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(byo͝orŏk`rəsē), the administrative structure of any large organization, public or private. Ideally bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical authority relations, defined spheres of competence subject to impersonal rules, recruitment by competence, and fixed salaries. Its goal is to be rational, efficient, and professional. Max WeberWeber, Max
, 1864–1920, German sociologist, economist, and political scientist. At various times he taught at Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Heidelberg. One of Weber's chief interests was in developing a methodology for social science, and his works had a considerable
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, the most important student of bureaucracy, described it as technically superior to all other forms of organization and hence indispensable to large, complex enterprises. However, because of the shortcomings that have in practice afflicted large administrative structures, the terms bureaucracy and bureaucrat in popular usage usually carry a suggestion of disapproval and imply incompetence, a narrow outlook, duplication of effort, and application of a rigid rule without due consideration of specific cases. Bureaucracy existed in imperial Rome and China and in the national monarchies, but in modern states complex industrial and social legislation has called forth a vast growth of administrative functions of government. The power of permanent and nonelective officials to apply and even initiate measures of control over national administration and economy has made the bureaucracy central to the life of the state; critics object that it is largely impervious to control by the people or their elected representatives. The institution of the ombudsmanombudsman
[Swed.,=agent or representative], public official appointed to deal with individual complaints against government acts. The office originated in Sweden in 1809 when the Swedish legislature created a riksdagens justitieombudsman,
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 has been one means adopted in an attempt to remedy this situation. Others has been collective decision making and organizational structures that emphasize minimize hierarchies and decentralize the power to make decisions. Administrative bureaucracies in private organizations and corporations have also grown rapidly, as has criticism of unresponsive bureaucracies in education, health care, insurance, labor unions, and other areas. See also civil servicecivil service,
entire body of those employed in the civil administration as distinct from the military and excluding elected officials. The term was used in designating the British administration of India, and its first application elsewhere was in 1854 in England.
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; industrial managementindustrial management,
term applied to highly organized modern methods of carrying on industrial, especially manufacturing, operations. The Rise of Factories
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See M. Dimock, Administrative Vitality: The Conflict with Bureaucracy (1959); R. Bendix, M. Weber (1960); C. Barnard, Functions of the Executive (1980); M. Albrow, Bureaucracy (1970); P. M. Blau, Bureaucracy in Modern Society (2d ed. 1971); J. Hage, Theories of Organization (1980); K. Ferguson, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy (1984); C. Perrow, Complex Organizations (3d ed. 1986).


  1. a type of organization in which administration is based upon impersonal, written rules and a hierarchy of offices; there is a clear distinction between ‘the office’ and its incumbent, and official positions are filled on the basis of formal qualifications. The concept was first systematically defined by WEBER (see IDEAL TYPE), who provided the frame of reference for much of the sociological research into modern large-scale organizations.
  2. (literally) rule by officials, and hence bureaucrats or ‘the bureaucracy’, denoting the people who implement the rules or actually ‘govern’. This was the original use of the term by the French physiocrats in the 18th century, which was taken up in political theory rather than sociology (Albrow, 1970).
  3. (pejorative) denoting organizations which are inefficient due to cumbersome rules, ‘red tape’ and time-wasting procedures. The idea that bureaucracy is synonymous with inefficiency is frequently alluded to in everyday language, and also in subsequent criticism of Weber's ideal type of ‘rational bureaucracy’.
Weber locates the analysis of bureaucracy within a theory of power, DOMINATION and legitimacy (see LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY) in which modern rational bureaucracy is most closely approximated in ‘legal-rational forms of domination’ (Weber, 1922) dependent upon the development of a money economy, the free market, legal codification and the expansion of administration (particularly in the STATE). Weber's ideal type of bureaucracy involves:
  1. domination based upon written rules in a hierarchy of specialized offices;
  2. recruitment based upon qualifications;
  3. offices that are impersonal and clearly distinguished from incumbents; they are also segregated from private life and private property Consequently, office holding is a ‘vocation’ based upon expert training, offering a salary with pension and tenure, and a career ladder in which promotion depends upon seniority and/or ability

In its pure form, rational bureaucracy is seen as technically superior to all previous forms of administration (such as patriarchal, patrimonialism) by virtue of its speed, predictability, precision and dispassionate treatment of‘cases’ without regard to personal considerations. Thus Weber distinguished between rational bureaucracy and earlier forms of bureaucracy in ancient societies which were based upon personal allegiance to the ruler and payment in kind. Modern bureaucracy pervades state administration and all the major institutions in capitalist society, including the military, the church, education and private enterprise.

The spread of bureaucracy exemplified the process of RATIONALIZATION in the modern world, with paradoxical consequences. On the one hand, bureaucracy is ‘formally rational’ and ‘efficient’ like a machine, but it also carries with it a threat to democracy and human freedom which is dehumanizing, and the denial of fundamental values and of what Weber called substantive rationality (see RATIONALITY). In this sense, the ultimate foundation of bureaucracy is irrational.

Weber's pessimism about the advance of bureaucratic power under capitalism is reflected in his view of bureaucracy as inevitable, even under socialism. The only question becomes ‘who runs the bureaucratic machine?’ (compare IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY). The conflict between bureaucracy and democracy was a theme running through the works of élite theorists such as MOSCA (1884), as well as the idea of a ‘managerial revolution’ (Burnham, 1943). See also FASCISM, CORPORATISM, ELITE THEORY, MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION.

MARX, in contrast to Weber, limited his brief discussion of bureaucracy to an aspect of a theory of the state. Bureaucracy is parasitic, serving the interests of the ruling class as an instrument of class domination; it has no autonomous basis of power but is dependent upon the power of private capital. In a future socialist society, bureaucracy, like the state, would ‘wither away’ (see STATE, SOCIALISM, BOLSHEVIK, RULING CLASS). The differences between Marx and Weber over the nature of power and class have provided the basis for much of the subsequent debate about the power structure of Soviet and East-European societies, in which bureaucracy was deeply entrenched (see LENIN, TROTSKY, STATE CAPITALISM AND STATE MONOPOLY CAPITALISM). The problem of the relation between bureaucracy and socialism was clearly portrayed by Djilas (1957) who saw the party bureaucracy in Eastern Europe as a NEW CLASS based upon control of the state rather than private property (see also ORIENTAL DESPOTISM for a similar debate over the significance of bureaucratic power in relation to Marx's analysis of Asiatic societies).

Thus Weber's influence is evident in the analysis of the contradictions of socialism. Conversely, one of the most important strands of criticism of Weber's bureaucracy has come from the Marxist perspective. For example, MARCUSE (1968) argued that Weber's discussion of formal rationality paid scant attention to the uses of bureaucracy as a form of capitalist domination because it assumed that the techniques of bureaucratic control were neutral and inevitable. This raises the question of whether it is possible to talk about the ‘formal rationality’ of administration without reference to the purposes or goals to which the bureaucratic administration is put. In a similar vein, the Marxist critique of Weber stresses the class basis of bureaucratic domination and therefore its temporary nature as opposed to Weber's pessimism. Weber's emphasis on the indestructibility of bureaucracy was also criticized from a different point of view in a famous essay by GOULDNER (1955a) which criticized the ‘metaphysical pathos’ inherent in Weber's fatalistic formulations which present bureaucracy as negating all possibility of human choice, ignoring the possibility of alternative forms of bureaucracy more consistent with democracy. For example, in another study, Gouldner contrasts ‘representative’ with ‘punishment-centred’ bureaucracy (GOULDNER, 1954).

Post-Weber, the study of bureaucracy has included a large number of empirical studies and criticisms of the ideal type which form the basis for modern ORGANIZATION THEORY (see also ORGANIZATION). The results of this type of research indicate that actual bureaucracies do not operate in accordance with Weber's ideal type, due to the existence of informal structures and the conflicting interests of subgroups within bureaucracies, and the inflexibility of formal rules which lead to inefficiency For example, the studies undertaken by MERTON and by Selznick (1966) have become minor classics on the way in which bureaucratic rules may be dysfunctional and give rise to unintended consequences. The rules become ends in themselves rather than means to ends (see GOAL DISPLACEMENT, FUNCTIONALISM). Blau's study of a federal law-enforcement agency (1955) demonstrates that informal practices are more efficient than strict adherence to in flexible formal rules. In addition, formal rules may be used by organizational members to further their own interests in opposition to official goals (Crozier, 1964).

Post-Weber research has generated an interesting literature in its own right, but its significance as a critique of Weber is still a controversial issue (Albrow, 1970; Mouzelis, 1975). There is no doubt that much of the criticism involved misunderstandings about Weber's approach, and reduced Weber's study of the wider social consequences of bureaucracy to a narrow concern with organizational efficiency. Confusion also enters into the evaluation of the ideal type – how it is to be assessed and whether it conceals hypotheses. However, even if the ideal type is vindicated, problems remain with Weber's formulations, namely the absence of any ‘meaningful understanding’ (a method advocated by Weber) of the actions of subordinates in bureaucracies, and whether alternative ideal types of bureaucracy prove more useful.

Recent research has seen a reintroduction of Weberian themes in terms of the critique of LABOUR PROCESS theory and managerial control. The analysis of internal LABOUR MARKETS and bureaucratic control has been used to modify the focus of labour process on the logic of DESKILLING based upon scientific management. The earlier, postwar, narrow analysis of organizational efficiency has given way to concerns about the development of capitalism and structures of domination which were central to Marx and Weber. See also MCDONALDIZATION.



a specific form of social organization (political, economic, ideological, and so on) the essence of which consists, first, in the isolation of the centers of executive power from the will and decisions of the majority of the members of the organization; second, in the supremacy of form over content in the activity of the organization; and third, in the subordination of the rules of the organization and the purposes for which it functions to goals of self-preservation and consolidation. Bureaucracy is inherent in any society built upon social inequality and exploitation, when power is concentrated in the hands of a narrow ruling group. The basic mark of a bureaucracy is the existence and growth of a stratum of bureaucrats—a privileged caste of functionaries and administrators cut off from the people.

The forms of bureaucracy have changed over the course of history in conjunction with changes in exploitative social and economic formations. The rudiments of bureaucracy arose at the same time that a realm of government administration became set apart in the slaveholding states of the ancient East. During this period the most highly developed bureaucracy was the system of rule in China. Complex bureaucratic systems of governing existed in the Roman Empire and Byzantium. During the Middle Ages the throne and the church, headed by the papal curia, had bureaucratic apparatus in the feudal states of Western Europe. The consolidation of royal power and absolutism was accompanied by the growth of bureaucracy.

As capitalism developed and the bourgeoisie acquired power in the government, the bureaucratic regime became firmly established in the realm of political life. The degree of bureaucratization of political life in various countries was influenced to an enormous extent by their sociopolitical traditions; the formation of centralized feudal states and absolutism served as historical basis for the formation of the bourgeois bureaucratic machinery of state power. This was the case in Europe in the 19th century; by contrast, in the USA, for example, a bourgeois democratic system arose in a “pure” form and for a while prevented the universal development of bureaucracy in the country’s political life.

Whereas in precapitalist formations bureaucracy existed primarily as a form of political organization, in the period of the ascendancy of capitalist relations it has also become the form of organization of economic life. The transition from the era of free competition to monopolistic capitalism brought the emergence of bureaucracy into the economic sphere. With the development of state monopolistic capitalism, bureaucracy became the universal form of bourgeois social organization, including the monopolies as well as various kinds of voluntary organizations.

In Russia the development of bureaucracy was closely associated with the centralization of the state and the growth of the apparatus of autocracy. During the 18th and 19th centuries this apparatus became a military police state machine that suppressed the revolutionary movement of the working class and peasantry.

Bureaucracy is not identical to the process and existence of organization in general. During the 20th century a considerable growth in organization has been evident in all spheres of life in the developed industrial countries. In the economic sphere this has been expressed in the emergence of vast production complexes and in the centralization of their administration; in the political sphere it has been manifested in the formation of political parties; in the cultural sphere in the emergence of a centralized system in the means of mass communication; and so forth. The objective course of socioeconomic development in the 20th century has led to the elaboration of general principles for the operation of social organizations, including the clear structuring of administration, the hierarchy of official positions and posts, the strict division of functions, regulations for information dissemination to management at various levels, and discipline. All these regulations are indispensable for the working of an organization and do not in themselves indicate a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy means that the machinery of power is independent of its executors and that initiative in the various parts of the organization is suppressed. The conditions of bureaucratic organization create specific personality types, the main psychological and moral features of which are political, ideological, and moral conformity, an orientation to the performance of formal obligations, and the standardization of needs and interests. Bureaucracy is a specific degeneracy of social organization.

A scientific understanding of the nature and essence of bureaucracy was laid out for the first time by K. Marx. In his work Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx showed that bureaucracy means primarily that the organization has lost the essential purpose of its activity and that the regulations for its functioning and its principles of operation have been subordinated to the task of preserving and consolidating the organization per se. “The bureaucracy,” he wrote, ’ ’must... protect the imaginary generality of the particular interest, the spirit of the corporations, in order to protect the imaginary particularity of the general interest, its own spirit” (K. Marx, and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 270). At the foundation of bureaucracy is the striving of the leadership of an organization to subordinate its work to the preservation and consolidation of their own domination. It is precisely from this that Marx deduced such bureaucratic characteristics as formalism, callousness, pettifoggery, and bureaucratic capriciousness. As Marx wrote, “bureaucracy is …obliged to pass off the form for content, and the content for the form. State objectives are transformed into objectives of the department and department objectives into objectives of the state” (ibid., p. 271). In bureaucracies strict regulations and rigid instructions coexist with the possibility of reaching subjective decisions. This is manifested with particular clarity in the practice of bureaucratic police machinery.

Marx was the first person to uncover the class bases of bureaucracy as a form of political life. In his work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he formulated the task of demolishing the bourgeois bureaucratic machinery as a first stipulation for the victory of the socialist revolution. In his work State and Revolution, V. I. Lenin, writing about the tendency in capitalism for official machinery to be transformed into “bureaucrats, that is, privileged individuals divorced from the people and standing above the people” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 33, p. 115), worked out the principles for the liquidation of bureaucracy in the course of the victorious socialist revolution through society’s eventual transfer of administrative functions to the broad masses.

The phenomenon of bureaucracy has been given special attention by bourgeois scholars since the early 20th century, when the growth of bureaucratic organizations began assuming enormous dimensions. The foundations of the non-Marxist sociological concepts of bureaucracy were laid in the work of the German sociologist M. Weber, who regarded bureaucracy as the “natural” and “necessary” form of all social organization. The term “bureaucracy” itself acquired a positive character for Weber and was applied to organization in general. It is in this sense that it is used in many non-Marxist sociological works. Weber considered impersonality, rationality, regimentation of the strictest sort, and limitation of responsibility to be the “ideal” for every organization. In capitalist countries Weber’s ideas were applied in a system of administration over groups based on the theory known as scientific management (especially in the USA). As organizations became more complex, workers became more skilled, and the number of service, engineering, and technical personnel multiplied, the emphasis on the impersonal nature of relations among people was supplemented by the idea of “human relations,” according to which the efficiency of work is linked to the prevalent moral and psychological climate in the organization and the personal relationships, moods, likes, and dislikes of the members of the organization. A program for the improvement of individual personal relationships has been advanced as an antidote for bureaucracy. The concept of “human relations” does not take into account the fact that regulating and “humanizing” relationships does not eliminate the inherent antidemocratic quality of administration in a bourgeois organization and thus cannot save the organization from turning into a bureaucracy.

The phenomenon of bureaucracy in contemporary bourgeois society and those who defend it have evoked sharp criticism from both Marxists and progressive-minded scholars in bourgeois countries. The increasing alienation in all spheres of life in bourgeois society and the atmosphere of conformity and unscrupulousness are the direct consequences of the development of bureaucracy.

The Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia destroyed the old bureaucratic police machinery and marked the beginning of an essentially new type of social organization. In his works Lenin laid the foundation for the theory of socialist organization, demonstrating that socialism creates the prerequisites for the liquidation of bureaucracy.

Lenin indicated that one of the fundamental tasks in the establishment of a democratic machinery of power was to banish from the state apparatus “all traces of extravagance, of which so much has been left over from tsarist Russia, from its bureaucratic capitalist state machine” (ibid., vol. 45, p. 405). Lenin viewed the struggle against bureaucracy not only as a struggle against the vestiges of the old social system but also as action to prevent the bureaucratic distortions that are possible under socialism as a result of the violation of the norms of socialist democracy. Lenin considered the main weapon in preventing the evolution of a bureaucratic style of administration under socialism to be a thoroughgoing development of intraparty, state, and economic democracy within the limits of the realization of the principle of democratic centralism. Under socialism society not only works out a type of social organization that is different in principle from bourgeois social organization, but through criticism and self-criticism it also exercises constant control over the maintenance of the norms of democratic centralism. By developing and expanding the network of economic, political, cultural, educational, and other organizations, strengthening the principles of centralism and one-man management, and fighting for the discipline and responsibility of each member of the organization to perform his own duties, socialist society simultaneously expands the opportunities for enlisting the masses in the management of social life and of individual organizations.


Marx, K. “K kritike gegelevskoi filosofii prava.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1.
Marx, K. “Vosemnadtsatoe Briumera Lui Bonaparta.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8.
Lenin, V. I. “Zakliuchitel’noe slovo po dokladu o partiinoi programme 19 marta. [VIII s” ezdRKP(b) 18-23 marta 1919g.]” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 38.
Lenin, V. I. “Stranichki iz dnevnika: 2 ianvaria 1923 g.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 45.
Zamoshkin, Iu. A. Krizis burzhuaznogo individualizma i lichnost’. Moscow, 1966.
Zamoshkin, lu. A. “Ideino-teoreticheskie diskussii vokrug problemy biurokratii.” Voprosy filosofii, 1970, no. 11.
Mills, C. W. Vlastvuiushchaia elita. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Weber, M. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. London-New York, 1947.
Merton, R., et al., eds. Reader in Bureaucracy. Glencoe, 1952.
Simon, H. A. Administrative Behavior. New York, 1957.
Parsons, T. Structure and Process in Modern Societies. Glencoe, 1960.
Etzioni, A. A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations. New York, 1961.
Blau, P. M. Bureaucracy in Modern Society. New York, 1961.



Brid’oison, Judge
jurist who loves red tape. [Fr. Lit.: Marriage of Figaro]
concerned with the frustration of red-tape mechanisms. [Am. Lit.: Catch-22]
Circumlocution Office, the
department of efficient bureaucratic evasiveness. [Br. Lit.: Little Dorrit]
Inspector General, The
drama highlighting foibles of petty officialdom. [Russ. Lit.: The Inspector General]
M ° A ° S ° H
bitter farce on bungling bureaucracy in a Korean Army hospital. [Am. Cinema and TV: Halliwell, 474–475]
red tape
excessive formality; bureaucratic paperwork. [Am. and Br. Usage: Misc.]
Secretary, the
repeatedly refuses permission to see the Consul. [Am. Opera: Menotti, The Consul, Westerman, 552–553]
Trial, The
novel of individual accused of crime by impersonal bureaucracy. [Ger. Lit.: The Trial]
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