capital investment. In his attempt to reconstruct a state managerial system without all of the formalities and inefficiencies of the tsarist bureaucracy that leftist revolutionaries despised, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin seized upon Taylorism as an administrative and organizational strategy that promised both efficiency and humane rationality in the workplace during the early years following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The politics of Russia's revolutionary transformation of administration ultimately overwhelmed Bolshevik ideals in this context.

In both of the preceding cases one sees examples of the abstract analyses and practical workplace strategies that the combination of rapidly developing organizations and critiques of Weberian theories would produce in the mid-twentieth century. These examples could be extended by illustrations, for instance, from the "human relations" school of industrial management. Taken together, these alternative, non-Weberian views of administration may be divided into several disciplinary or educational categories, three of which are administration theory, organization theory, and institutional theory.

Administration theory. State administration, as a special career, research, and educational track, long antedates Weberianism and bureaucratic studies and may be subsumed under the field of administration theory. There is still some controversy over whether the classic, centralized state administration in France was a product of the Napoleonic era or, as Alexis de Tocqueville asserted in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), of the ancien régime. In any case, the notion that certain individuals could be prepared for a life of impartial and disinterested administration of organizations was common in many eighteenth-century European states, was central to Napoleonic reforms of state administration, and survived through the turn of the twenty-first century. For example, in France the grandes écôles e (such as the prerevolutionary Écôle des Ponts et Chausées or the Napoleonic Écôle Polytechnique) and, in Russia, the Tsarskoe Selo Lycée were meant to serve as training institutes for future elite state administrators. These institutions tended to focus on substantive administrative issues, as, indeed, do their heirs—schools of business and public administration—at the end of the twentieth century.

During the years following World War II, a period of rapid growth of large-scale administrations, research in public administration increased enormously. Work by Dwight Waldo (The Administrative State, 1984) and others, spanning two generations, produced theories of administration that attempted to distance themselves from Weber and from the history of bureaucracy. Increasingly, at the end of the twentieth century, public and business administration programs in both the European Union and North America—such as the Écôle Nationale d'Administration—relied on such disciplines as law, economics, organizational psychology, and accounting and derived much of their substantive focus not from theories of bureaucracy but from empirical case studies.

Organization theory. Organization theory and the detailed empirical study of individual and group behavior in complex organizations tend to be found within the disciplines of psychology, economics, and sociology. These offer, in many ways, a much more detailed understanding of administrative and organizational behavior than does bureaucratic research. Herbert A. Simon's Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making (1947), for example, stimulated a broad and rich body of empirical research into specific components of organizational behavior. Within this body of work, the Weberian perspective and the idea of organization as bureaucracy play only a limited role. For example, Chester Barnard (The Function of the Executive, 1938) and Fritz J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson (in Management and the Worker [1961], a celebrated study of social organization in one of the plants of the Western Electric Company) argued in the late 1930s that informal organizations, not meaningfully accounted for by Weberian typologies, always tended to arise within formal organizations. These were unplanned and undocumented structural relations among organization participants that were, in spite of their informality, essential for the operation of the formal organization. Such informal associations not only controlled the personal relations among participants but even effectively controlled what acceptable standards for job output would be. Analysis of the equilibrium between acceptable participant effort and organizational demands was extended by Simon, whose work won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and others. Of course, manipulation of such equilibria to achieve harmonious and cost-effective output is key to contemporary management and administrative science and has become a focal subject in schools of administration.

Institutional theory. A late twentieth-century addition to the corpus of work on large organizations, institutional theory attempts to identify social structures and behavior that render economic exchange less than optimal. As developed by the economist Douglass C. North (Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, 1990), for example, this work is less interested in the institutions (or organizations) themselves than in their effect on economic performance. Nevertheless, institutional theory addresses the roles of both formal and informal organizations in society, comparatively and historically. Bureaucracy is of interest in institutional theoretical studies to the degree that it helps to explain institutional behavior. But an important underlying assumption seems to be that it is feasible to reconstruct social institutions—or to allow institutions to reconstruct themselves—in ways that limit, or even reverse, the organizational sclerosis that bureaucracy often implies.


The history of social mobility as it relates to bureaucracy in Europe is complex, owing not only to variations in the mobility opportunities for bureaucrats and candidates for bureaucratic appointments over time but also to important differences in the experience of individual countries. Moreover, as noted above, in the case of state bureaucracies one must keep in mind that, at certain points in time, while they may offer the means of upward mobility to individuals who gain official employment, their organizational responsibilities may well include constructing or controlling mobility opportunities for individuals throughout society. As educational administrators or fiscal agents, bureaucrats may well be responsible for shaping the career chances of virtually all future social elites, including their own future colleagues. While this may not mean that they control educational policy or even influence it consistently and significantly, there is ample evidence that bureaucratic elites act as "gatekeepers" who may control access to a vast array of career appointments in many societies. Work by authors such as John Armstrong and Ezra Suleiman, moreover, has shown that, at least until the 1950s and 1960s, this has meant that even very talented children of the lower classes in the democratic states of western Europe could be excluded systematically from elite administrative careers and even from the educational programs that might prepare them to compete for such careers.

This said, it remains a fact that large bureaucratic organizations, whether state or private, have long served as channels for upward social mobility in Europe. Among other factors, the increasing reliance of these organizations on impersonal rules of behavior and their growing need for expertise have enhanced the opportunities of individuals, such as the clerics in early modern western Europe, who may have possessed professional qualifications for elite administrative roles without having the upper-class social credentials that were traditionally associated with administrative power. As a result, beginning as early as the Renaissance, state civil service and certain branches of military service offered opportunities to the bright and ambitious sons of literate, impecunious commoners who had access to formal education, or at least technical training, throughout Europe. These opportunities, however, almost universally excluded the daughters of all social categories (except royal families, and occasionally the children of successful members of professions and of a few industrial magnates). They also denied access to all social categories beneath the relatively privileged, educated minority who should be regarded as a sort of social subelite. The exclusions applied, for example, not only to women but usually to Jews, and often (but not always) to other ethnic and religious minorities.

In western, central and most of eastern Europe, this structure of inclusions and exclusions would not change significantly until much later. That is, career opportunities in bureaucracies broadly, and in senior political or elite administration especially, would not be democratized, reflecting somewhat the social structure of entire societies, until the late twentieth century. In Scandinavia and western Europe women made inroads into institutions of higher and, more slowly, technical education. But usually these individuals were the children of social elites or, at least, of upper-middle-class professionals and the bourgeoisie. Moreover, these educational credentials reliably translated into administrative careers in only a few, relatively undervalued, fields such as lower education and general health care.

The history of career mobility in Russia and the other republics of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917 was quite different from that of the rest of Europe. In Russia, to be sure, literacy, numeracy, and other results of education were so rare in the early twentieth century that even the most open bureaucratic employment policies could never have been democratic in the sense of reflecting the structure of the whole society. Nevertheless, as I note in Transition to Technocracy (1989), aggressive state and Communist Party programs aimed at restaffing and reconstructing the entire bureaucratic apparatus with candidates from the lower classes produced a massive turnover and relative democratization of Soviet officialdom in a period of time so brief that its effect has probably never been matched in European history. It is important to recognize, however, that this transformation within a decade, or perhaps fifteen years, was costly in terms of squandering administrative experience and denying both to civil administration and the bureaucracy of the new planned economy educational resources that were essential to their functioning. Forced by restaffing requirements, the rapid expansion of agencies, erratic police and Communist Party oversight, and politically inspired purges to reach ever deeper into the population reservoirs of the working class and peasantry, state administration in Russia suffered a degradation in intellectual resources beginning in the 1920s from which it did not recover until at least after World War II. Indeed, one can argue that the disarray and structural weakness that one finds in the state administrations of Russia and other former Soviet republics at the turn of the twenty-first century is partly owing to the continuing effects of this early destabilization.

Bureaucracy certainly shows no sign of significant retreat in Europe in the twenty-first century. If states are devolving and decentralizing in certain ways, they give no indication of being able to do without the rationality and structured authority that Weber found within modern bureaucracies. Moreover, as sophisticated technologies become ever more crucial to administrative operations in both the public and private spheres, the demand for independent, disinterested, legally protected experts organized into smoothly functioning career hierarchies seems certain to survive. In this critical sense, Weber's view that bureaucracy is a self-reinforcing social construct in modern society, together with his ability to identify the energies that give it life, was historically correct and analytically indispensable.

See alsoSecularization (volume 2);Social Mobility (volume 3).


Works by Weber and about Weberian Bureaucracy

Armstrong, John A. The European Administrative Elite. Princeton, N.J., 1973.

Bendix, Reinhard. Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization. New York, 1956.

Braudel, Fernand. The Wheels of Commerce. Translated by Siân Reynolds. Vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. New York, 1981–1984.

Mommsen, Wolfgang J. The Age of Bureaucracy: Perspectives on the Political Sociology of Max Weber. Oxford, 1974.

Pintner, Walter M., and Don K. Rowney, eds. Russian Officialdom: The Bureaucratization of Russian Society from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979.

Rosenburg, Hans. Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience, 1660–1815. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

Rowney, Don K. Transition to Technocracy: The Structural Foundations of the Soviet Administrative State. Ithaca, N.Y., 1989.

Suleiman, Ezra N., ed. Bureaucrats and Policy Making. New York, 1984.

Suleiman, Ezra N. Politics, Power, and Bureaucracy in France: The Administrative Elite. Princeton, N. J., 1974.

Torstendahl, Rolf. Bureaucratisation in Northwestern Europe, 1880–1985: Domination and Governance. London, 1990.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society. 2 vols. Edited by Guenter Roth and Claus Wittrich. Translated by Ephraim Fischoff et al. New York, 1968.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London, 1930.

Weber, Max. General Economic History. Translated by Frank H. Knight. Glencoe, Ill., 1950.

Critical Interpretations of Bureaucracy and Alternative Theories of Administration

Barnard, Chester I. The Functions of the Executive. Cambridge, Mass., 1938.

Herrigel, Gary. Industrial Constructions: The Sources of German Industrial Power. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and MilitaryConflict from 1500 to 2000. New York, 1987.

Michels, Roberto. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. New York, 1959.

North, Douglass C. Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with SpecialReference to a Group of Recent European Writers. New York, 1937.

Putnam, Robert D. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. With Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Roethlisberger, Fritz J., and William J. Dickson. Management and the Worker. Cambridge, Mass., 1961.

Sabel, Charles, and Jonathan Zeitlin. "Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization." Past and Present 108 (1985): 133–176.

Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making. 3d ed. New York, 1976.

Taylor, Frederick W. The Principles of Scientific Management. Vol. 2 of ScientificManagement. 3 vols. New York, 1947.

Waldo, Dwight. The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of AmericanPublic Administration. 2d ed. New York, 1984.


views updated May 17 2018


The origin of the term bureaucracy can be traced to eighteenth-century French literature (Albrow 1970). The early usage referred to an official workplace (bureau) in which individual activities were routinely determined by explicit rules and regulations. As modern systems of management, supervision, and control, bureaucracies are designed to rationally coordinate the duties and responsibilities of officials and employees of organizations. The delineation of official duties and responsibilities, by means of formal rules and programs of activity (March and Simon 1958), is intended to displace and constrain the otherwise private, idiosyncratic, and uniquely personal interests and actions of individuals. Bureaucratic systems of administration are designed to ensure that the activities of individuals rationally contribute to the goals and interests of the organizations within which they work.


The historical trend toward increasing bureaucratization throughout modern Western Europe, highlighted by the changing structure of military organizations, is documented by the work of Karl Marx ([1852] 1963) and of Alexis de Tocqueville (1877). Michels' (1949) analysis of the dynamics of power distribution within bureaucratic organizations and the concomitant development of oligarchic tendencies (fundamentally detrimental to democratic principles) provided an understanding of one of the more important unintended consequences of bureaucratic processes. However, the study of bureaucratic structure and processes as a prominent sociological topic is based on the intellectual legacy of Max Weber (1864–1920). Although Weber conducted his studies at the turn of the nineteenth century, wide recognition of his work by English-speaking theorists had to await later translations of his work (Weber 1946, 1947).

Weber's thorough and richly informative work included consideration of Chinese, Egyptian, Roman, Prussian, and French administrative systems. In his comparative analysis of this vast array of diverse cultural systems of administration, Weber recognized an inexorable relationship between power and authority, on the one hand, and differing systems of administration on the other. In Weber's analysis, the bureaucratic form of administration reflects one of three ways in which power can be legitimated. To gain a clear appreciation of the unique features of bureaucratic structure and processes, it is necessary to briefly address Weber's proclaimed relationship between power, authority, and systems of administration. Power, for Weber, represents the ability or capacity to have other people behave in accordance with certain orders or dictates, irrespective of whether those affected regard its application as rightful or legitimate. Authority represents the legitimation of this power by those individuals whose activities are so ordered such that the application of power and its impact on them are perceived to be proper and acceptable. In Weber's historical analysis, three different types of authority are identified: traditional, charismatic, and rational–legal (Weber 1947, p. 328).

Three Types of Authority. Traditional authority represents a system in which the use of power is regarded as legitimate when it is predicated upon belief in the sanctity of time-honored traditions and patterns of behavior. By contrast, charismatic authority is based on situationally specific acts of personal devotion. Under these circumstances, authority is conferred upon a specific individual who is regarded by the devoted followers to exhibit exceptional, sacred, and/or heroic characteristics. Charismatic authority is therefore limited to a specific setting and time. Rational–legal authority derives from the belief in the legitimacy of law, specifically in the legality of rules and the authority of officials and employees to perform certain legally sanctioned and mandated duties to which they have been formally assigned. Official rational–legal authority often permits individuals to perform tasks that otherwise would not be permitted. For example, police officers may engage in certain behaviors in the course of their official duties, such as the use of lethal force, that if performed by an ordinary citizen would expose the citizen to legal liability. Thus, it is not the act or set of behaviors per se that is critical to an understanding of rational–legal authority, but rather who performs the act or behavior and whether the individual performing the act is legally authorized to engage in such behavior.

Three Systems of Administration. Each type of authority is associated with a distinctive system of administration. Over the course of premodern social history, traditional authority was the principal means by which social organization was achieved. This type of authority structure resulted in the development of a wide variety of highly stable but nonetheless particularistic systems of administration, in which personal relations of dependence or loyalty provided the bases for authority. In general, these systems of administration are most clearly exemplified by patrimonial and feudal systems of administration. Unlike traditional authority, charismatic authority results in highly unstable systems of administration, because the foundations of these systems, the profoundly personal relationships between charismatic leaders and followers, are decisively limited in both time and circumstance. Given the tenuous foundation of charismatic authority structures, it is not surprising that the systems of administration that arise in such situations encounter difficulties in generating stable administrative practices. In this regard, problems pertaining to the routinization of authority and leadership succession are particularly salient and acute (Weber 1947, pp. 358–373). Thus, administrative systems predicated upon charismatic authority tend to be inherently transitory and most likely arise during periods of crisis or unprecedented change. In contrast to the personal bases of authority inherent in both traditional and charismatic systems of administration, rational–legal systems of administration rely on impersonal rules and regulations, culminating in the emergence of highly precise and universalistic systems of administration that are most clearly exemplified by the modern rational bureaucracy. Weber clearly regards such administrative practices to be relatively recent in their development: "Bureaucracy . . . 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" (Weber 1978, p. 956).


The most distinguishing feature of modern rational bureaucracies is the formal control, prescription, and regulation of individual activity through the enforcement of rules. The explicit intent of enforcing these rules is to efficiently achieve specific organizational goals. In orchestrating individual action, a succinct and unambiguous specification of the official duties and responsibilities is provided to minimize, if not to eliminate, the influence of personal interests and ambitions upon the performance of official duties. The official or employee is then able to concentrate exclusively upon the technical aspects of the work, in particular the efficient and rational completion of assigned tasks. In addition to this attempt to separate individuals' private concerns from their official duties and responsibilities, other distinguishing characteristics of bureaucracies include:

  1. The hierarchical ordering of authority relations, limiting the areas of command and responsibility for subordinate as well as superordinate personnel
  2. The recruitment and promotion of individuals on the basis of technical expertise and competence
  3. A clearly defined division of labor with specialization and training required for assigned tasks
  4. A structuring of the work environment to ensure continuous and full-time employment, and the fulfillment of individual career expectations within the organization
  5. The impersonality and impartiality of relationships among organization members and with those outside the organization
  6. The importance of "official records" in the form of written documents.


Within a bureaucratic organization, rules serve to direct individual action in ways that promote the technical efficiency of the organization. The distinctive feature of bureaucratic organization is not the use of rules per se but, rather, the type of rules employed within an organization as well as the justification for the use of rules. Rules have been, and continue to be, used in other forms of administration to control individual action; however, the rules used in the other administrative forms (such as rules based on tradition in feudal administration or on dependency in a patrimonial system) are not necessarily based on technical knowledge and the rational achievement of specific goals. By contrast, within a modern bureaucracy explicit rules are designed to assure uniformity of performance in accordance with technical requirements. Bureaucracies denote systems of control that attempt to ensure that the technical abilities of individuals are effectively utilized. A concerted effort is made to systematically exclude any factor or element that would reduce the prospect of an official's or employee's performance being anything other than organizationally focused, affectively neutral, and achievement oriented (Parsons and Shils 1951, pp. 76–91).


By underscoring the unique features of modern bureaucratic systems of administration, Weber provides an ideal-type characterization of bureaucracies. Despite subsequent confusion as to the value of the ideal-type portrayal of bureaucracies, Weber did not intend the characterization to represent an accurate empirical description of bureaucracies. As noted in the introduction to one of his edited works, "Situations of such pure type have never existed in history. . . . The ideal types of Weber's sociology are simply mental constructs to serve as categories of thought, the use of which will help us to catch the infinite manifoldness of reality . . . "(Rhinestein 1954, pp. xxix–xxx). The ideal-type characterization is not suggestive of either extreme cases or distinct logical categories of phenomena (Mouzelis 1967). Rather, it provides a simplification and exaggeration of empirical events so that one can appreciate more clearly the features of the phenomena in question. Actual bureaucratic organizations may exhibit only a limited number of these properties or may possess them in varying degrees, a point well understood by Weber.


As a general line of inquiry, the study of bureaucratic structure and processes has tended to represent a "closed" or "rational-system" approach to the study of organizations (Scott 1992). Predicated upon Weber's conception of bureaucracy, the "legal-rational" features of organizations such as the use of formal rules, the creation of specific personnel positions or roles, and personnel policies directed at the efficient achievement of organizational goals have been the focus of study. By directing attention toward the internal properties of bureaucratic organizations, interest in a number of topics has arisen, including the impact of technology on organizational structures (Thompson 1967), the interrelationships among organizational features (Hage et al. 1968), the integration of individuals within organizations (Argyris 1964; Herzberg et al. 1959), and the increase of worker productivity and organizational efficiency (Taylor 1911; Mayo 1933). Across this array of topics, a general theoretical perspective prevails in which the internal properties of bureaucratic organizations are regarded to be of cardinal importance. By directing primary attention toward the internal properties of bureaucratic organizations, the extent to which organizations are embedded in the more global structure and context of society is not fully realized. However, as bureaucratic organizations have grown in function and complexity, assuming an ever-expanding role in society, and displacing previous, more particularistic and personalized forms of administration, management, and control, the vibrant interplay between the internal properties of organizations and the environments in which they are situated has become more salient. Correspondingly, a more "open" theoretical orientation is warranted. Organizations are viewed as "natural systems" (Scott 1992) in which the interaction between an organization and its environment involves a series of potential two-way relationships. While many of the processes within a bureaucracy are designed to insulate the organization from external influences, invariably environmental influences can appreciably impact an organization and its internal operations. Similarly, the bureaucratic organization, with its expanding role in modern society, has unquestionably had a major impact on society.


Stanley Udy (1959) was among the first to propose that, rather than regarding the specification of bureaucracies to be strictly a matter of definition, we need to ascertain empirically the extent to which bureaucratic characteristics are associated with one another in actual organizations. In the subsequent efforts at empirical assessment of the extent to which organizations exhibit bureaucratic properties, the works of Richard Hall (1963) and the Aston University research group (Pugh et al. 1968) are especially noteworthy. Hall's (1963) findings suggest that among samples of U.S. organizations, bureaucratic features of organizations may vary independently of one another. As is illustrated by the negative relationship between an emphasis on technical qualifications and other bureaucratic features—in particular hierarchy of authority and rule enforcement—Hall's study suggests that bureaucratic systems of organization may be indicative of multidimensional rather than unitary processes.

The Aston University research group (Pugh et al. 1968) reported similar findings for organizations in Britain. On the basis of their measurements of the bureaucratic characteristics of organizations specified by Weber, these researchers found four mutually independent dimensions of organizational structure rather than a single overarching bureaucratic dimension. With this finding, the authors concluded that bureaucracy is a multidimensional phenomenon and that it ". . . is not unitary, but that organizations may be bureaucratic in any number of ways" (Pugh et al. 1968, p. 101). However, these findings have not been unchallenged. The contentious nature of inquiry into the precise structure of bureaucratic organization is succinctly reflected in the work of Blau (1970) and of Child (1972), the adoption of a modified position by one of the investigators in the original Aston group (Hickson and McMillan 1981), and the subsequent reply by Pugh (1981).


Although bureaucracy existed in imperial Rome and ancient China, as well as in various national monarchies, the complexity of legislative issues arising within the modern state has caused an enormous growth of administrative function within both government and the private sector. Consequently, the power and authority of bureaucratic administrative officials to control policy within an organization as well as the modern state has, over time, increased significantly. The rise to power of bureaucratic officials means that, without expressly intending to achieve power, nonelected officials can and do have a significant impact on a broad spectrum of activities and future developments within society. As Weber noted,

The bureaucratic structure is everywhere a late product of historical development. The further back we trace our steps, the more typical is the absence of bureaucracy and of officialdom in general. Since bureaucracy has a rational character, with rules, means–ends calculus, and matter-of-factness predominating, its rise and expansion has everywhere had revolutionary results. (1978, p. 1002)

Moreover, Weber contended that traditional authority structures have been, and will continue to be, replaced by the rational–legal authority structures of modern bureaucracies, given their "purely technical superiority over any other form of organization" (Weber 1946, p. 214). Regardless of the apparent technical benefit, the increased prominence of bureaucracies in both the public and the private sectors is not without its problems. As Weber acknowledged, certain negative consequences may follow the development of bureaucratic systems of administration to include:

  1. The monopolization of information and the creation of "official secrets"
  2. The inability to change bureaucratic structure because of vested incentive and reward systems, and the dependency of society on the specialization and expertise provided by the bureaucracy
  3. The tendency for bureaucracies to act in an autocratic manner, indifferent to variations or changes not previously articulated or anticipated within the bureaucracy. (Weber 1947, pp. 224–233)

A frequently expressed concern is that bureaucracies are often unresponsive to the individuals and groups they were designed to serve. To exacerbate the situation still further, few, if any, techniques of control are available outside the bureaucracies to make officials more responsive. Additionally, a number of practical problems may arise to potentially undermine bureaucratic efficiency. These difficulties can include the unwarranted application of rules and regulations, the duplication of effort, and an indifferent and even cavalier attitude among officials. Nonetheless, bureaucracies are relatively efficient and technically superior forms of administration proven to be indispensable to large, complex organizations and modern society. As Perrow has noted (1972), criticism of bureaucracies frequently relates to the fact that the actions of officials are not bureaucratic enough and personal interests may not be fully insulated from official duties.

In viewing the operation and function of bureaucracies, it is imperative that the operational efficiency of bureaucratic procedures be recognized but not at the cost of neglecting a more "humanistic" orientation (Kamenka 1989, ch. 5). The situational constraints faced by individuals and groups both within and outside bureaucracies warrant attention. As Martin Albrow has noted, bureaucracy is "a term of strong emotive overtones and elusive connotations" (1970, p. 13), and as such it represents more than a straightforward technical process and deserves an eclectic perspective in order to fully appreciate its complexities.


The classic works of Merton (1940) and of Gouldner (1954) illustrate how unanticipated developments can adversely impact the intended effectiveness of bureaucratic procedures. Merton notes that, commencing with the need for bureaucratic control, individual compliance with rules is enforced, thereby allowing for the development of routinely prescribed, reliable patterns of activity. However, when this agenda of rule compliance is implemented in a dynamic and fluctuating environment requiring more spontaneous responses, these prescribed patterns of bureaucratic activity can lead to adverse unintended consequences. Even though the circumstances require a different type of response, prescribed and fixed patterns of response may still be adopted because such responses are legitimated and defensible within the bureaucracy, given the extent to which they enhance individual reliability. Consequently, officials and employees do not accommodate the unique features of the situation, efficiency is undermined, and difficulties with clients and customers may ensue. Eventually, troublesome experiences with customers and clients may contribute to an even greater emphasis on bureaucratically reliable behavior rather than attenuating this encapsulated and counterproductive type of behavior. As Merton (1940) notes, "Adherence to the rules, originally conceived of as a means, becomes transformed into an end in itself; there occurs the familiar process of displacement of goals whereby an instrumental value becomes a terminal value. . ." While more highly adaptive and flexible behavior is required and permitted within a bureaucracy, powerful structural constraints may operate to promote situationally inappropriate rule-bound behavior (Blau and Meyer 1987; Allinson 1984).

Like Merton, Gouldner (1954) is concerned with possible unintended effects of formal rule enforcement. In Gouldner's model, the implications of using general and impersonal rules as a means of enforcing organizational control are investigated. The intention of using such rules is to mask or partially conceal differential power relations between subordinates and their superiors. In societies with egalitarian norms, such as the United States, this serves to enhance the legitimacy of supervisory positions, thereby reducing the prospect of tension between groups with differing power. However, the use of general and impersonal rules also has the unintended consequence of providing only minimal guidelines regarding acceptable organizational behavior. In turn, if only minimum standards of performance are specified and if individuals conform only to these standards, then a disparity arises between the stated goals of the organization, which require a level of performance beyond minimally acceptable and specified standards, and actual individual performance. Since a greater level of individual output and performance is required, more personal and closer forms of supervision need to be employed. This closer supervision increases the visibility of power relations, a consequence that may undermine the effect previously achieved by the use of general and impersonal rules.

The satirical, but nonetheless insightful, work of Peter and Hull (1969) indicates that bureaucratic processes may not always reflect the principle of personal expertise. Peter and Hull contend that even though individual talent and expertise are the formal requisites for recruitment and promotion within a bureaucracy, individuals often are promoted to positions that exceed their level of competence. Since the act of promotion often requires the assumption of new duties, an element of uncertainty over whether individuals will be as efficient in their new positions as they were in their previous positions is ever present. Not until an individual has had the position for a period of time is it apparent if he will be able to perform the newly assigned tasks in an efficient and competent manner. Most individuals are able to achieve an acceptable level of competence in their new duties; but what about those individuals who are unable to perform their new duties competently? Peter and Hull contend that, instead of being relocated to more suitable positions, these individuals remain in the elevated positions due, in all likelihood, to the difficulties and organizational costs associated with removing and reassigning them. Consequently, some individuals may be promoted to and remain in positions that exceed their level of competence, a portrayal clearly at variance with the image of operational efficiency.


Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a notable increase occurred in the number and type of functions performed within or regulated by a bureaucratic organization. Bureaucracies have superceded other more personalized, particularistic operations (ostensibly due to the technical superiority of the bureaucratic process) or, as new processes developed, they developed within the context of a bureaucratic structure. The ubiquitous presence of bureaucracies in modern society is indicated by the common usage of the term "red tape." The term originally denoted unnecessary and prolonged bureaucratic paperwork and procedures, and has since been expanded to encompass a more generic sense of unproductive effort. The level of everyday exposure to bureaucracies is sufficient such that notions of what a bureaucracy is (or perhaps more importantly, what it is not) have become a part of the popular culture of modern society. Fictional settings in which bureaucratic procedures interfere with the good intentions of people, promote an unproductive or unhealthy outcome, or lead to an uninspired work environment are common themes of movies, novels, syndicated cartoon features, and television shows.

The expansion of bureaucratic procedures has clearly impacted developments in the areas of health care and labor. In the area of health care, changes in the technological base of medicine, the methods by which medical services are financed, the regulatory role of government, as well as efforts to enhance the efficiency and accountability of health care providers has culminated in the bureaucratization of medical care (Mechanic 1976). In contrast to past medical practice settings characterized by a private and dyadic relationship between a doctor and a patient, the delivery of medical care in bureaucratized settings, intended to provide broader and more uniform care, increases the likelihood of conflicts of interest and the diminished salience of individualized care. When medical care is delivered in a bureaucratic setting, the specific features of patient care may be based on a number of nonclinical elements in addition to the clinically pertinent factors. Nonclinical criteria such the determination of what services will be provided and the avoidance of "unnecessary" services, patient case management by nonmedical personnel, a predetermined referral protocol and network, and the disclosure of sensitive patient information within the bureaucratic organization all limit the role of the doctor. Each of these nonclinical, bureaucratically derived elements introduce different and potentially conflicting viewpoints in an evaluation of effective patient care and may direct attention more toward resolving organizational conflicts than enhancing patient care. The issues facing bureaucratic medical care will likely become more acute with the "aging" of society and the need to attend to a greater number of patients suffering from debilitating, protracted, and nonrecoverable medical conditions.

The logic underlying the structure of bureaucratic organization is to control and regulate work routines on the basis of formal rules and regulations. In intending to use formal rules to administer workers' duties and responsibilities, it is assumed that key components of a job can be identified to the extent that rules can effectively monitor and be used to evaluate individual performance. The precise specification of work routines for the purpose of enhancing worker productivity and organizational efficiency has been an ongoing interest throughout the twentieth century, as indicated by the time-motion studies and efficiency "experts" of the early part of the century and process evaluation and quality assessments of the later part of the century. In the course of precisely specifying work responsibilities and routines, the de-skilling of the labor force (Taylor 1911) is, if not an intended outcome, a likely development. If a job can be defined in terms of specific component tasks and if the component tasks are rudimentary enough to be regulated by formal rules, then the skill requirements of job are reduced. As this process continues, the skill levels of workers in the labor force may exhibit similar reduction. Organizations can hire an individual with the nominal skill sets needed to adhere to the formally specified rules instead of hiring someone who is capable of displaying individual judgment working effectively in an environment characterized by job variability and uncertainty.

Bureaucracies have become both indispensable and despised fixtures of modern society. In the drive for overall organizational efficiency and accountability, individuals within and outside the bureaucracy often experience the unsettling feeling that they have no influence over a process that may directly impact them. The aggravation of wanting to have a problem solved or question answered but being unable to find anyone who is in the position to respond to the expressed concern fuels criticism of bureaucracies.

While criticism of bureaucratic procedures (or lack of "appropriate" procedures) is frequent, it is also apparent many of the everyday functions in society are possible only because of the operation of bureaucracies. The major institutions of society, with the multitude of diverse projects performed every day, depend on the administrative and regulatory features of bureaucracies. The faceless bureaucratic official who may be criticized for indifference is nonetheless an essential element in such consequential areas as national defense, public education and welfare, and communications. The assessment of bureaucratic structure and procedures therefore needs to attend to both the overall scope of bureaucratic functions and the manner in which particular tasks are performed.

"Red tape" and inefficiency are two of the most heavily criticized elements of public bureaucracies, and instigate appropriate calls for reform. However, bureaucracies contain complex structures and multifaceted procedures intended to serve a number of purposes. Criticism often reflects common misperceptions rather than the true workings of bureaucracies. Regarding red tape, the bureaucracy does not necessarily create these protracted procedures in an effort to either insulate the organization from competition or to ensure that little if anything gets done without the organization's official approval. Rather, it is more likely the result of disclosure and accountability requirements imposed on the bureaucracy (Kaufman 1977, p. 29). Similarly, inefficiency needs to be placed in the more global perspective of what in addition to the specific task is being accomplished by the bureaucracy. If the focus is limited to a specific task (e.g., construction of a highway), then the process can reasonably be viewed as inefficient if the task could have been completed sooner or cost less if done by someone else. However, there may be a number of additional goals that the bureaucracy is attempting to achieve while completing the specific task in question. In the public sector, a bureaucracy is often required to be responsive to a number of outside interest groups to ensure that its operation is socially fair, accountable, and impartial, in addition to being technically able to complete a particular task (Wilson 1989, pp.315–325). The determination of efficiency is compounded by this collateral concern regarding the attainment of social goals and specific technical goals. Bureaucracies are thus faced with the dual challenge of being socially responsible and technically proficient and therefore have to be assessed on the basis of the extent to which they concurrently achieve these two sets of goals and not just one set at the exclusion of the other.

see also: Complex Organizations; Organizational Effectiveness; Organizational Structure


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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 andHannah 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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. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Rev. and enl. ed. New York: Viking, 1964.

Blau, Peter M. The Dynamics of Bureaucracy. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Cook, Brian J. Bureaucracy and Self-Government: Reconsidering the Role of Public Administration in American Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

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Eisenstadt, S. N. The Political Systems of Empires. London: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.

Goodsell, Charles T. The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic. 3rd ed. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1994.

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Lipsky, Michael. Street Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980.

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Witz, Anne, and Mike Savage, eds. Gender and Bureaucracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992.

Sara Jordan


views updated May 17 2018


bureaucracy in france
italian bureaucracy
russian bureaucracy
bureaucracy in prussia and the german empire
great britain and bureaucracy

The term bureaucracy was first used in France in 1802. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) offered a definition of bureaucracy in his Idée générale de la révolution in 1851 that covers almost all the reasons why citizens detested and still resent bureaucracy. Proudhon said

To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do it.

Bureaucratic structures developed everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe, even in Britain, where dominant Liberal thinking decried state interference.

During the eighteenth century the costs and setbacks of war meant rulers had to find new ways to tax subjects. The massive development of state power in the guise of bureaucratic institutions in the nineteenth century was also closely linked to the demographic explosion, rapid urbanization, consequent public health crises, economic growth, and the transportation revolution. It was also tied in with the declining influence of other agencies. In Roman Catholic countries the church had, albeit often very scantily, provided some education and a little social welfare. The sale of church lands, spurred on by the French Revolution, mostly eliminated the social role. Private charities, mutual aid societies, trade unions, and sometimes, as in Britain, parish committees, addressed a variety of social issues. The first national insurance schemes for sick pay and pensions were introduced by the chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1871–1890) in Germany in the 1880s.

Religious schools played a major role in education in France and in Britain until the 1870s. Around this date governments began to accept responsibility for education, driven by widening suffrage and, in Roman Catholic countries, anticlerical concerns. Repeated popular unrest meant that law and order could no longer be left to the local community, while the continuing scale of foreign war necessitated the conscription and training of mass armies. Civil servants were needed as tax collectors and much more. Just as Proudhon said, they inspected, checked, and—because it had become essential to run regular population censuses—they above all counted. The sharpest bureaucratic tools were official statistics and inquiries, well publicized in increasingly numerous newspapers.

The most vital features that distinguish modern bureaucracies from earlier administrative structures are size, scope of activity, and the imposition of a centralized, uniform, rational, and legal framework. Rulers needed senior officials who would both command the respect of local notables and have a good knowledge of the area they ran but accept direction from the center, qualities fraught with contradictory tensions. In the nineteenth century, European bureaucracies emerged as extremely hierarchical bodies run by a tiny, sometimes noble, increasingly isolated elite and a burgeoning mass of lower civil servants. The fastest growth took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, as vast armies of junior officials were needed as clerks, teachers, postal and rail workers, and so forth.

bureaucracy in france

In prerevolutionary France private companies bought the right to perform key administrative functions, including tax collection. Others bought the privilege not to pay tax. Many argued that privatization and privilege explained France's near bankruptcy in 1789. Standardized systems run by the state and applicable to all seemed to be the answer if one was at the top looking down. The 1789 revolution set up administrative structures that were imitated elsewhere and that are essentially still in place in France. Within five years there were a quarter of a million civil servants, five times as many as in 1789. Lower and higher ranks were totally separate. Most of the middle and senior ranking were bourgeois, 8 percent had some higher education. A degree in law or science in one of the new higher education colleges became a prerequisite for appointment into the lower reaches of the council of state, the start of a senior career. Old privileged families soon muscled in and formed part of a family tradition of state service.

Despite entrance exams and law degrees, from the start it was obvious that the French model for rational, centralized, bureaucratic structures was highly politicized. The separation of powers never seemed to apply to bureaucracy. All officials were appointed, and dismissed, from Paris, which meant that a career bureaucrat had to be politically sensitive. After Napoleon I's (r. 1804–1814/15) defeats in 1814 and in 1815, the newly restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1815, 1815–1824) struggled to square the ambitions of former exiled royalists with the need for trained officials. Even after Waterloo (1815) only one of the new Bourbon prefects had not served the empire. But Napoleon's emphasis on professional training was forgotten. By 1816 more than 75 percent of prefects were nobles. However by 1830 it was clear that a title and royalist sympathies were not enough for a modern prefect whose prime task in his department was to win elections, which Restoration prefects visibly failed to do.

The 1830 revolution led to the biggest upheaval in any nineteenth-century bureaucracy. Only seven of the old prefects survived, and all of the generals commanding the nineteen military districts were replaced, as were four hundred senior magistrates. Middle-class officials triumphed over noble, but the distinguishing feature of the changes, which was to mark the character of modern bureaucracy, was political compatibility. The modern state imposed an oath of allegiance. Many of those eager to take the oath to the new Orléanist king were former Napoleonic officials, out of work since 1815.

France settled down with successive generations of professionally trained bureaucratic families, eager to adapt to changes of regime. Politicians and officials were indistinguishable. Forty percent of the chamber of deputies in the 1840s held official posts. Notable families dominated. Only three (1 percent) of the Second Empire prefects came from modest backgrounds. Eighty-eight (40 percent) were nobles.

For other than the most senior jobs in the localities—prefect, military commander, and so forth—centralization meant local patronage. Local notables elected to parliament expected to have a major influence on appointments from subprefects to postmasters. For subprefects the prestige of their family in the locality was conclusive.

Nonetheless the French bureaucracy was becoming more professional. Sons of officials filled the new lycées, or high schools, and won the bulk of the six thousand high school scholarships endowed by Napoleon I. Higher education became the norm. Over half (130) of Louis-Napoleon's (Napoleon III; r. 1852–1871) prefects studied at the Paris law faculty, a further thirty-six at provincial faculties. A glance at letters of recommendation however confirms that the writers of these letters stressed the applicants' genealogy and that an essential prerequisite was family money. Official posts brought prestige, but by 1900 other careers paid far better. A fairly senior official earned fifteen hundred francs per year, compared with twenty-five thousand francs for a senior salesman in one of the Parisian department stores.

italian bureaucracy

Under Napoleon I the French conquered an empire larger than any since the time of Charlemagne (742–814) and, driven by the need to collect revenue for war, imposed new institutions on it. New administrative elites in areas such as Italy, already emerging in the eighteenth century under Enlightened rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperors Joseph II (r. 1765–1790) and Leopold II (r. 1790–1792), were strengthened. In northern districts new elite families such as the Cavours and the Pignatellis acquired land, investments, and bureaucratic posts.

With Napoleon's defeat, much of Italy fell under Habsburg rule. Italian bureaucrats were replaced by Austrian, the Italians having to be satisfied with more junior posts. In Naples, supporters of the restored king asserted their right to displace French-appointed officials. Centralized systems were replaced with a traditional blurring of the public and the private as all manner of public services, from taxation to social welfare, were sold to private individuals. The dispossessed Napoleonic bourgeoisie, like the old nobility, invested in the private companies. The French bureaucratic model did not disappear totally. After the 1848 revolution the Piedmontese restored a French-style prefectoral system and codes of law, which were applied to the whole country after unification in the 1860s. Unification meant the virtual colonization of south by north. Piedmontese officials dominated the new centralized state and the acquired southern provinces.

Most Italian bureaucrats were trained lawyers, although this was not a requirement. There were no formal structures for promotion, salary increases, rules for dismissal, or pensions. Patronage was the norm. Each ministry recruited its own officials, who were poorly paid. Local notables and politicians each had jobs to bestow. Unification brought a 50 percent increase in administrative jobs. There were the same number of magistrates as in France, although there were only half the courts. The colonial ministry employed twice as many officials as its British counterpart. Between 1882 and 1912 the size of Italy's bureaucracy mushroomed from 98,000 to 260,000. To some extent this was genuine growth; many of the new jobs were in rail and telephone services. Most were very poorly paid; primary school teachers received less than agricultural laborers. As alternative ways of earning a living were lacking, low pay was better than nothing.

russian bureaucracy

Throughout the nineteenth century the enormous Russian empire was held together by military governors, who were mini-tsars in their provinces. Military, civil, and judicial functions were indistinguishable and Russia did not begin to develop a recognizably modern civil service until after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.

In the early eighteenth century Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) created a system that lasted virtually intact until the 1917 revolution. Using France and Sweden as models, he set up an administrative senate and five "colleges" or government departments and inspectors were appointed to monitor officials. Peter the Great also set up a table of fourteen ranks that would reward worthy commoners with nobility. Hereditary noble status was conferred upon any nonnoble who reached the eighth civil rank or the fourteenth military rank. However, throughout the nineteenth century nobles successfully froze aspiring middle-class applicants out of jobs, ironically asserting their superior rights as "service" nobles. Nobles also manipulated the system so that a nonnoble had to reach not the eighth, but the fifth rank before he gained nobility. By the middle of the nineteenth century, between two-thirds and three-quarters of senior officials were still nobles, but the service was becoming less the preserve of a land-owning elite. By 1900 most bureaucratic posts were held by low-ranking nobles or bourgeois. Only slowly did the service take on the characteristics of a modern bureaucracy, demanding educational prerequisites and not merely an army record for its applicants.

Alexander I (r. 1801–1825) tried to modernize his civil service by setting an examination for entry to the eighth rank and beyond, but his successor Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) was pressured by nobles to abandon it. In 1828 graduates of district schools gained preferential entry, gymnasium graduates even more so, while a knowledge of Greek guaranteed instant appointment in the fourteenth rank. Fast-track entry for high fliers was restricted to the noble establishments of Tsarskoe Selo lycée or the School of Jurisprudence. On the other hand, in the years 1894 and 1895 over half of the more than four thousand new men lacked even secondary education. When technical or engineering experts were needed, a vital and respected part of the French and German systems, Russia had to import them from abroad.

The Russian bureaucracy grew from 38,000 in 1800 to 113,990 in 1856. By the end of the century it had quadrupled, servicing new areas in railways, postal services, and so forth. It was still tiny compared with the size and scale of populations of other major states; 62 for every 1,000 inhabitants in European Russia (40 in the whole empire), compared with 176 in France and 126 in Germany.

Russian bureaucrats were poorly paid. Although ambassadors received fifty thousand rubles per year, senior officials netted a mere fifteen hundred. Only about 20 percent earned more than one thousand rubles, barely enough to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. The deficit was covered by ubiquitous corruption. Promotion depended solely on seniority, but there was no security of tenure. Furthermore, whereas in Germany bureaucrats were respected, in Russia they were treated with social and intellectual condescension.

Nor did the Russian bureaucracy possess a corporate identity. The gulf between central and local officials was huge. There were very few senior posts in the provinces; only 1 to 2 percent at rank five or higher, whereas in St. Petersburg 15 percent were at this rank. Provincial offices were staffed by poorly paid and educated local men, with no prospects of promotion. Their seniors were imported from the army or St. Petersburg.

bureaucracy in prussia and the german empire

An effective bureaucracy was needed in Prussia because the territories owned by the ruler were so physically scattered. Following defeat by Napoleon I, the reforming minister, Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein (1757–1831), shaped a bureaucracy increasingly dominated by a service, rather than a landed nobility. This service elite was not a closed caste. The absence of formal entry requirements or rules for promotion allowed some clever sons of peasants and artisans to compete for posts. In the 1830s nearly 30 percent of those recruited into the bureaucracy from the universities were sons of minor officials, peasants, or artisans. More than half of the rest came from existing bureaucratic or professional families. Only 9 percent were sons of big landowners.

However in the decades after 1815 the job market slumped as a result of Stein's reduction of senior bureaucratic posts by 50 percent. People began to worry that there was a dangerous excess of educated men. More rigorous standards were imposed. In the 1830s German universities began to demand a pass in the abitur or school-leaving certificate as a precondition for university study. The proportion of university students from poorer families fell as a direct consequence. Meanwhile more senior bureaucratic posts were restricted to university graduates, while only those students who had been members of student societies, including military groups, could apply. Such societies refused to admit sons of poorer families.

In the years up to and including the revolutions of 1848, bureaucrats whose careers suffered played a leading role in promoting liberal and constitutional reforms. Forty-two percent of those elected to the Prussian National Assembly were officials, 26 percent members of the judiciary, and 16 percent civil administrators. Fifty percent of the Berlin city council elected in the wake of the 1848 revolution were bureaucrats. The prospective of a revolutionary bureaucracy seemed imminent. However in May 1849 the number of conservative bureaucrats in the new Prussian assembly rose from 40 to 113. By 1855 the vast majority of bureaucrat MPs were progovernment, including 55 percent of the magistrates elected to the assembly. An increasingly conservative bureaucracy effectively triumphed over liberal parliamentarianism.

The reasons were complex. Some 1848 liberals were alarmed at the scale of popular unrest and radicalism, others were disappointed that the constitutional movement was emasculated in May 1849 by the introduction of a hierarchical three-class franchise. Others came to accept that their own interests were best served by obedience to centralized authority. Frederick William IV (r. 1840–1861) cleverly introduced salary increases and extensive judicial reform on the French model, which led to a 75 percent increase in the size of the bureaucracy in the second half of the century. In France, Italy, and Britain, officials elected to parliament gained promotion; in Prussia they did not.

The Prussian bureaucracy was gradually transformed from a privileged, almost self-recruiting corporation into part of a new, more consolidated, upper class. Up to 1850, more than half of the law students destined for the bureaucracy were sons of senior officials; by 1870 the figure had fallen to 36 percent. Careers in business or industry, previously thought inferior, were beginning to appeal. By 1900 a military career was the first choice for a bureaucrat's son. Meanwhile a bureaucratic career was increasingly appealing to sons of landed nobles whose family estates had become less profitable. By 1916, 50 percent of senior officials came from landed families. Over the century the social composition of the German bureaucracy had undergone a major transformation. At the outset they regarded themselves as a platonic guardian class, recruited from all social groups and thus representing the whole of society. Gradually they came to represent, and reflect the interests of, a tiny upper-class elite, increasingly fraught with social ignorance and fear. Whereas in Russia major landowning noble families lost interest in running the bureaucracy, in Germany the opposite occurred.

The consequences for policy making were considerable. Whereas before unification south German bureaucrats tended to follow liberal policies, unification left an increasingly conservative bureaucracy in control. German bureaucrats could point to triumphs, especially the first national system of education. However the conservative bureaucratic elites later in the century were accused of being ignorant of the need to encourage entrepreneurial growth and of petty and negative meddling.

great britain and bureaucracy

In 1780 in Britain there were only about sixteen hundred government employees, mostly customs and excise men appointed through patronage. By 1870 there were fifty-four thousand; these served as regulators and coordinators of the Poor Law and prisons, ran Royal Commissions of Enquiry and a regular ten-year census of the population, and served as inspectors of factories and in a whole range of economic activities. Patronage was gradually replaced by competitive examination, which became open in 1870. Some of the leading civil servants were professionals, lawyers, doctors, or engineers. Government gradually took over prisons between 1835 and 1877. No one wanted state-run railways in Britain, but the board of trade acquired some obligations to inspect on safety grounds after a number of spectacular accidents.

Whereas the states already discussed gradually assembled centralized bureaucracies, in Britain many of the functions were managed by parishes and financed by local rates. Poverty and public health were major issues. The problem of how to help the poor cheaply without encouraging them into idleness, traditionally the responsibility of the church in Catholic countries in earlier times, became acute, particularly in the cyclical economic depressions of the nineteenth century. Poverty was dealt with by ad hoc combinations of private, municipal, and state charity and only after revolutionary upheaval. Britain avoided revolution, but more by luck than by generosity or farsightedness. After much debate a new Poor Law (1834) gave central government the power to order local landowners and other notables to create boards of guardians. They tried to replace traditional parish outdoor relief with parish-run and parish-financed workhouses. The tragedy of the potato famine in Ireland (1845–1846) led to government commissions overseeing Poor Law inspections and massive land sales, although it is hard to imagine that the poor benefited when they swapped Catholic for Protestant landlords.

Concern over public health was a major factor in breaking Liberal resistance to official intervention. Cholera was a catalyst because it affected rich and poor. With the second epidemic, Sir Edwin Chadwick, commissioner of the board of health from 1848 to 1854, managed to gain acceptance for the Public Health Act in 1848 and for the General Board of Health, but after ten years the board was abolished. The investigations of a non-partisan professional, Sir John Simon, medical officer in the Privy Council (1855–1876), helped to produce the Local Government and Public Health Acts, 1871–1872. Worries over the spread of venereal disease led to legislation in the 1860s that ordered health checks on known prostitutes.

The state had no role in running schools in Britain until 1870. Until then charity school and competing religious schools held the day. The 1870 legislation encouraged ratepayers to elect school boards to set up and run elementary schools where they were needed. The state provided inspectors. This did not produce a uniform or total solution. In 1895 state schools served only 20 percent of children, but the new state system already needed a substantial body of teachers and inspectors.

Proudhon's stirring definition of the objectives of bureaucracy may not be entirely proved by the examples given here, but many will feel deep sympathy with him when they tackle their tax returns or parking fines. A country is generally described as bureaucratic when extensive aspects of the state machinery are centralized and run by unelected officials. There is an assumption that these officials should be trained to blind obedience and in return be guaranteed a secure career structure. Bureaucrats were directly answerable to single rulers, while their status in countries with parliaments was more complex. It was common for large numbers of officials to sit in parliaments and local assemblies and voters in France and Italy, and probably elsewhere, saw the resulting patronage as opportunities for their families and their area. In Britain, on the contrary, there used to be a myth that secure career structures in the civil service ensured that the senior figures could offer independent advice to government, an aspect of the separation of powers that used to be understood in Britain but was not recognized in other countries, including the United States.

See alsoEducation; Professions.


Beck, Hermann. "The Social Policies of Prussian Officials: The Bureaucracy in a New Light." Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 263–298.

Davies, John Anthony. Conflict and Control: Law and Order in Nineteenth-Century Italy. Basingstoke, U.K., 1988.

Fulbrook, Mary, ed. German History since 1800. London, 1997.

Lee, W. R. "Economic Development and the State in Nineteenth-Century Germany." Economic History Review 41 (1988): 346–367.

Pilbeam, Pamela. The Middle Classes in Europe, 1789–1914: France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. New York, 1990.

Pintner, Walter McKenzie, and Don Karl Rowney. Russian Officialdom: The Bureaucratization of Russian Society from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. London, 1980.

Saunders, David. Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, 1801–1881. Harlow, U.K., 1992.

Simms, Brendan. The Struggle for Mastery in Germany, 1779–1850. Basingstoke, U.K., 1998.

Strauss, E. The Ruling Servant: Bureaucracy in France, Russia, and Britain. London, 1961.

Pamela Pilbeam


views updated Jun 27 2018



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


views updated May 21 2018


The Constitution creates an executive branch that neatly fits into the separation of powers and checks and balances system that the Framers devised. But the Constitution does not explicitly provide for the kind of administrative branch, or bureaucracy, that evolved beginning in the late nineteenth century. Congress created both independent commissions, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission (established in 1887), and other executive agencies that regulated a wide range of economic activities, and delegated to those bodies the authority both to make law through rule-making and to adjudicate cases arising under their jurisdiction.

The Framers of the Constitution understandably did not foresee the development of an executive branch that would be a dominant force in lawmaking and adjudication, functions that they expected to be carried out by Congress and the courts. They conceived of "administration" as the "mere execution" of "executive details," to use alexander hamilton's description in the federalist #72. Article II makes the President chief executive by giving him the responsibility to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." He has the authority to appoint public ministers and other executive branch officials designated by Congress, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. He may "require the opinion in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.…" Hamilton concluded in The Federalist #72: "The persons, therefore, to whose immediate management the different administrative matters are committed ought to be considered as assistants or deputies of the Chief Magistrate and, on this account, they ought to derive their offices from his appointment, at least from his nomination, and ought to be subject to his superintendence."

Hamilton thought, as did most of the Framers, that the President would be, to use Clinton Rossiter's characterization in The American Presidency (1956), chief administrator. From a Hamiltonian perspective—one that later turned up in the presidential supremacy school of thought in public administration, reflected in the Report of the President's Committee on Administrative Management in 1937—the President is constitutionally responsible for the administrative branch.

Whatever may have been the intent of the Framers, the Constitution they designed allows and even requires both congressional and judicial intrusion into executive branch affairs. Two factors help to explain the constitutional ambiguities surrounding executive branch accountability. First, the system of separation of powers and checks and balances purposely gives Congress both the motivation and the authority to share with the President control over the executive branch. Congress jealously guards its position and powers, and its constitutional incentive to check the President encourages legislators to design an executive branch that will, in many respects, be independent of the White House. Other political incentives support those of the Constitution in encouraging Congress to hold the reins of the bureaucracy. Political pluralism has fragmented congressional politics into policy arenas controlled by committees. They form political "iron triangles" with agencies and special interests for their mutual benefit. The resulting executive branch pluralism is a major barrier to presidential control.

Agency performance of quasi-legislative and quasijudicial functions is the second factor complicating the Hamiltonian prescription for the President to be chief administrator. From the standpoint of constitutional theory, Congress and the courts are the primary legislative and judicial branches, respectively. Each has a responsibility to oversee administrative activities that fall within their spheres. Congressional, not presidential, intent should guide agency rule-making. Moreover, the constitutional system, as it was soon to be interpreted by the Supreme Court, gave to the judiciary sweeping authority to exercise judicial review over Congress and, by implication, over the President and the bureaucracy as well. Chief Justice john marshall stated in marbury v. madison (1803): "It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule." In concrete cases and controversies, where administrative action is appropriately challenged by injured parties, courts interpret and apply both statutory and constitutional law.

The hybrid character of the bureaucracy confuses the picture of its place in the governmental scheme. Constitutional prescriptions apply to the bureaucracy as they do to other branches. The bureaucracy must conform to the norms of separation of powers and checks and balances, procedural due process, and democratic participation. The formal provisions of the Constitution and the broader politics of the system have shaped the administrative branch in various ways, limiting and controlling its powers.

Ironically, although the President alone is to be chief executive, Congress actually has more constitutional authority over the bureaucracy than does the White House as the result of its extensive enumerated powers under Article I. These do not mention the executive branch explicitly but by application of the doctrine of implied powers give the legislature the authority to create administrative departments and agencies and determine their course of action. Under the taxing and spending power, the commerce power, and the war powers, Congress has authorized the creation of a vast array of agencies to carry out its responsibilities. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 mandated Congress to establish oversight committees to supervise the bureaucracy and see to it that agencies were carrying out legislative intent. More important than legislative oversight, a responsibility most committee chairmen eschew because of its limited vote-getting value, is the appropriations and authorization process carried out by dozens of separate committees on Capitol Hill. Committee chairmen and their staffs indirectly sway administrative policymaking through committee hearings and informal contact with administrators who know that Congress strongly influences agency budgets.

The President's executive powers under Article II mean little unless Congress acquiesces in their exercise and buttresses the President's position in relation to the bureaucracy. It is congressional delegation of power to the President as much as, if not more than, the Constitution that determines to what extent he will be chief administrator. But the bureaucracy is always a pawn in the executive-legislative power struggle. Congressional willingness to strengthen presidential authority over the executive branch depends upon political forces that dictate the balance of power between Capitol Hill and the White House. Presidents have valiantly struggled but only intermittently succeeded in obtaining from Congress the powers they have requested to give them dominance over the bureaucracy.

From the new deal of franklin d. roosevelt through the Great Society of lyndon b. johnson, Congress often agreed to requests for increased powers over the bureaucracy. During Roosevelt's administration, Congress for the first time gave the President authority to reorganize the executive Branch, subject to legislative veto by a majority vote of either the House or the Senate. Roosevelt issued a historic executive order in 1939 creating the presidential bureaucracy—the Executive Office of the President—to help him carry out his executive responsibilities. Laws granting the President reorganization authority were periodically renewed and acted upon until 1973 when Congress, in reaction to the watergate revelations and concern over the "imperial presidency," allowed the reorganization act to expire. Although Congress renewed the reorganization law during the subsequent administration of President gerald ford, presidential authority over the bureaucracy had been impaired by the congressional budget and impoundment control act of 1974 and other laws. Under the Congressional Budget Act the President could no longer permanently impound funds appropriated by Congress, as President richard m. nixon had done on over forty separate occasions. The law prevented the President from interfering with administrative implementation of legislative programs.

The courts, too, have claimed administrative turf, by exercising judicial review. Most of the statutes of individual agencies as well as the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 set forth broad standards of procedural due process that administrators must follow when their decisions directly affect private rights, interests, and obligations. The courts not only interpret these statutory requirements but also apply to the administrative realm constitutional criteria for procedural fairness. For example, the Supreme Court held, in Wong Yang Sung v. McGrath (1950), that the Fifth Amendment's due process clause requires the Immigration Service to hold a full hearing with an independent judge presiding, before ordering the deportation of an illegal alien whose life and liberty might be threatened if he were forced to return to his native land.

Involvement of the three original branches of government in the operations of the bureaucracy does not by itself solve the problem administrative agencies pose to the constitutional theory and practice of the separation of powers. Agencies performing regulatory functions combine in the same hands executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 required a certain degree of separation of functions within agencies by creating an independent class of administrative law judges who initially decide formal rule-making and adjudicatory cases, which are those that by statute require trial-type hearings. Administrative judges must make their decisions on the record; ex parte consultations outside of the agency are forbidden entirely and, within the agency, can be made only in rule-making proceedings. Attempts to impose a judicial model on the administrative process, however, have not solved the constitutional dilemma posed by the fusion of powers within the bureaucracy. Commissions, boards, and agency heads have virtually unlimited discretion to overturn, on the basis of policy considerations, the decisions made by administrative law judges. Courts have supported the imposition of a judicial model on lower-level administrative rule-making and adjudicatory decisions, but have recognized the need for the heads of agencies to have discretion in interpreting legislative intent and flexibility in implementing statutory policy.

Another problem that the bureaucracy poses to the constitutional system is that of democratic control and accountability. An unelected, semi-autonomous administrative branch with the authority to make law arguably threatens to undermine the principles of representative government by removing lawmaking powers from Congress. The solution, in this view, is to restore the delegation of powers doctrine expressed by the Supreme Court in schechter poultry corporation v. united states (1935), holding that the primary legislative authority resides in Congress and cannot be delegated to the administrative branch. The Schechter rule was never strictly followed, and executive branch lawmaking increased and was even supported by the courts after that decision. However, judges did require that legislative intent be fairly clearly expressed, and they encouraged Congress to tighten agency procedural requirements to guarantee both fairness and compilation of records sufficient to permit effective judicial review.

Administrative discretion in lawmaking and adjudication remains a reality regardless of the intricate network of presidential, congressional, and judicial controls over the bureaucracy. But administrative agencies are not conspiracies to undermine individual liberties and rights, nor to subvert democratic government, a view that conservatives and liberals alike have of the enormous power of the executive branch. Political demands have led to the creation of executive departments and agencies that continue to be responsive to the interests in their political constituencies, a democratic accountability that is narrow but, nevertheless, an important part of the system of administrative responsibility.

The bureaucracy performs vital governmental functions that the three original branches cannot easily carry out. Essential to any modern government is a relatively large and complex administrative branch capable of implementing the wide array of the programs democratic demands produce. American bureaucracy has added an important new dimension to the constitutional system. Because it is so profoundly shaped by the separation of powers, by the process of checks and balances, and by democratic political forces, it does fit, although imperfectly, into the system of constitutional democracy the Framers desired.

Peter Woll


Friendly, Henry J. 1962 The Federal Administrative Agencies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Landis, James M. 1938 The Administrative Process. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Woll, Peter 1977 American Bureaucracy. New York: Norton.


views updated May 21 2018



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


views updated Jun 08 2018


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 .


views updated May 29 2018

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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