A bureaucracy is a form of organization with designated rules, hierarchy or chain of authority, and positions. Max Weber identified bureaucracy as a particular ideal-type, or an abstracted model, with the following characteristics: a division of labor in which tasks are specified and allocated to positions, a hierarchy of offices, a set of rules that govern performance, a separation between personal and official property and rights, the assignment of roles based on individuals’ technical qualifications, and membership as a career. These specifications allow members to perform tasks without awaiting approval from a central authority, build organizational memory through routines, coordinate individual expertise, and ascend a career ladder. Rather than drawing upon authority based on tradition (such as a monarchy) or charismatic leadership, a bureaucracy relies on rules and formal positions to exert control over its members.
Weber argued that the bureaucracy exhibited greater technical efficiency, stability, and “fairness” than other organizational forms. He and others attributed bureaucracy’s spread to its superior effectiveness at coordinating large numbers of members, inputs, and outputs. Some have attributed the proliferation of contemporary bureaucracies not to efficiency but to normative pressures. When confronted by the demands of governments, regulators, suppliers, vendors, and other actors in the organizational environment, organizations tend to adopt accepted organizational forms, namely, bureaucracy. Whereas most researchers categorize the majority of modern, complex, and large organizations as bureaucracies, cross-cultural studies document the existence of other organizational forms.
Drawbacks of Bureaucracy
Although a few argue that the effects of bureaucratic structures are contingent, much research has critiqued bureaucracy as inevitably exerting undesired consequences. Most notably, Weber lamented increasing bureaucratization as subjecting individuals to an “iron cage” of control. Others warn that bureaucracies consolidate and legitimize corporate or elite control at the expense of individuals and minorities. Using their access to resources and power, leaders can redirect organizing efforts toward elite interests. Oligarchy, or “rule by a few” may thus overtake collective interests. Organizational maintenance activities such as fund-raising further divert efforts away from substantive goals.
Unchecked bureaucratic rationality can also generate suboptimal outcomes. Under a chain of authority, members’ efforts may benefit only their immediate supervisor and unit, rather than serve larger organizational interests. Lower-ranking members may have little recourse for expressing dissenting views or protesting superiors’ orders. To do their work, members may have to break the rules. If members mindlessly apply rules, then rules can become an end rather a means of reaching an end. This means-ends inversion can worsen goal displacement. Setting rules and procedures may only temporarily alleviate conflict between management and employees about appropriate activities. In addition, bureaucratic procedures can foster depersonalization. Bureaucracies ignore, or try to minimize, informal relations, or relationships among members that are not based on formal positions. They also fail to provide a group identity and meaning, aspects that some members seek. Although a division of labor and rules offer members some protection against intrusive requests by superiors and clients, they can also restrict members from applying their talents and interests. Those who labor in repetitive, assembly line work may experience their limited activity as particularly stultifying. Specification and standardization can generate “trained incapacity” or difficulties dealing with change intended to improve organizational performance.
Some critics blame bureaucratic dysfunction for imposing high societal costs. Hierarchy and a division of labor allow members to disavow responsibility and knowledge of problematic activities. Members may also use bureaucratic practices to normalize rather than correct deviance. For instance, repeatedly overlooked problems contributed to the NASA space shuttle disasters and chemical and nuclear plant accidents, corporate misconduct allowed for unsafe products and white-collar crime, and abuse of power sustained genocide and other atrocities. Furthermore, bureaucratization can homogenize the production and distribution of goods and services worldwide, thus eliminating local diversity. Finally, bureaucratic structures can reproduce and exacerbate larger societal inequality, including gender, ethnic, and class divisions.
Attempts to Redress the Ills of Bureaucracy
To counter bureaucracy’s negative effects, some practitioners have designed organizations to respond to the interests of their members and the communities served. Known as co-operative, collective, democratic, or collectivist organizations, these organizations endorse practices that are explicitly antithetical to bureaucratic practices. Instead of a strict division of labor, members rotate tasks. Rather than establishing a hierarchy with top-down decision making, members practice consensual or democratic decision making. Flexible and modifiable rather than set rules govern performance. Blended personal and group property and rights afford members collective ownership of the organization. Members can learn skills “on the job” rather than having to qualify for positions. A reliance on a “value-rational” form of authority binds members through a collective commitment to the organization’s mission.
Collectivist organizations face both external pressures and internal pressures to adopt standard organizational forms. Ironically, practices intended to support participation and group solidarity, such as decision making by consensus or reliance upon expressive friendship ties, exert their own unintended consequences and reproduce larger societal inequalities. Many collectivist organizations have dissolved or replaced collectivist practices with bureaucratic practices, although a few exceptions—the Mondragon cooperatives, the two-party International Typographical Union, the Burning Man organization, and Open Source projects—suggest that collectivist organizations can persist.
Contemporary organizations are increasingly adopting modified collectivist practices, such as worker participation, flattened hierarchy, and organizational missions. During the 1980s and 1990s, small decentralized organizations were heralded as superior to large bureaucracies in innovating and responding to change. To improve production, “lean production” practices capitalized on workers’ otherwise untapped experiences and innovation by giving workers more control over their work. Corporations also attempted to instill meaning in employees’ work through corporate culture and mission statements. However, some critics deem these changes symbolic and as masking exploitation under the guise of worker empowerment. Researchers recommend larger structural changes, such as establishing stronger unions and worker councils to represent employee interests. Others propose that professional and team forms of organizations can increase member input and autonomy and that such organizations can work in tandem with conventional bureaucracies to improve both organization and production.
- Adler, Paul S. and Bryan Borys. 1996. “Two Types of Bureaucracy: Enabling and Coercive.” Administrative Science Quarterly 41(1):61-89.
- Rothschild, Joyce and J. Allen Whitt. 1986. The Cooperative Workplace:. Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Scott, W. Richard.  2003. Organizations: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Weber, Max.  1958. “Bureaucracy.” Pp. 196-204, 214-16 in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited and translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.