Bureaucratic theory: Examples, Strengths, & Criticisms

bureaucratic theory definition and features

Bureaucratic theory explains the setup, operation, and management of organizations as formal, rational, well-organized, hierarchical systems.

According to bureaucratic theory, organizations have well-defined rules and processes and focus on efficiency.

They are characterized by task specialization, well-trained employees, a hierarchical structure, managerial dedication and impersonality.

Max Weber (1864-1920), widely regarded as a founder of modern social science, introduced bureaucratic theory.

Origins of Bureaucratic theory

Weber’s coined and defined the term bureaucracy in his 1921 book Economy and Society.

Weber’s bureaucratic theory mirrors two key phenomena of the early 20th century: professionalization and rationalization (Ritzer, 1975).

Weber wrote at the time when capitalism was expanding and producing an increasing number of businesses.

The shifting economic landscape had significant implications for the government. Weber regarded bureaucracy as a rational organization system for complex businesses and governmental authorities (Ferreira & Serpa, 2019).

Weber (1921) believed that bureaucracies were the most effective (and ultimately inevitable) organizational response to a society with an increasing need for:

  1. Professionalization: secure and efficient legal, financial etc. transactions.
  2. Rationalization: organization based on reason and objectivity rather than emotions or arbitrariness.

Therefore, bureaucracy is not a type of government. It is a management structure run by professionals following prescribed rules:

“Bureaucratic theory explains how a system of authority based on impersonal rules guides organizational and individual decision making and behavior” (Meisenbach and Jensen, 2017).

The 6 principles of Max Weber’s bureaucracy

Weber’s definition of the ideal bureaucracy comprises six necessary conditions (Sager & Rosser, 2009; Serpa & Ferreira, 2019);

Division of labor (specialization)Every individual has a specialized job. Task specialization helps organizations to divide tasks into small, manageable chucks.  Each task is overseen by a specialist with the required skills and knowledge.
Formal selectionEmployees are chosen based on their technical expertise and competencies acquired through education, training, and on-the-job experience.
ImpersonalityIn Weber’s view bureaucracy should be defined by impersonality. Decisions ought to be made based on objective criteria, instead of favoritism and personal relationships (Udy, 1959).
Hierarchical authority relationshipThere is a clear line of authority—based on merit—from the top of the organization to the bottom. Hierarchy ensures that each individual reports to a higher authority.
Formal rules and regulationsClearly written, well-established rules provide a clear framework for individual behavior and decision-making. This ensures all organization members are aware of their superiors’ expectations and do not cross the boundaries of their role.
Career orientationManagement needs to be fully committed to their role and the organization. They should encourage employees to establish long-term careers in the organization through the provision of job security and performance-driven incentives.

Max Weber’s bureaucratic theory has been used to explain and analyze the workings of many different types of organizations. Here are a few examples:

Examples of Bureaucratic theory

  1. Big transnational corporations (think Samsung, Shell, McDonalds) rely on task specialization and selection of the most skilled workforce to operate effectively and maximize profit.
  2. Perhaps the most common example of bureaucracy is the hierarchical administrative structure of contemporary governments and the strict rules under which they operate
  3. Health institutions, such as hospitals, are bureaucratic organizations relying on employees’ (doctors, nurses, etc.) expertise to effectively support patients. They’re also defined by career orientation with staff working long hours work for the good of the organization.
  4. To prevent errors and misuse of resources, police departments operate under formalized rules and regulations. Their violation (e.g., unnecessary violence) has clear consequences.
  5. The military epitomizes bureaucracy. Its top-down command system and rank mean every employee is accountable to their seniors. Senior staff decides on projects and tasks which are then delegated to staff based on their skills and experience.
  6. Educational institutions, like schools or universities, are also bureaucratic. They hire and promote teachers/lecturers based on merit (e.g., education and achievements). They also operate
  7. Banks, insurance companies, investment companies, and other financial lending organizations are bureaucratic in that they rely on impersonal relationships and clear rules to manage (e.g., save, exchange, invest) clients’ assets and capital
  8. The administrative structure and effectiveness of all medium- and large-sized private-sector businesses, from manufacturing to technology and retail, lies in their bureaucratic structure.
  9. Inter- and non-governmental organizations, like the United Nations, the World Bank, or charities and non-profit organizations, are bureaucratic too in that there’s clear task delegation, formalized procedures, and career orientation.

Bureaucratic Theory Case Studies

1. Large corporations

Large private-sector businesses frequently have a complex structure. They are hierarchical organizations with a range of ranks, like the CEO (Chief Executive Officer), COO (Chief Operating Officer), and others.

They also have numerous departments, such as the Finance, Human Resources, Marketing & Communications departments. Each department has different management layers.

The hierarchical structure of these large businesses ensures that each employee has a clearly defined set of tasks. The quality of their work is supervised by their line managers, whose performance is also accordingly overseen.

However, their complicated structure might make communicating and decision-making difficult or sluggish.

1.    Governments

Modern government structure is an apt example of bureaucracy whose role is to formulate and enforce public policy efficiently and equitably.

Their hierarchical structure makes each employee accountable to a higher authority. This serves to avoid unethical practices, such as bribing or favoritism.

Employees and managers are hired based on merit. They are well-trained and dedicated to their jobs. This means that they can process national and local matters (e.g., taxation, social housing, labor market policy) as effectively as possible.

For example, government bureaucratic departments in the United Kingdom include the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the The Department for Education etc.

2.    The military

The military is a largely bureaucratic organization whose purpose is to respond to security issues and changes quickly and effectively.

Its hierarchical structure enables those at the top of the organization to swiftly make decisions that serve the military’s strategic objectives.

The military has a strict ranking system. from Field Marshal and General all the way to Major and Captain. This ensures a fair and merit-based career progression path.

It also means that the most qualified individuals take care of the organization’s resources. They also adequately handle urgent security matters to ensure national safety.

Strengths of bureaucratic theory

Weber’s theory of bureaucracy has been very influential. As seen, its practical applications have been more acute in public administration and big corporations.

According to Weber (1989, 249),

“Precision, velocity, clarity, knowledge of the archives, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction in the friction and costs of material and staff – are brought to the optimum in strictly bureaucratic administration.”

Its benefits are indeed numerous:

  1. Rationality: operations are fully recorded; clear rules and operations are in place to ensure evidence-based decisions are taken
  2. Impersonality: Individual actions are taken in an unbiased way. They’re not affected by interpersonal relationships or political alliances.
  3. Efficiency through accountability:  Hierarchical structure ensures that the bureaucrats designing rules and regulations have precise tasks. Through this chain of command management monitors organizational and employee performance and productivity. They also deal with emerging issues effectively.
  4. Labor division: Bureaucracies hire employees with specialized educational backgrounds and technical expertise. This ensure that bureaucrats can carry through tasks reliably and effectively.

Criticisms of bureaucratic theory

Weber’s bureaucratic theory has, nonetheless, received multiple scholarly criticisms. Its application has also stumbled upon multiple challenges.

  1. One-way communication: because of its hierarchical structure, employees’ feedback and suggestion on operational issues often go unheard. This means that operational effectiveness is negatively affected.
  2. Loss of agency: Individuals may lose control over their work and organization as a result of bureaucracy. Weber cautioned that if not adequately managed, bureaucracy can threaten individual liberty. It might trap people in a rules-based “iron cage” of control.
  3. Slowness: Bureaucracies often respond slowly to unexpected situations. That’s because of their rigid regulations. They’re associated with delays in functioning and “unreasonable” documentation requests.
  4. Inflexible and opaque rules: The bureaucracy theory does not allow for any alteration or modification in the management and operation system. Its rigidity can make it inefficient.
  5. Internalempirebuilding”. In his popular 1955 Economist article, the British historian C.N. Parkinson’s mentioned that “an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals”. Senior bureaucrats might add unnecessary assistants to expand their power and prestige. A redundant workforce, in turn, damages organizational efficiency.

More Sociology Ideas from Max Weber

Conclusion

The German sociologist and political scientist Max Weber described bureaucracy as an extremely structured, formal, and impersonal organization. This structure best responded to the professionalization and rationalization of 19th-century society.

The bureaucratic theory describes the operations and structure of organizations which are defined by

  • Standard set of formal rules and procedures
  • Clear division of labor and authority
  • Complex multi-level administrative hierarchy
  • Career orientation and dedication
  • Merit- and skills-based hiring and retention
  • (almost) impersonal interactions between employees.

Its benefits include an emphasis on technical expertise, lack of bias, and operational efficiency. But, if not appropriately implemented, a bureaucracy can threaten individual freedom, and lead to slow decision-making, internal empire-building and inefficiency.  

References

Ferreira, C. M., & Serpa, S. (2019). Rationalization and bureaucracy: Ideal-type bureaucracy by Max Weber. Humanities & Social Sciences Reviews, 7(2), pp. 187-195.

Meisenbach, R.J., & Jensen, P. R. (2017). “Bureaucratic theory.” In The International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication,  Scott, C.R., Lewis, L.K., Barker, J.R., Keyton, J., Kuhn, T. and Turner, P.K (Eds.). Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, Ma: John Wiley & Sons.

‌Parkinson, C.N. (1955, 19 November). Parkinson’s Law. The Economist. Available at: https://www.economist.com/news/1955/11/19/parkinsons-law.

Ritzer, G. (1975). Professionalization, Bureaucratization and Rationalization: The Views of Max Weber. Social Forces53(4), pp. 627–634.

Sager, F., & Rosser, C. (2009). Weber, Wilson, and Hegel: Theories of modern bureaucracy. Public Administration Review, 69(6), pp. 1136-1147.

Serpa, S., & Ferreira, C. (2019). The Concept of Bureaucracy by Max Weber. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 7(2), pp. 12-18.

Udy Jr, S. H. (1959). ” Bureaucracy” and” rationality” in Weber’s organization theory: An empirical study. American Sociological Review, pp.  791-795.

Weber, M. ([1921]1989). Economy and Society. Roth, G. and Wittich, C. (Eds.). New York: Bedminster Press.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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