In his monumental work Economy and society, Weber (1978, 1st pub. 1922), explained bureaucracy both in terms of principles of societal order and with respect to its place in the modern world. In seeking to answer the fundamental question “How do we understand un-coerced obedience?” Weber examined the history of societies and empires ranging from ancient China to the United States, arguing that kernel elements of the bureaucratic form could be seen in record-keeping on personnel at least 5,000 years ago. More important, Weber developed his three ideal types of authority and, by extension, organization from that historical survey and comparative analysis. In that sense, it is appropriate to speak of the ways bureaucracy arose through cultural patterns and experience (Crozier 1964). The authority types and their corresponding organizational manifestations are: charismatic authority (and the corresponding organizational type of a religious sect), traditional authority (and monarchy), and legal-rational authority (and bureaucracy).
With the dawn of the industrial revolution in 1750, the growth of the factory system, the spread of the railroads, and the appearance of the telegraph in the nineteenth century, and the advance of electronic communication in the first half of the twentieth century, bureaucracy became the system of choice for organizations of great size and geographic reach. Spurred by concerns about the spoils system of political appointments and a concern for instituting systems of administration that were scientifically accountable, the governments of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States instituted civil service programs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through which bureaucratization was employed to support fairness in personnel matters. Indeed, it is no accident that scientific management arose at the turn of the twentieth century, for it relied heavily on the impulse toward standardization that had become quite influential by the 1880s, in part as a response to severe economic turbulence and unpredictability within multinational capitalism.
As Weber (1978) outlined, the key features of bureaucracy in practice include: a fixed division of labor; a clearly defined hierarchy of positions; hiring and promotion on the basis of technical and publicly known qualifications, including assessments by qualified superiors; remuneration according to specified and rationalized salaries; commitment to the office as a career; the creation of management or administration; separation of work from family or home life; and written rules governing duties and the performance of work. Bureaucracy is considered by most informed observers to be a hallmark of postEnlightenment society, yet many of its implications for social consciousness, social interaction, and overall well-being remain to be investigated (Albrow 1987).
In the popular political imagination today, bureaucracy is typically understood in negative terms and without reference to its specific features. In part, this is because of fundamental misunderstandings about what constitutes bureaucracy in practice and because of the way the system is mocked or cynically used for purposes of personal or group advantage (Gouldner 1984). That is to say, “bureaucracy” functions consistently as a “devil term,” associated almost exclusively with the public sector, the welfare state, Keynesian economic policy, and presumed inefficiency – in contrast to the celebrated efficiency of private enterprise. So powerful are these associations that in political debates, as well as in corporate boardrooms, the precise nature of bureaucracy is little considered.
In allied areas of organizational studies, especially in sociology and management/ organizational behavior, bureaucracy has been the prevailing model of organization, with the machine being its root or implicit metaphor (Burrell & Morgan 1979). Periodically, the model has been reconsidered, not only to complicate the received view of Weber’s (1978) theory but also in recognition and support of bureaucracy’s significant advantages. Notably, Perrow (1979) offered a strong defense of bureaucracy’s opposition to particularism, and Reed (2003) argued for a re-evaluation of bureaucracy in terms of its potential for institutional reform.
Within communication studies, bureaucracy has been almost wholly the concern of organizational scholars, although we find some references to it in critical theory, cultural studies, and health communication. Bureaucracy is understood in these specialties as the dominant mode of organizing work in the modern world; all other structures of work and organization are consequently measured against it. For critical theory and cultural studies, as two examples, bureaucracy represents a defining institution of modernity, with attendant constraints and possibilities. Within health communication, bureaucracy is a concern alongside market forces in terms of the impact on care (and caring) of patients/clients (Lammers & Geist 1997). Bureaucratic organization has been the model most often subscribed to by organizational communication scholars, and until the study of emergent organization in the 1990s, bureaucracy was the taken-forgranted model within the system’s theoretic approach.
In accord with Weber’s (1978) framing of bureaucratic organizational structure within the context of legal-rational authority, bureaucracy has been considered as a contemporary expression of logos, especially in terms of the impulse toward the transparent articulation of rules, norms, and standards (see Tompkins 1987 on the parallelisms between Aristotle’s “artistic proofs” and Weber’s three ideal types of authority. Bureaucracy’s claim to universality rests in large part on its abstraction of standards from specific contexts, be those based in individual, community, or broader cultural concerns. Feminist scholars have accepted such an analogy, at least implicitly, but at the same time have challenged the presumed universality of bureaucracy, first, by raising the issue of the gendered nature of modern organizational structures (Ferguson 1984); second, by examining closely the constraints that bureaucratic organizing places on individual expression and therefore on social bonds (Mumby & Putnam 1992); and third, by considering bureaucracy in terms of the gendered discourses that preserve its institutional status (Ashcraft & Mumby 2004).
Bureaucracy has also been investigated in terms of the possibilities for its transcendence within so-called alternative organizations, including those explicitly or implicitly feminist (Ashcraft 2006), worker cooperatives (Cheney 1999), and radically democratic social movements (Harrison 1994). In this respect, bureaucratic structure is often treated as an impediment to democratic participation (Abrahamsson 1977). Through such studies, we find evidence of the enduring temptation of bureaucratization as well as its functional utility for organizing larger-scale and growing enterprises in all sectors (Heckscher & Donnellon 1994), although there are numerous successful cases of “hybrid” organizational forms.
Research from disciplines including communication, management, sociology, and public administration have found bureaucracy to have a generally chilling effect on relationships and micro-interaction. Two books by public administration scholars offer lengthy treatises on this subject (see Denhardt 1981; Hummel 1994). In more specific terms, bureaucracy is seen as emphasizing formality over informality, expediency over mutual understanding, distance over intimacy, and standardized prescription over local expression.
In recent years, as marketing and customer service have come to dominate organizations in all sectors, the implications for bureaucracy have been considered. Du Gay’s analyses have deconstructed the celebrated models of “customer/consumer service” and “entrepreneurship,” showing how bureaucracy, faithfully applied, is more responsive to the public good than either of the other models as they have been typically formulated (e.g., Du Gay 2000).
With respect to communication and organizational studies, there are several areas of investigation that remain un(der)explored. Briefly these include: an in-depth consideration of bureaucracy’s relation to matters of “difference,” examining how standardization can be “blind” while also neglecting personal circumstances; a close analysis of everyday rationalities in terms of bureaucracy’s influence on human affairs beyond the boundaries of work and organization; an exploration of the ethical dimensions of bureaucracy, particularly in terms of how it can protect against individual whim and narrow economic interests.
In sum, bureaucracy remains one of the defined models for organization in the (post)modern world. It has broad historical and cultural foundations, and it continues to influence the ways in which persons orient toward, cope with, and interact within organizations. While the strictly economic–philosophical–psychological image of the rational actor has been undermined in several ways, it persists as an important point of reference in organizational life. For communication scholars, it is particularly important to explain, understand, and evaluate the day-to-day operations of rationality in terms of how it is symbolized and performed.
- Abrahamsson, B. (1977). Bureaucracy or participation. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Albrow, M. (1987). The application of the Weberian concept of rationalization to contemporary conditions. In S. Whimster & S. Lash (eds.), Max Weber, rationality and modernity. Boston: Allen & Unwin, pp. 164–184.
- Ashcraft, K. L. (2006). Feminist-bureaucratic control and other adversarial allies: Extending organized dissonance to the practice of “new” forms. Communication Monographs, 73, 55–86.
- Ashcraft, K. L., & Mumby, D. K. (2004). Reworking gender: A feminist communicology of organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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- Du Gay, P. (2000). In praise of bureaucracy: Weber, organization, ethics. London: Sage.
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- Harrison, T. (1994). Communication and interdependence in democratic organizations. In S. Deetz (ed.), Communication Yearbook 17. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 247–274.
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- Lammers, J. C., & Geist, P. (1997). The transformation of caring in the light and shadow of “managed care.” Health Communication, 9, 45–60.
- Mumby, D. K., & Putnam, L. L. (1992). The politics of emotion: A feminist reading of bounded rationality. Academy of Management Review, 17, 465–486.
- Perrow, C. (1979). Complex organizations: A critical essay. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
- Reed, M. (2003). On bureaucracy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, Seattle (August).
- Tompkins, P. K. (1987). Translating organizational theory: Symbolism over substance. In F. M. Jablin, L. L. Putnam, K. H. Roberts, & L. W. Porter (eds.), Handbook of organizational communication: An interdisciplinary perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 70–96.
- Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society, 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published in German 1922.)