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BUREAUCRACY, Encyclopedia Britannica

A professional corps of officials organized in a pyramidal hierarchy and functioning under impersonal, uniform rules and procedures. In the social sciences, the term usually does not carry the pejorative associations of popular usage.

Weber's theories.
The characteristics of bureaucracy were first formulated in a systematic manner by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), whose definition and theories set the foundations for all subsequent work on the subject. They refer to (1) the division of labour in the organization, (2) its authority structure, (3) the position and role of the individual member, and (4) the type of rules that regulate the relations between organizational members.
A highly developed division of labour and specialization of tasks is one of the most fundamental features of bureaucracy. This is achieved by a precise and detailed definition of the duties and responsibilities of each position or office. The allocation of a limited number of tasks to each office operates according to the principle of fixed jurisdictional areas that are determined by administrative regulations.
The bureaucratic organization is characterized by a "rational" and impersonal regulation of inferior-superior relationships. In traditional types of administration (feudal, patrimonial), the inferior-superior relationship is personal, and the legitimation of authority is based on a belief in the sacredness of tradition. In a bureaucracy, on the other hand, authority is legitimized by a belief in the correctness of the process by which administrative rules were enacted; and the loyalty of the bureaucrat is oriented to an impersonal order, to a superior position, not to the specific person who holds it.
When one shifts the focus of attention from the organization as a whole to the role and status of the individual member, the following features characterize the bureaucrat's position. Starting with the mode of recruitment, the bureaucrat is not selected on the basis of such considerations as family position or political loyalties. His recruitment is based on formal qualifications (diplomas, university degrees) that testify that the applicant has the necessary knowledge to accomplish effectively his specialized duties. Once a candidate enters the bureaucratic organization, his office is his sole--or at least his primary--occupation. It constitutes a "career." That is to say, it is not accepted on an honorary or short term basis; it implies stability and continuity, a "life's work." Moreover, there is usually an elaborate system of promotion based on the principles of both seniority and achievement.
Insofar as the mode of remuneration is concerned, the bureaucrat usually receives a salary based not so much on his productivity performance as on the status of his position. Contrary to some forms of traditional administration, in the bureaucratic case the civil servant cannot sell his position or pass it on to his sons. There is a clear-cut separation between the private and the public sphere of the bureaucrat's life. His private property is sharply distinguished from the "means of administration" that do not belong to him.
The most important and pervasive characteristic of bureaucracy (one that to some extent explains all the others) is the existence of a system of control based on rational rules--that is, rules meant to design and regulate the whole organization on the basis of technical knowledge and with the aim of achieving maximum efficiency. According to Max Weber, "Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge. This is the feature of it which makes it specifically rational" (The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 1947, p. 339).
These are briefly the major features of Weber's ideal type of bureaucracy. The type is "ideal" in the sense that the characteristics included in it are not to be found, in their extreme form, in all concrete bureaucracies. Real organizations can be more or less bureaucratic according to their degree of proximity to their ideal formulation.

Oligarchic theories.
If for Weber bureaucracy was an efficient tool in the hands of whoever knows how to control it, subsequent writers, impressed by the increasing bureaucratization of modern society and by the rise of totalitarian regimes in the East and the West, have often seen bureaucracy as an oligarchic system of political domination: bureaucracy ceases to be a tool; it becomes the master, the politically dominant group in a new type of society that is neither capitalist nor socialist. If for Weber the political domination of bureaucracy was problematic, for the German sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936) and other writers having a similar orientation it became an inevitable outcome, inherent in the internal dynamics of bureaucracy.
Michels was one of the first theorists who tried systematically to link increasing bureaucratization with the oligarchic tendencies in modern society. He focussed his attention primarily on the internal political structure of large-scale organizations. His main thesis, the famous "iron law of oligarchy," postulates that with the increasing complexity and bureaucratization of modern organizations all power is concentrated at the top, in the hands of an organizational elite that rules in a dictatorial manner. This is so even if oligarchy, as in the German Socialist party, which he extensively studied, runs against the ideals and intentions of both rulers and ruled.
In fact, the increasing size of modern organizations and the increasing complexity of the problems with which they have to deal makes technically impossible the participation of the rank and file in the making of decisions. Moreover, given the ensuing apathy of the members and the increasing concentration of the means of communication at the top, the power position of the leader becomes impregnable. Not only can the leader manipulate information and use the communication network against any potential rival but also, by the exercise of his functions, he acquires specialized knowledge and political skills that make him almost irreplaceable to the organization. In this way both the structural position of the rulers and the ruled lead to a political system that perpetuates the leadership of the person in power and alienates the rank and file from the political process.
Once in control, according to Michels, the organizational oligarchy always has as its primary aim the consolidation of its own power position. Whenever this aim clashes with the more general aims of the rank and file, the elite will sacrifice the latter rather than jeopardize its own privileges. It is in this way that Michels explains the decline in radicalism of the established Socialist parties whose bureaucratic conservatism serves more the interests of the leaders and less the masses whose interests they are supposed to represent.
Finally, for Michels, organizational oligarchy brings societal oligarchy. If the political systems of such voluntary organizations as trade unions and political parties cannot work democratically, then the democratic institutions of the whole society are undermined at their very roots. Indeed, a society dominated by large-scale oligarchic organizations eventually develops an oligarchic political regime. Organizational elites, together with other social elites, having a common interest in the maintenance of the status quo, form a strong power group determined to oppose any demand for change coming from the masses.
Michels' theory focussed mainly on the bureaucratization of "voluntary" organizations, such as political parties. Other theorists, sharing his pessimism about the future of democracy, point more to the increasing size and bureaucratization of the state administration or of the capitalist enterprise as the main threats to the parliamentary institutions of Western societies.
On the one hand, such liberal German economists as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek have been alarmed at the proportions of the state bureaucracy and its increasing intervention in the economic sphere. For them, it is the government's "levelling" tendencies, its insatiable appetite for expansion that gradually destroys free enterprise and undermines democratic institutions.

Bureaucratic collectivism.
Whereas Lenin and other Soviet writers could not admit that bureaucracy had a permanent and "organic" position in the Soviet system, other Marxists thought that it was at its centre and that it defined more than anything else the very nature of the regime. From their point of view, bureaucracy was not only a privileged oppressive group but a new exploiting class, a class characterized by a new type of oligarchic regime that was neither socialist nor capitalist and that was rapidly spreading both in the East and in the West.
The first systematic elaboration of this position was attempted by the Italian Marxist Bruno Rizzi in The Bureaucratisation of the World (1939). For Rizzi the Soviet bureaucracy constituted a new ruling class that exploited the proletariat as much as the capitalists had in the past. It differed from capitalism only in that the new type of domination was based not on individual but on group ownership of the means of production. In fact, in the Soviet system the means of production represented not "socialism" but "stateism." They did not belong to the whole collectivity but to the state and to the bureaucrats who control it. In the last analysis, it was these bureaucrats--the technicians, directors, and specialists holding key positions in the party and state administration--who exploited the proletarians and stole the surplus value of work. According to Rizzi this new type of regime, which he called bureaucratic collectivism, was not limited to the Soviet Union. Similar tendencies could be discerned in fascist countries and even in the "welfare state" type of capitalist democracies. The Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas in The New Class (1957), a later criticism of the Yugoslav Socialist regime, used arguments similar to Rizzi's.
The American philosopher and critic James Burnham proposed a theory of the "managerial revolution" that was more or less an elaboration of Rizzi's ideas. According to his theory, technological progress and the growth of large-scale economic as well as political bureaucracies deprived the old capitalist class of the control of the means of production. The effective control of the economy and of political power had passed to the managers--that is, to the production executives and to the administrators of the state bureaucracy. He predicted that at a later stage of development, private ownership would be abolished and the bureaucrats would appropriate collectively, through the state, the means of production. Thus, according to Burnham, both in the East and the West the managers would impose a new type of oligarchic order.

Dysfunctional aspects of bureaucracy.
The American Robert K. Merton was among the first sociologists to emphasize systematically the now-familiar side of the bureaucratic picture--its red tape and inefficiency. According to Merton, if, as Weber thought, the predominance of rational rules and their close control of all actions favours the reliability and predictability of the bureaucrat's behaviour, it also accounts for his lack of flexibility and his tendency to turn means into ends. Indeed, the emphasis on conformity and strict observance of the rules induces the individual to internalize them. Instead of simply means, procedural rules become ends in themselves. Thus a kind of "goal displacement" occurs. The instrumental and formalistic aspect of the bureaucratic role becomes more important than the substantive one, the achievement of the main organizational goals. According to Merton, when one leaves the sphere of the ideal and studies a real organization, one can see that a certain bureaucratic characteristic (such as strict control by rules) can both promote and hinder organizational efficiency; it can have both functional effects (predictability, precision) and dysfunctional effects (rigidity).


Conflict theories.
A group of theorists have rejected the functional approach and contended that organizations must be seen as configurations of antagonistic groups that aim, through various strategies, to promote their conflicting interests. Although these theorists do view the organization "as a whole," they see that the parts of the whole are not institutional norms but instead are groups that, according to their power position, can influence policies.
Thus the American sociologist Melville Dalton, in a book based on his long experience as a participant and observer in six business firms (Men Who Manage, 1959), offered a revealing picture of organizational structure in terms of conflicting cliques and their interminable struggles for gaining more power and ensuring a greater share of organizational rewards. Even if sometimes exaggerated, this analysis showed in a striking way to what extent organizational members and groups can be primarily interested in the pursuit of their narrow interests and the consolidation and improvement of their own power position, even at the expense of wider organizational interests. Moreover, it showed the pervasiveness of the ensuing struggles and their impact on every aspect of organizational life. It showed, too, how this intense political activity can be scrupulously and skillfully camouflaged so that the resulting policies appear to be in harmony with the official ideology.
The French sociologist Michel Crozier's study of two French government agencies (The Bureaucratic Phenomenon, 1963) was another important step in the analysis of organizational power and conflict. In Crozier's analysis, the social structure consists of highly cohesive occupational groups, each presenting a unified and rather hostile front toward the others. (Contrary to Dalton, Crozier ignores the existence of cliques within and across these occupational groupings.) Each group's strategy consists in manipulating the rules in order to enhance its own prerogatives and secure its independence from every direct and arbitrary interference by those higher up. Because rules obviously can never cover everything, "areas of uncertainty" always emerge that constitute the focal points around which collective conflicts become acute and instances of direct dominance and subordination develop. The group that, by its position in the occupational structure, can control the "unregulated" area, has a great strategic advantage that it naturally uses in order to improve its power position and to ensure a greater share of organizational rewards.
Conflict studies, as illustrated by the work of Dalton and Crozier, point to the central importance of an organization's political structure and thus open a new perspective in the analysis of bureaucracy. To the image of the organization man as a person of sentiments seeking friendship and emotional security and to the image of the problem solver and decision maker is added the new image of a "political man" primarily interested in the collective and individual pursuit of power for the promotion of his own interests. So long as it is not followed single mindedly, this new dimension should contribute to a more inclusive and realistic approach to the study of organizations.


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