Bureaucracy and Formal Organization | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Bureaucracy and Formal Organization

The term bureaucracy is traditionally associated with the administration of government and its various agencies.

Bureaucracy and Formal Organization

The term bureaucracy is traditionally associated with the administration of government and its various agencies. (The definition of the word bureaucratie in the 1789 supplement to the dictionary of the French Academy was "power, influence of the heads and staff of government bureaux.") Bureaucracy is also basic to the operation of private corporations, political parties, unions, churches and any other large modern organization.

Its association with routine, paperwork, lengthy procedures and a centralized and rigid hierarchy has traditionally given the term a pejorative meaning. Technically, however, in the social sciences, the term generally refers to the development of formal organizations.

Social Organization

Bureaucracy is primarily a form of social organization. The common denominator of bureaucratization lies in the quest for a "rational" model of administration. Mass organizations meet their objectives through an elaborate division of labour that results in compartmentalization and diversification of duties, which in turn leads to specialized functions, ie, implementation, management and special expertise.

This multiplicity of functions clearly requires the establishment of a co-ordinated structure, and of regulations, administrative procedures and standards that define the responsibilities of each position and its relation to other positions. Such specialization by function increases the need for centralized control and administration, and thus the establishment of a hierarchy that integrates each function in a chain of command.

Authority is delegated within specific areas of competence and is subject to a final authority that defines the organization's policies as a whole and monitors, or controls, the material or symbolic results. This final authority is more political than administrative in nature, and is therefore not purely bureaucratic (see Political Economy).

Bureaucracy as a whole is organized as a pyramid, as may be illustrated in complex organizational charts used to describe large modern organizations. Within this structure, emphasis is given to vertical channels rather than to horizontal channels of communications between individuals. Similarly, indirect communications are common because individuals must transmit information through a superior to the higher levels of the organization. This reduction in personal contacts, which is viewed as an element of efficiency, is also the cause of communication breakdowns and "red tape."

Recruitment in Bureaucracies

Recruitment in bureaucratic organizations is usually conducted according to recognized rules, eg, the competition system in the public service. While positions involving the most routine tasks are occupied by personnel with relatively few qualifications, the executive, management and specialized positions are occupied by individuals who usually have a university degree. However, sometimes individuals are hired or appointed not for their skills but out of political considerations, eg, as patronage for past favours.

In contrast, a considerable number of positions in business management are occupied by individuals who do not have a university degree, but are trained by the company. A system of hierarchically organized titles corresponding to the organization chart is used to define the status of the individual and to project his or her probable "career path" (see Public Administration).


The modern theory of bureaucracy, derived largely from the German sociologist Max Weber, is a formal codification of the idea of rational organization and the major element in the rationalization of modern capitalism. In the bureaucracies of private firms as well as government, objectives are set by rational, systematic, standardized techniques, thereby eliminating the effects of interpersonal relationships. Bureaucratic organization thus reflects the belief that maximum efficiency can be achieved through logical planning and calculation.

Considerable doubt is cast on the validity of this belief in contemporary theory. Studies have revealed many malfunctions in bureaucratic systems, including lack of dynamism resulting from their ritualistic behaviour. Problems and conflicts tend to be resolved through the imposition of new controls and rules that ultimately reinforce the bureaucracy (bureaucracies also tend to reproduce themselves, to divert energy into maintaining their own existence rather than fulfilling their original purpose).

It is questionable whether the technical rationality of bureaucracy, expressed strictly as goals and means, is suitable to all types of organizations. Even if it seems to apply easily to companies that espouse the fundamental logic of maximizing profit and to some routine governmental activities, this same rationality becomes inefficient and harmful when applied to government activities that cannot be reduced to pure repetition and controls.

It is impossible to administer schools, hospitals, public housing and community service centres bureaucratically and without distortion because these services, which are dependent upon social needs and political decisions, cannot be determined strictly on the basis of rational abstract forecasts.


Bureaucracy cannot exist without bureaucrats; therefore the term denotes not only an organizational structure but also a social group. Such a group is found in every large organization and government, where groups range from individuals responsible for administrative functions (eg, "paper pushers," who are traditionally assigned generally routine subordinate tasks and whose situation is rapidly changing as a result of computerization) to the "mandarins" in the senior echelons of the public service. Nevertheless, the heart of any bureaucracy is the executive and middle managers, who represent the true power base.

Bureaucratic Power

In Western societies, bureaucracies differ in nature because of the substantial autonomy of individual institutions. Although public and private bureaucracies are clearly distinct, they share some common characteristics and a degree of interchange that results from the movement of senior and middle managers from one sector to the other.

The power system in which the bureaucracies of Western countries participate cannot overtake the power system entirely and become a class unto themselves, as happened in the Soviet Union, where political and economic power blended in the name of technical rationality. History has shown the importance of resisting the dynamics of bureaucratic growth and of maintaining heterogeneous bureaucracies to preserve a democratic order and social freedom.

See also Political Science; Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science.

Further Reading