bureaucracy


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).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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