For other uses, see Bureaucracy (disambiguation).

A bureaucracy (/bjuːˈrɒkrəsi/) is "a body of non-elective government officials" and/or "an administrative policy-making group".[1] Historically, bureaucracy was government administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials.[2] Today, bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution.[3][4][5][6][7][8][9] The public administration in many countries is an example of a bureaucracy.

Since being coined, the word "bureaucracy" has developed negative connotations.[10] Bureaucracies have been criticized as being inefficient, convoluted, or too inflexible to individuals.[11] The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy became a major theme in the work of German writer Franz Kafka, and are central to his novels The Trial and The Castle.[12] The elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy is a key concept in modern managerial theory[13] and has been an issue in some political campaigns.[14]

Others have noted the necessity of bureaucracies in modern life. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which one can organize human activity, and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies were necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism. Weber also saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, in which an increase in the bureaucratization of human life can trap individuals in an impersonal "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.[15][16]

Etymology and usage

The term "bureaucracy" is French in origin, and combines the French word bureau – desk or office – with the Greek word κράτος kratos – rule or political power.[17] It was coined in the mid-18th century by the French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay,[18] and was a satirical pejorative from the outset.[19] Gournay never wrote the term down, but was later quoted at length in a letter from a contemporary:

The late M. 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."

The first known English-language use dates to 1818.[17] Here, too, the sense was pejorative, with Irish novelist Lady Morgan referring to "the Bureaucratie, or office tyranny, by which Ireland has so long been governed."[20] By the mid-19th century, the word was being used in a more neutral sense, referring to a system of public administration in which offices were held by unelected career officials. In this sense "bureaucracy" was seen as a distinct form of management, often subservient to a monarchy.[21] In the 1920s, the definition was expanded by the German sociologist Max Weber to include any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules.[21] Weber saw the bureaucracy as a relatively positive development; however by 1944, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted that the term bureaucracy was "always applied with an opprobrious connotation,"[22] and by 1957 the American sociologist Robert Merton noted that the term "bureaucrat" had become an epithet.[23]



Students competed in imperial examinations to receive a position in the bureaucracy of ancient China.

Although the term "bureaucracy" was not coined until the mid 18th century, organized and consistent administrative systems are much older. The development of writing (ca. 3500 BC) and the use of documents was critical to the administration of this system, and the first definitive emergence of bureaucracy is in ancient Sumer, where an emergent class of scribes used clay tablets to administer the harvest and allocate its spoils.[24] Ancient Egypt also had a hereditary class of scribes that administered the civil service bureaucracy.[25]

The Roman Empire was administered by a hierarchy of regional proconsuls and their deputies. The reforms of Diocletian doubled the number of administrative districts and led to a large-scale expansion in Roman bureaucracy.[26] The early Christian author Lactantius claimed that Diocletian's reforms led to widespread economic stagnation, since "the provinces were divided into minute portions, and many presidents and a multitude of inferior officers lay heavy on each territory."[27] After the Empire split, the Byzantine Empire developed a notoriously complicated administrative hierarchy, and in time the term "byzantine" came to refer to any complex bureaucratic structure.[28]

In Ancient China, the Han dynasty established a complicated bureaucracy based on the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized the importance of ritual in family, relationships, and politics.[29] With each subsequent Dynasty, the bureaucracy evolved. During the Song dynasty, the bureaucracy became meritocratic. Following the Song reforms, competitive exams were held to determine who could hold which positions.[30] The imperial examination system lasted until 1905, six years before the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, marking the end of China's traditional bureaucratic system.


The 18th century Department of Excise developed a sophisticated bureaucracy. Pictured, the Custom House, London.

A modern form of bureaucracy evolved in the expanding Department of Excise in the United Kingdom, during the 18th century. The relative efficiency and professionalism in this state-run authority allowed the government to impose a very large tax burden on the population and raise great sums of money for war expenditure. According to Niall Ferguson, the bureaucracy was based on "recruitment by examination, training, promotion on merit, regular salaries and pensions, and standardized procedures".[31] The system was subject to a strict hierarchy and emphasis was placed on technical and efficient methods for tax collection.

Instead of the inefficient and often corrupt system of tax farming that prevailed in absolutist states such as France, the Exchequer was able to exert control over the entire system of tax revenue and government expenditure.[32] By the late 18th century, the ratio of fiscal bureaucracy to population in Britain was approximately 1 in 1300, almost four times larger than the second most heavily bureaucratized nation, France.[33] The implementation of Her Majesty's Civil Service as a systematic, meritocratic civil service bureaucracy, followed the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854.[34] Influenced by the ancient Chinese Imperial Examination, Northcote-Trevelyan Report recommended that recruitment should be on the basis of merit determined through competitive examination, candidates should have a solid general education to enable inter-departmental transfers and promotion should be through achievement, rather than 'preferment, patronage or purchase'.[35] This system was modeled on the imperial examinations system and bureaucracy of China based on the suggestion of Northcote-Trevelyan Report.[36] Thomas Taylor Meadows, Britain's consul in Guangzhou, China argued in his Desultory Notes on the Government and People of China, published in 1847, that "the long duration of the Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the good government which consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only," and that the British must reform their civil service by making the institution meritocratic.[36]

France also saw a rapid and dramatic expansion of government in the 18th-century, accompanied by the rise of the French civil service; a phenomenon that became known as "bureaumania," in which complex systems of bureaucracy emerged. With the translation of Confucian texts during the Enlightenment, the concept of a meritocracy reached intellectuals in the West, who saw it as an alternative to the traditional ancient regime of Europe.[37] Voltaire and François Quesnay wrote favourably of the idea, with Voltaire claiming that the Chinese had "perfected moral science" and Quesnay advocating an economic and political system modeled after that of the Chinese. Napoleonic France adopted this meritocracy system.[37]

In the early 19th century, Napoleon attempted to reform the bureaucracies of France and other territories under his control by the imposition of the standardized Napoleonic Code. But paradoxically, this led to even further growth of the bureaucracy.[38]

By the mid-19th century, bureaucratic forms of administration were firmly in place across the industrialized world. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx began to theorize about the economic functions and power-structures of bureaucracy in contemporary life. Max Weber was the first to endorse bureaucracy as a necessary feature of modernity, and by the late 19th century bureaucratic forms had begun their spread from government to other large-scale institutions.[21]

The trend toward increased bureaucratization continued in the 20th century, with the public sector employing over 5% of the workforce in many Western countries. Within capitalist systems, informal bureaucratic structures began to appear in the form of corporate power hierarchies, as detailed in mid-century works like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, a powerful class of bureaucratic administrators termed nomenklatura governed nearly all aspects of public life.[39]

The 1980s brought a backlash against perceptions of "big government" and the associated bureaucracy. Politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gained power by promising to eliminate government regulatory bureaucracies, which they saw as overbearing, and return economic production to a more purely capitalistic mode, which they saw as more efficient.[40][41] In the business world, managers like Jack Welch gained fortune and renown by eliminating bureaucratic structures inside the corporations themselves.[42]

Still, in the modern world practically all organized institutions rely on bureaucratic systems to manage information, process records, and administer complex systems, although the decline of paperwork and the widespread use of electronic databases is transforming the way bureaucracies function.[43]


Karl Marx

Karl Marx theorized about the role and function of bureaucracy in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, published in 1843. In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel had supported the role of specialized officials in the role of public administration, although he never used the term "bureaucracy" himself. Marx by contrast was opposed to the bureaucracy. He saw the development of bureaucracy in government as a natural counterpart to the development of the corporation in private society. Marx posited that while the corporation and government bureaucracy existed in seeming opposition, in actuality they mutually relied on one another to exist. He wrote that "The Corporation is civil society's attempt to become state; but the bureaucracy is the state which has really made itself into civil society."[44]

John Stuart Mill

Writing in the early 1860s, political scientist John Stuart Mill theorized that successful monarchies were essentially bureaucracies, and found evidence of their existence in Imperial China, the Russian Empire, and the regimes of Europe. Mill referred to bureaucracy as a distinct form of government, separate from representative democracy. He believed bureaucracies had certain advantages, most importantly the accumulation of experience in those who actually conduct the affairs. Nevertheless, he thought bureaucracy as a form of governance compared poorly to representative government, as it relied on appointment rather than direct election. Mill wrote that ultimately the bureaucracy stifles the mind, and that "A bureaucracy always tends to become a pedantocracy."[45]

Max Weber

Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge

–Max Weber[15]

The German sociologist Max Weber described many ideal-typical forms of public administration, government, and business, in his 1922 essay Bureaucracy,[46] published in his magnum opus Economy and Society. His critical study of the bureaucratisation of society became one of the most enduring parts of his work.[15][47] It was Weber who began the studies of bureaucracy and whose works led to the popularization of this term.[48] Many aspects of modern public administration go back to him, and a classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the Continental type is called "Weberian civil service".[49]

As the most efficient and rational way of organizing, bureaucratization for Weber was the key part of the rational-legal authority, and furthermore, he saw it as the key process in the ongoing rationalization of the Western society.[15][47] Although he is not necessarily an admirer of bureaucracy, Weber does agree that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and (formally) rational way in which human activity can be organized, and that thus is indispensable to the modern world.[50]

Weber listed several precondititions for the emergence of bureaucracy. The growth in space and population being administered, the growth in complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system.[51] Development of communication and transportation technologies make more efficient administration possible but also in popular demand, and democratization and rationalization of culture resulted in demands that the new system treats everybody equally.[51]

Weber's ideal-typical bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical organization, delineated lines of authority in a fixed area of activity, action taken on the basis of and recorded in written rules, bureaucratic officials need expert training, rules are implemented by neutral officials, career advancement depends on technical qualifications judged by organization, not individuals.[15][51]

Weber specifies[52] that both the public and private bureaucracy is based on specific competencies of various offices. These competencies are specified in various rules, laws, and administrative regulations. This means there is

  1. a rigid division of labor
  2. a chain of command is established in which the capacity to coerce is specified and restricted by regulations
  3. there is a regular and continuous execution of the assigned tasks by people qualified by education and training to perform them

While recognizing bureaucracy as the most efficient form of organization, and even indispensable for the modern state, Weber also saw it as a threat to individual freedoms, and the ongoing bureaucratization as leading to a "polar night of icy darkness", in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in a soulless "iron cage" of bureaucratic, rule-based, rational control.[15][16]

Woodrow Wilson

(1856-1924) Writing as an academic while a professor at Bryn Mawr College, his essay "The Study of Administration" [53] argued for a bureaucracy as a professional cadre, devoid of allegiance to fleeting politics of the day. Wilson advocated a bureaucracy that "is a part of political life only as the methods of the counting house are a part of the life of society; only as machinery is part of the manufactured product. But it is, at the same time, raised very far above the dull level of mere technical detail by the fact that through its greater principles it is directly connected with the lasting maxims of political wisdom, the permanent truths of political progress."

Wilson did not advocate a replacement of rule by the governed, he simply advised "Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices". This essay became the foundation for the study of public administration in America.

Ludwig von Mises

In his 1944 work Bureaucracy, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was highly critical of all bureaucratic systems. He believed that bureaucracy should be universally opposed, and noticed that in the political sphere it had few defenders, even among progressives. Mises saw bureaucratic processes at work in both the private and public spheres; however he believed that bureaucratization in the private sphere could only occur as a consequence of government interference. He wrote that "No private enterprise will ever fall prey to bureaucratic methods of management if it is operated with the sole aim of making profit."[22]

Robert K. Merton

American sociologist Robert K. Merton expanded on Weber's theories of bureaucracy in his work Social Theory and Social Structure, published in 1957. While Merton agreed with certain aspects of Weber's analysis, he also considered the dysfunctional aspects of bureaucracy, which he attributed to a "trained incapacity" resulting from "overconformity." He saw bureaucrats as more likely to defend their own entrenched interests than to act to benefit the organization as a whole. He also believed bureaucrats took pride in their craft, which led them to resist changes in established routines. Merton also noted that bureaucrats emphasized formality over interpersonal relationships, and had been trained to ignore the special circumstances of particular cases, causing them to come across as "arrogant" and "haughty."[23]

See also


  1. "Bureaucracy - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  2. "definition of bureaucracy". Thefreedictionary.com. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  3. "Bureaucracy Definition". Investopedia. 2009-09-04. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  4. Philip K. Howard (2012). "To Fix America's Education Bureaucracy, We Need to Destroy It". The Atlantic.
  5. Devin Dwyer (2009). "Victims of 'Health Insurance Bureaucracy' Speak Out". ABC News.
  6. David Martin (2010). "Gates Criticizes Bloated Military Bureaucracy". CBS News.
  7. "How to bend the rules of corporate bureaucracy". Usatoday30.usatoday.com. 2002-11-08. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  8. "Still a bureaucracy: Normal paperwork continues its flow at Vatican". Americancatholic.org. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  9. Weber, Max "Bureaucracy" in Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave-Macmillan 2015. P. 114
  10. 1 2 J.C.N. Raadschelders (1998). Handbook of Administrative History. Transaction Publishers. p. 142.
  11. Ronald N. Johnson; Gary D. Libecap (1994). The Federal Civil Service System and the Problem of Bureaucracy (PDF). University of Chicago Press. pp. 1–11. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
  12. David Luban; Alan Strudler; David Wasserman (1992). "Moral Responsibility in the Age of Bureaucracy". Michigan Law Review. 90 (8).
  13. Wren, Daniel/Bedeian, Arthur (2009). "Chapter 10:The Emergence of the Management Process and Organization Theory". The Evolution of Management Thought (PDF). Wiley.
  14. Garrett; et al. (March–April 2006). "Assessing the Impact of Bureaucracy Bashing by Electoral Campaigns". Public Administration Review: 228–240. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Richard Swedberg; Ola Agevall (2005). The Max Weber dictionary: key words and central concepts. Stanford University Press. pp. 18–21. ISBN 978-0-8047-5095-0. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  16. 1 2 George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption, Pine Forge Press, 2004; ISBN 0-7619-8819-X, Google Print, p. 55
  17. 1 2 "Bureaucracy". Merriam-Webster Dictionary (definition). Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  18. Riggs, Fred W (1979), "Introduction : Évolution sémantique du terme 'bureaucratie'" [Introduction: semantic evolution of the ‘bureaucracy’ term] (PDF), Revue internationale des sciences sociales (in French), Paris: Unesco, XXX I (4).
  19. Anter, Andreas. L'histoire de l'État comme histoire de la bureaucratie. Trivium, 7; 6 December 2010.
  20. Lady Morgan, Sydney (1818). Florence Macarthy. p. 35. Retrieved 2014-11-18.
  21. 1 2 3 Beetham, David. Bureaucracy. Google. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  22. 1 2 Ludwig von Mises (1944). Bureaucracy. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  23. 1 2 Robert K. Merton (1957). Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL;Free Press. pp. 195–206. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  24. Laurie E. Pearce (1995). "The Scribes and Scholars of Ancient Mesopotamia". In Jack M. Sasson. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Macmillan Library Reference. pp. 2265–2278. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
  25. Ronald J. Williams (1972). "Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 92 (2). JSTOR 600648.
  26. As taken from the Laterculus Veronensis or Verona List, reproduced in Barnes, New Empire, chs. 12–13 (with corrections in T.D. Barnes, "Emperors, panegyrics, prefects, provinces and palaces (284–317)", Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996): pp. 539–42). See also: Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 9; Cascio, "The New State of Diocletian and Constantine" (CAH), 179; Rees, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, pp. 24–27.
  27. Lactantius. "Chapter 7". On the Manner in which the Persecutors Died.
  28. "Byzantine - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-webster.com. 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  29. Riegel, Jeffrey. "Confucius". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  30. McKnight, Brian E. (1983-02-15). Village and Bureaucracy in Southern Sung China. University of Chicago Press. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-0-226-56060-1. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  31. Niall Ferguson (2013). The Cash Nexus: Money and Politics in Modern History, 1700-2000. Penguin UK. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  32. "3 Public finance in China and Britain in the long eighteenth century" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-17.
  33. Linda Weiss; John Hobson (1995). States and Economic Development: A Comparative Historical Analysis. Wiley. Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  34. Walker, David (2003-07-09). "Fair game". London, UK: The Guardian. Retrieved 2003-07-09.
  35. Full text of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report Archived 22 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  36. 1 2 Bodde, Derke. "China: A Teaching Workbook". Columbia University.
  37. 1 2 Schwarz (1996), p. 229
  38. Handbook of Administrative History - Paper - J.C.N. Raadschelders. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2013-05-26.
  39. Michael Voslensky (1984). Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class (1st ed.). Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-17657-0.
  40. "Viewpoints: How did Margaret Thatcher change Britain?". BBC News. 13 April 2013.
  41. Ronald Reagan (27 October 1964). A Time For Choosing (Speech). Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
  42. "Jack Welch's Encore". Businessweek.com. 14 June 1997. Archived from the original on 1 January 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-12.
  43. Stewart R. Clegg; Martin Harris; Harro Höpfl, eds. (2011). Managing Modernity: Beyond Bureaucracy?. Oxford University Press.
  44. Karl Marx (1970). "3A". Marx's Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1843). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  45. John Stuart Mill (1861). "VI—Of the Infirmities and Dangers to which Representative Government is Liable". Considerations on Representative Government. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  46. Weber, 2015, pp. 73-127 in Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, New York: Palgrave MacMillan
  47. 1 2 George Ritzer (29 September 2009). Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics. McGraw-Hill. pp. 38–42. ISBN 978-0-07-340438-7. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  48. Marshall Sashkin; Molly G. Sashkin (28 January 2003). Leadership that matters: the critical factors for making a difference in people's lives and organizations' success. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. p. 52. ISBN 978-1-57675-193-0. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  49. Liesbet Hooghe (2001). The European Commission and the integration of Europe: images of governance. Cambridge University Press. pp. 40–. ISBN 978-0-521-00143-4. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
  50. Max Weber (2015) extract, books.google.ca; accessed 30 August 2015.
  51. 1 2 3 Kenneth Allan; Kenneth D. Allan (2 November 2005). Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social Worl. Pine Forge Press. pp. 172–176. ISBN 978-1-4129-0572-5.
  52. Weber 2015, p. 76, in Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification, edited and translated by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
  53. Woodrow Wilson, "The Study of Administration", Political Science Quarterly, July 1887

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