What are the essential characteristics of bureaucracy?
Is Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy a precursor of Ellul’s treatment of technique? Is bureaucracy “efficient”? Is it a technology/technique?
Do all modern (contemporary) institutions embrace bureaucratic organization? What kind of organization is not bureaucratic? Who is not a bureaucrat?
The foremost theorist of bureaucracy is the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), who described the ideal characteristics of bureaucracies and offered an explanation for the historical emergence of bureaucratic institutions. According to Weber, the defining features of bureaucracy sharply distinguish it from other types of organization based on nonlegal forms of authority.
Weber observed that the advantage of bureaucracy was that it was the most technically proficient form of organization, possessing specialized expertise, certainty, continuity, and unity. Bureaucracy’s emergence as a preferred form of organization occurred with the rise of a money-based economy (which ultimately resulted in the development of capitalism) and the attendant need to ensure impersonal, rational-legal transactions.
Instrumental organizations (e.g., public-stock business firms) soon arose because their bureaucratic organization equipped them to handle the various demands of capitalist production more efficiently than small-scale producers.
Contemporary stereotypes of bureaucracy tend to portray it as unresponsive, lethargic, undemocratic, and incompetent. Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, however, emphasizes not only its comparative technical and proficiency advantages but also attributes its dominance as a form of organization to the diminution of caste systems (such as feudalism) and other forms of inequitable social relations based upon a person’s status.
In the pure form of bureaucratic organization universalized rules and procedures would dominate, rendering personal status or connections irrelevant. In this form, bureaucracy is the epitome of universalized standards under which similar cases are treated similarly as codified by law and rules, and under which the individual tastes and discretion of the administrator are constrained by due process rules.
Nevertheless, the words bureaucracy and bureaucrat are typically thought of and used pejoratively. They convey images of red tape, excessive rules and regulations, unimaginativeness, a lack of individual discretion, central control, and an absence of accountability. Far from being conceived as proficient, popular contemporary portrayals often paint bureaucracies as inefficient and lacking in adaptability.
Because the characteristics that define the organizational advantages of bureaucracy also contain within them the possibilities of organizational dysfunction, both the flattering and unflattering depictions of bureaucracy can be accurate. Thus, the characteristics that make bureaucracies proficient paradoxically also may produce organizational pathologies.