AskDefine | Define bureaucracies

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  1. Plural of bureaucracy

Extensive Definition

Bureaucracy is the structure and set of regulations in place to control activity, usually in large organizations and government. As opposed to adhocracy, it is represented by standardized procedure (rule-following) that dictates the execution of most or all processes within the body, formal division of powers, hierarchy, and relationships. In practice the interpretation and execution of policy can lead to informal influence.
Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science referring to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules are socially organized. Four structural concepts are central to any definition of bureaucracy:
  1. a well-defined division of administrative labor among persons and offices,
  2. a personnel system with consistent patterns of recruitment and stable linear careers,
  3. a hierarchy among offices, such that the authority and status are differentially distributed among actors, and
  4. formal and informal networks that connect organizational actors to one another through flows of information and patterns of cooperation.
Examples of everyday bureaucracies include governments, armed forces, corporations, hospitals, courts, ministries and schools.

Origin of the concept

The word "bureaucracy" stems from the word "bureau", used from the early 18th century in Western Europe not just to refer to a writing desk, but to an office, i.e., a workplace, where officials worked. The original French meaning of the word bureau was the baize used to cover desks. The term bureaucracy came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, and from there rapidly spread to other countries. The Greek suffix - kratia or kratos - means "power" or "rule".
In a letter of July 1, 1790, the German Baron von Grimm declared: "We are obsessed by the idea of regulation, and our Masters of Requests refuse to understand that there is an infinity of things in a great state with which a government should not concern itself." Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay sometimes used to say, "We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania." Sometimes he used to invent a fourth or fifth form of government under the heading of "bureaucracy".
In another letter of July 15, 1765 Baron Grimm wrote also, "The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist."
This quote refers to a traditional controversy about bureaucracy, namely the perversion of means and ends so that means become ends in themselves, and the greater good is lost sight of; as a corollary, the substitution of sectional interests for the general interest. The suggestion here is that, left uncontrolled, the bureaucracy will become increasingly self-serving and corrupt, rather than serving society.

Development of Bureaucracy

Perhaps the early example of a bureaucrat is the scribe, who first arose as a professional in the early cities of Sumer. The Sumerian script was so complicated that it required specialists who had trained for their entire lives in the discipline of writing to manipulate it. These scribes could wield significant power, as they had a total monopoly on the keeping of records and creation of inscriptions on monuments to kings.
In later, larger empires like Achaemenid Persia, bureaucracies quickly expanded as government expanded and increased its functions. In the Persian Empire, the central government was divided into administrative provinces led by satraps. The satraps were appointed by the Shah to control the provinces. In addition, a general and a royal secretary were stationed in each province to supervise troop recruitment and keep records, respectively. The Achaemenid Great Kings also sent royal inspectors to tour the empire and report on local conditions.
The most modernesque of all ancient bureaucracies, however, was the Chinese bureaucracy. During the chaos of the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States, Confucius recognized the need for a stable system of administrators to lend good governance even when the leaders were inept. Chinese bureaucracy, first implemented during the Qin dynasty but under more Confucian lines under the Han, calls for the appointment of bureaucratic positions based on merit via a system of examinations. Although the power of the Chinese bureaucrats waxed and waned throughout China's long history, the imperial examination system lasted as late as 1905, and modern China still employs a formidable bureaucracy in its daily workings.
Modern bureaucracies arose as the government of states grew larger during the modern period, and especially following the Industrial Revolution. Tax collectors, perhaps the most reviled of all bureaucrats, became increasingly necessary as states began to take in more and more revenue, while the role of administrators increased as the functions of government multiplied. Along with this expansion, though, came the recognition of the corruption and nepotism often inherent within the managerial system, leading to civil service reform on a large scale in many countries towards the end of the 19th century.

Entrepreneurship, Networked Legitimacy, and Autonomy

In "The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy," Daniel Carpenter argues that bureaucratic autonomy emerges only upon the historical achievement of three conditions:
  1. the autonomous bureaucracies are politically differentiated from the actors who seek to control them.
  2. the bureaucratic autonomy requires the development of unique organizational capacities - capacities to analyze, to create new programs, to solve problems, to plan, to administer programs with efficiency, and to ward off corruption.
  3. bureaucratic autonomy requires political legitimacy, or strong organizational reputations embedded in an independent power base.

Karl Marx and bureaucracy

In Karl Marx's and Friedrich Engels's theory of historical materialism, the historical origin of bureaucracy is to be found in four sources: religion, the formation of the state, commerce and technology.
Thus, the earliest bureaucracies consisted of castes of religious clergy, officials and scribes operating various rituals, and armed functionaries specifically delegated to keep order. In the historical transition from primitive egalitarian communities to a civil society divided into social classes and estates, beginning from about 10,000 years ago, authority is increasingly centralized in, and enforced by a state apparatus existing separately from society. This state formulates, imposes and enforces laws, and levies taxes, giving rise to an officialdom enacting these functions. Thus, the state mediates in conflicts among the people and keeps those conflicts within acceptable bounds; it also organizes the defense of territory. Most importantly, the right of ordinary people to carry and use weapons of force becomes increasingly restricted; in civil society, forcing other people to do things becomes increasingly the legal right of the state authorities only.
But the growth of trade and commerce adds a new, distinctive dimension to bureaucracy, insofar as it requires the keeping of accounts and the processing/recording of transactions, as well as the enforcement of legal rules governing trade. If resources are increasingly distributed by prices in markets, this requires extensive and complex systems of record-keeping, management and calculation, conforming to legal standards. Eventually, this means that the total amount of work involved in commercial administration outgrows the total amount of work involved in government administration. In modern capitalist society, private sector bureaucracy is larger than government bureaucracy, if measured by the number of administrative workers in the division of labor as a whole. Some corporations nowadays have a turnover larger than the national income of whole countries, with large administrations supervising operations.
A fourth source of bureaucracy Marxists have commented on inheres in the technologies of mass production, which require many standardized routines and procedures to be performed. Even if mechanization replaces people with machinery, people are still necessary to design, control, supervise and operate the machinery. The technologies chosen may not be the ones that are best for everybody, but which create incomes for a particular class of people or maintain their power. This type of bureaucracy is nowadays often called a technocracy, which owes its power to control over specialized technical knowledge or control over critical information.
In Marx's theory, bureaucracy rarely creates new wealth by itself, but rather controls, co-ordinates and governs the production, distribution and consumption of wealth. The bureaucracy as a social stratum derives its income from the appropriation of part of the social surplus product of human labor. Wealth is appropriated by the bureaucracy by law through fees, taxes, levies, tributes, licensing etc.
Bureaucracy is therefore always a cost to society, but this cost may be accepted insofar as it makes social order possible, and maintains it by enforcing the rule of law. Nevertheless there are constant conflicts about this cost, because it has the big effect on the distribution of incomes; all producers will try to get the maximum return from what they produce, and minimize administrative costs. Typically, in epochs of strong economic growth, bureaucracies proliferate; when economic growth declines, a fight breaks out to cut back bureaucratic costs.
Whether or not a bureaucracy as a social stratum can become a genuine ruling class depends greatly on the prevailing property relations and the mode of production of wealth. In capitalist society, the state typically lacks an independent economic base, finances many activities on credit, and is heavily dependent on levying taxes as a source of income. Therefore, its power is limited by the costs which private owners of the productive assets will tolerate. If, however, the state owns the means of production itself, defended by military power, the state bureaucracy can become much more powerful, and act as a ruling class or power elite. Because in that case, it directly controls the sources of new wealth, and manages or distributes the social product. This is the subject of Marxist theories of bureaucratic collectivism.
Marx himself however never theorized this possibility in detail, and it has been the subject of much controversy among Marxists. The core organizational issue in these disputes concerns the degree to which the administrative allocation of resources by government authorities and the market allocation of resources can achieve the social goal of creating a more free, just and prosperous society. Which decisions should be made by whom, at what level, so that an optimal allocation of resources results? This is just as much a moral-political issue as an economic issue.
Central to the Marxian concept of socialism is the idea of workers' self-management, which assumes the internalization of a morality and self-discipline among people that would make bureaucratic supervision and control redundant, together with a drastic reorganization of the division of labor in society. Bureaucracies emerge to mediate conflicts of interest on the basis of laws, but if those conflicts of interest disappear (because resources are allocated directly in a fair way), bureaucracies would also be redundant.
Marx's critics are however skeptical of the feasibility of this kind of socialism, given the continuing need for administration and the rule of law, as well as the propensity of people to put their own self-interest before the communal interest. That is, the argument is that self-interest and the communal interest might never coincide, or, at any rate, can always diverge significantly.

Max Weber on bureaucracy

Max Weber has probably been one of the most influential users of the word in its social science sense. He is well-known for his study of bureaucratization of society; many aspects of modern public administration go back to him; a classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the continental type is — if perhaps mistakenly — called "Weberian civil service".
However, contrary to popular belief, "bureaucracy" was an English word before Weber; the Oxford English Dictionary cites usage in several different years between 1818 and 1860, prior to Weber's birth in 1864.
Weber described the ideal type bureaucracy in positive terms, considering it to be a more rational and efficient form of organization than the alternatives that preceded it, which he characterized as charismatic domination and traditional domination. According to his terminology, bureaucracy is part of legal domination. However, he also emphasized that bureaucracy becomes inefficient when a decision must be adopted to an individual case.
According to Weber, the attributes of modern bureaucracy include its impersonality, concentration of the means of administration, a leveling effect on social and economic differences and implementation of a system of authority that is practically indestructible.
Weber's analysis of bureaucracy concerns:
A bureaucratic organization is governed by the following seven principles:
  1. official business is conducted on a continuous basis
  2. official business is conducted with strict accordance to the following rules:
    1. the duty of each official to do certain types of work is delimited in terms of impersonal criteria
    2. the official is given the authority necessary to carry out his assigned functions
    3. the means of coercion at his disposal are strictly limited and conditions of their use strictly defined
  3. every official's responsibilities and authority are part of a vertical hierarchy of authority, with respective rights of supervision and appeal
  4. officials do not own the resources necessary for the performance of their assigned functions but are accountable for their use of these resources
  5. official and private business and income are strictly separated
  6. offices cannot be appropriated by their incumbents (inherited, sold, etc.)
  7. official business is conducted on the basis of written documents
A bureaucratic official:
  • is personally free and appointed to his position on the basis of conduct
  • exercises the authority delegated to him in accordance with impersonal rules, and his or her loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of his official duties
  • appointment and job placement are dependent upon his or her technical qualifications
  • administrative work is a full-time occupation
  • work is rewarded by a regular salary and prospects of advancement in a lifetime career
An official must exercise his or her judgment and his or her skills, but his or her duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority; ultimately he/she is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his or her personal judgment if it runs counter to his or her official duties.
Weber's work has been continued by many, like Robert Michels with his Iron Law of Oligarchy.


As Max Weber himself noted, real bureaucracy will be less optimal and effective than his ideal type model. Each of Weber's seven principles can degenerate:
  • Vertical hierarchy of authority can become chaotic, some offices can be omitted in the decision making process, there may be conflicts of competence;
  • Competences can be unclear and used contrary to the spirit of the law; sometimes a decision itself may be considered more important than its effect;
  • Nepotism, corruption, political infighting and other degenerations can counter the rule of impersonality and can create a recruitment and promotion system not based on meritocracy but rather on oligarchy;
  • Officials try to avoid accountability and seek anonymity by avoiding documentation of their procedures (or creating extreme amounts of chaotic, confusing documents, see also: transparency)
Even a non-degenerated bureaucracy can be affected by common problems:
  • Overspecialization, making individual officials not aware of larger consequences of their actions
  • Rigidity and inertia of procedures, making decision-making slow or even impossible when facing some unusual case, and similarly delaying change, evolution and adaptation of old procedures to new circumstances;
  • A phenomenon of group thinking - zealotry, loyalty and lack of critical thinking regarding the organisation which is perfect and always correct by definition, making the organisation unable to change and realise its own mistakes and limitations;
  • Disregard for dissenting opinions, even when such views suit the available data better than the opinion of the majority;
  • A phenomenon of Catch-22 (named after a famous book by Joseph Heller) - as bureaucracy creates more and more rules and procedures, their complexity rises and coordination diminishes, facilitating creation of contradictory and recursive rules
  • Not allowing people to use common sense, as everything must be as is written by the law.
In the most common examples bureaucracy can lead to the treatment of individual human beings as impersonal objects. This process has been criticised by many philosophers and writers (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt) and satirized in the comic strip Dilbert,TV show The Office, Franz Kafka's novels The Trial and The Castle , Douglas Adams' story The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the films Brazil and Office Space''.

American Usage

Woodrow Wilson, writing as an academic, professed:
...[A]dministration in the United States must be at all points sensitive to public opinion. A body of thoroughly trained officials serving during good behavior we must have in any case: that is a plain business necessity. But the apprehension that such a body will be anything un-American clears away the moment it is asked. What is to constitute good behavior? For that question obviously carries its own answer on its face. Steady, hearty allegiance to the policy of the government they serve will constitute good behavior. That policy will have no taint of officialism about it. It will not be the creation of permanent officials, but of statesmen whose responsibility to public opinion will be direct and inevitable. Bureaucracy can exist only where the whole service of the state is removed from the common political life of the people, its chiefs as well as its rank and file. Its motives, its objects, its policy, its standards, must be bureaucratic.
Nevertheless, American colloquial usage is usually derogatory unless established otherwise. An example might be that an organization which puts its own comfort, convenience and longevity ahead of its mission could be called a bureaucracy.
It is no wonder that popular dictionary definitions echo our profound dislike of bureaucracy. The American Heritage Dictionary definition of bureaucracy reads in part: "numerous offices and adherence to inflexible rules of operation;... any unwieldy administration." According to Webster's New world Dictionary of the American Language, "bureaucracy is governmental officialism or inflexible routine." Roget's Thesaurus gives equally demeaning synonyms for bureaucracy: "officialism", "officiousness", and "red tape".

Austrian School Analysis of Bureaucracy

The analysis of bureaucracy by the Austrian school reflects its characteristic focus on economics, and emphasizes the distinction between bureaucratic management and profit management.

Current academic debates

Modern academic research has debated the extent to which elected officials can control their bureaucratic agents. Because bureaucrats have more information than elected officials about what they are doing and what they should be doing, bureaucrats might have the ability to implement policies or regulations that go against the public interest. In the American context, these concerns led to the "Congressional abdication" hypotheses--the claim that Congress had abdicated its authority over public policy to appointed bureaucrats.
Theodore Lowi initiated this debate by concluding in a 1979 book that the U.S. Congress does not exercise effective oversight of bureaucratic agencies. Instead, policies are made by "iron triangles", consisting of interest groups, appointed bureaucrats, and Congressional subcommittees (who, according to Lowi, were likely to have more extreme views than the Congress as a whole). It is thought that since 1979 interest groups have taken a large role and now do not only effect bureaucracy, but also the money in congress. The idea of "iron triangles" has since evolved to "iron hexagons" and then to a "hollow sphere."
The relationships between the Legislatures, the Interest Groups, Bureaucrats, and the general public all have an effect on each other. Without one of these pieces the entire structure would completely change. This relationship is considered "mu", or such that not one single piece can describe or control the entire process. The public votes in the legislatures and the interest groups provide information, but the legislature and bureaucrats also have an effect on the interest groups and the public. The entire system is codependent on each other.
William Niskanen's earlier (1971) 'budget-maximizing' model complemented Lowi's claims; where Lowi claimed that Congress (and legislatures more generally) failed to exercise oversight, Niskanen argued that rational bureaucrats will always and everywhere seek to increase their budgets, thereby contributing strongly to state growth. Niskanen went on to serve on the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan, and his model provided a strong underpinning for the worldwide move towards cutbacks of public spending and the introduction of privatization in the 1980s and '90s.
Two branches of theorizing have arisen in response to these claims. The first focuses on bureaucratic motivations; Niskanen's universalist approach was critiqued by a range of pluralist authors who argued that officials' motivations are more public interest-orientated than Niskanen allowed. The bureau-shaping model (put forward by Patrick Dunleavy) also argues against Niskanen that rational bureaucrats should only maximize the part of their budget that they spend on their own agency's operations or give to contractors or powerful interest groups (that are able to organize a flowback of benefits to senior officials). For instance, rational officials will get no benefit from paying out larger welfare checks to millions of poor people, since the bureaucrats' own utilities are not improved. Consequently we should expect bureaucracies to significantly maximize budgets in areas like police forces and defense, but not in areas like welfare state spending.
A second branch of responses has focused more on Lowi's claims, asking whether legislatures (and usually the American Congress in particular) can control bureaucrats. This empirical research is motivated by a normative concern: If we wish to believe that we live in a democracy, then it must be true that appointed bureaucrats cannot act contrary to elected officials' interests. (This claim is itself debatable; if we fully trusted elected officials, we would not spend so much time implementing constitutional checks and balances.)
Within this second branch, scholars have published numerous studies debating the circumstances under which elected officials can control bureaucratic outputs. Most of these studies examine the American case, though their findings have been generalized elsewhere as well. These studies argue that legislatures have a variety of oversight means at their disposal, and they use many of them regularly. These oversight mechanisms have been classified into two types: "Police patrols" (actively auditing agencies and looking for misbehavior) and "fire alarms" (imposing open administrative procedures on bureaucrats to make it easier for adversely affected groups to detect bureaucratic malfeasance and bring it to the legislature's attention).
A third concept of self-interested bureaucracy and its effect on the production of public goods has been forwarded by Faizul Latif Chowdhury. In contrast to Niskanen and Dunleavy, who primarily focused on the self-interested behaviour of only the top-level bureaucrats involved in policy making, Chowdhury in his thesis submitted to the London School of Economics in 1997 drew attention to the impact of the low level civil servants whose rent-seeking behaviour pushes up the cost of production of public goods. Particularly, it was shown with reference to the tax officials how rent-seeking by them causes loss in government revenue. Chowdhury’s model of rent-seeking bureaucracy captures the case of administrative corruption whereby public money is directly expropriated by public servants in general.


  • On Karl Marx: Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Volume 1: State and Bureaucracy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
  • Marx comments on the state bureaucracy in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Engels discusses the origins of the state here:
  • Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy. London: Verso, 1992.
  • On Weber: Sociology, Work and Industry
  • Neil Garston (ed.), Bureaucracy: Three Paradigms. Boston: Kluwer, 1993.
  • Chowdhury, Faizul Latif (2006), Corrupt Bureaucracy and Privatization of Tax Enforcement. Dhaka: Pathak Samabesh, ISBN 984-8120-62-9.

See also

bureaucracies in Arabic: بيروقراطية
bureaucracies in Bulgarian: Бюрокрация
bureaucracies in Czech: Byrokracie
bureaucracies in Danish: Bureaukrati
bureaucracies in German: Bürokratie
bureaucracies in Estonian: Bürokraatia
bureaucracies in Spanish: Burocracia
bureaucracies in Persian: دیوانسالاری
bureaucracies in French: Bureaucratie
bureaucracies in Galician: Burocracia
bureaucracies in Indonesian: Birokrasi
bureaucracies in Icelandic: Skrifræði
bureaucracies in Italian: Burocrazia
bureaucracies in Hebrew: ביורוקרטיה
bureaucracies in Georgian: ბიუროკრატია
bureaucracies in Lithuanian: Biurokratija
bureaucracies in Malay (macrolanguage): Birokrasi
bureaucracies in Dutch: Bureaucratie
bureaucracies in Japanese: 官僚制
bureaucracies in Norwegian: Byråkrati
bureaucracies in Polish: Biurokracja
bureaucracies in Portuguese: Burocracia
bureaucracies in Russian: Бюрократия
bureaucracies in Simple English: Bureaucracy
bureaucracies in Slovak: Byrokracia
bureaucracies in Slovenian: Birokratizem
bureaucracies in Serbian: Бирократија
bureaucracies in Finnish: Byrokratia
bureaucracies in Swedish: Byråkrati
bureaucracies in Turkish: Bürokrasi
bureaucracies in Ukrainian: Бюрократія
bureaucracies in Urdu: دفتری حکومت
bureaucracies in Chinese: 官僚制
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