Definition and analysis of Bureaucracy

What is bureaucracy? And to what extent could it be said that we now live in a post-bureaucratic age? To begin with, in both sociology and political science, bureaucracy is defined as an organizational structure with standardized procedures, a hierarchical division of responsibility, and impersonal relationships. [1] This analysis will begin with a comparison of three bureaucratic theorists: Karl Marx, Max Weber and Michel Crozier.

Karl Marx developed a theory of historical materialism, in which he posited the bureaucracy was found in four sources: religion; the formation of the state; commerce; and technology. Religion dictated how people were to interact; the state developed, imposed and enforced laws; commerce operated to maintain accounts and transactions, as well as developing rules governing trade; while the technology of mass production developed standardized procedures. [2] In Marx’s theory, bureaucracy rarely creates new wealth by itself, but rather controls, coordinates, and governs the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. [3] Marx insisted that bureaucratic structures do not reflect prevailing social power relations. [4] It is always a cost to society, but may be acceptable because it makes social order possible. However, there are constant conflicts about this cost because it has an effect on the distribution of incomes. In periods of strong economic growth, bureaucracies flourish. [5] 

Max Weber developed a rationale that the bureaucratic model was the ideal way to organize government agencies. He developed his own model of civil service. He describes bureaucracy as a more rational and efficient form of organization than all others that existed, which he characterized as charismatic domination and traditional domination, positing that bureaucracy is part of legal domination. However, he argued that bureaucracy becomes inefficient when any decision must be applied to an individual case. [6] 

Weber described charismatic domination as familial and religious, traditional domination as patriarchs and feudalism, and legal domination as modern law and the state. He believed that a control system based on rules with the goal to achieve maximum efficiency was the optimal model. [7] He regarded the rule of law as “rational,” based on his statement that “any given legal norm may be established . . . on grounds of expediency or rational values or both, with a claim to obedience.” [8] He differentiates “goal-rational” (sweckrationel), the course of conduct required to meet an end-goal, with “value-rational” (wertrationell), which is behavior well adapted to meet means to an end. [9] His major components of bureaucracy were:

Division of labor.







Division of labor referred to job specialty that emphasized individual functions. Hierarchy creates a system of superior-subordinate levels in conducting the business of the organization. Rules specify authority, and the rights and responsibilities of workers. Records provide written evidence of the organization’s operation for future reference. Impersonality implies that officials are not influenced by the actions of specific individuals. Rationality relates to objectiveness, and hence the optimization of efficiency. Neutrality implies the absence of bias. [10] Weber maintained that the capitalistic system was based on competition and that the bureaucracy provided a medium for the optimization of goals; its power was a function of its technical knowledge. [11] 

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His model has been attacked by several others: Robert Merton, Philip Selznick, Alvin Gouldner, and Warren Bennis. [12] Merton argued that reliance on a rule-based system yields defensiveness and an inability to make decisions. Selznick argued that the model did not take into account the interaction of bureaucrats and their cultural, political and economic environments. Gouldner maintained that bureaucracy and corruption are intertwined and problems between management and workers inevitable. Bennis stated that bureaucracy is a function of highly industrialized societies and does not apply to developing countries in Africa or Asia. Moe maintains that careerist in a bureaucracy are “pure bureaucrats” [13] who have unique interests: they seek to reduce their political uncertainty by nurturing mutually beneficial relationships with groups and politicians whose political support the agency needs, and by insulation, that is “If they cannot control the environment, they can try to shut themselves off from it.” [14] He maintains that the “innovative” bureaucratic designs of new social regulation are “due not to some abstract theory of good government, but to changes in the distribution of political power.” [15] He concluded as to why public bureaucracy cannot be organized for effective performance was because of political uncertainty. [16] 


Michel Crozier re-examined Weber’s model in terms of how bureaucratic organizations actually evolved. He examined a number of culturally specific organizations to attempt to determine why they became dysfunctional. He concluded that typically bureaucratic organizations cannot learn from their errors because every known outcome was already defined by a set of rules. [17] He outlined four conditions that attributed to dysfunction: [18] 

Development of impersonal rules

Decision centralization

Isolation of strata and group pressure within strata

Development of parallel power relationships

Merton discussed the structural sources of overcomformity. [19] Reliability of response in bureaucratic structures and a strict devotion to regulations leads to their transformation into absolutes. [20] Since they are no longer perceived as relative to a set of purposes, this prevents adaptation under circumstances not described by the rules. Depersonalization creates stress. The monopolistic nature of bureaucratic organizations prevents clients from effectively protesting perceived grievances. [21] Treisman opined:

“A high degree of political stability will lengthen officials’ time horizon, while a bureaucracy that offers long-term careers with chances of advancement will promise greater future benefits to a low-level bureaucrats than one in which jobs are more insecure and promotion less likely” [22] 

In the 1960’s researchers acknowledged that bureaucratic organizations needed to be treated as a continuum. [23] The Aston studies went so far to distinguish three types of bureaucracies: full, workflow, and personnel. [24] The Aston Model takes into account cross-cultural organization analysis. It is important because classic bureaucratic theory is based upon a European model of industrialized society. As emerging countries enter their own industrial ages, it is interesting to note the impact of their various cultures upon their development of bureaucratic structures. The Aston research reflects a refinement of Weber’s theory. The original study was conducted in the English midlands. It was found that structural variables were consistently interrelated; however, overall centralization results were negatively correlated. [25] Additional findings from two more British studies yielded the same results. Seror attempted to apply the Aston model to other cultures, but with inconclusive results. [26] 

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Mintzberg in 1983 distinguished machine bureaucracy from professional bureaucracy. [27] Adler observed that firms organized along bureaucratic lines pursuing innovative business strategies usually do poorly because they are quite rigid and respond slowly to change. [28] Conversely, firms that had no bureaucratic impediments, known as adhocracies, [29] or organic institutions, [30] frequently succeeded in their pursuit of innovative business strategies because they were flexible and responsive. [31] 

But the greater question is whether or not we are now living in a post-bureaucratic age. As a result of unprecedented technological change along with knowledge-based economies, the bureaucratic structure does not provide the quick response required by modern businesses. A variety of organization forms espousing a post-bureaucratic model have been suggested: Hodgson’s projectified firm, [32] the virtual organization, [33] the network organization firm, [34] and others. The interest for alternatives to bureaucratic organizations grew. Recent treatment of bureaucracy in organization theory is either regarded as failing to adopt to environmental changes and hence ineffective, or conversely, is seen as a safeguard to social values. [35] 

Per Hodgson, much of the interest in post-bureaucracy development focuses on the potential to break with the hierarchical control in work organizations. Project management has been used to deal with discontinuous work, and continuous and unpredictable change while delivering the levels of reliability and control of traditional bureaucracy. He argues that extant tensions cast significant doubt upon its success. [36] 

Salaman advocates the establishment of “strategic business units” [37] responsive to the markets they serve. The emphasis is upon customer service and to simultaneously insure that managers operated with more independent authority under this market-centric model than they previously had under a bureaucratic model. However, upon reviewing several companies advocating this policy, he noted that senior management was generally not confident that their managers could adequately act on their own without senior management guidance. [38] He identified four clusters of competencies required to optimize these market-centric goals:

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• Interpersonal: leadership, communication skills, and team membership.

• Visionary: strategic vision, flexibility and adaptability, and managing change.

• Information: analytical skills, external focus and customer orientation.

• Results orientation: motivation and drive, business and technological awareness . [39] 

Fulk and DeSantis explored the impact of electronic communication upon changing work models. They maintain that the introduction of eMail, online filing systems, and direct communication between workers and clients constructively decentralized the once extant bureaucratic structure, hence hastening the expansion of a decentralized model. [40] In a Canadian study, Taylor and Van Emory found that systems of communications required management processes to evolve; the emergence of new technology many times drove the change from a traditional bureaucratic structure. [41] Computer technology alone brought about a change to how organizations were structured, how they functioned, how they related internally and with customers. They emphasized that feedback is recursive and therefore crucial to the development of new work systems. [42] 

Symon addresses the network organization. [43] He maintains that it is closely tied to the development of computer-based technologies. His analysis concluded that it is not clear whether new technologies are able to support new ways of working predicted as a function of a transformation of business practices. [44] 

Morris and Farrell conducted a study over 10 United Kingdom Public Sector organizations, including public health services, civil service, police, broadcasting, and transport. [45] They concluded that although structural change had been made, older functional lines of authority still existed. Further, a harsher working environment resulted from the erosion of a protected career and seniority-based pay.

Shamir addresses the emergence of post-bureaucratic “boundaryless” organizations. [46] He cites the dilemma between and ad hoc and virtual nature of new organization forms, which move toward equality and group participation and the need for traditional leadership. He concluded the weakening of bureaucratic control heightens the need for strong leadership. [47] 

Decentralization of organizations display enhanced performance in dynamic environments, but centralized integrative cross-functional processes may be equally critical. [48] Investigating 185 manufacturing organizations across diverse industries, Anderson posits that decentralized decision structure and planning activities are associated with higher performance in dynamic environments. He believes that this confirms the effective organizations engage in complex strategy formation processes that go together with formal mechanisms of rational analyses and operational integration. [49] 

In conclusion, we have examined several types of bureaucratic structures and have asked the question as to whether or not we are presently in a post-bureaucratic era. It appears that societal bureaucratic structure is a function of perspective: in some, if not many cases, the bureaucratic structure is an optimal organizational structure; [50] in others, it is not. [51] 

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