(Sample Material) Public Administration Study Kit: "Bureaucratic Theory (Paper I)"

Sample Material of Public Administration Study Kit

CHAPTER – Bureaucratic Theory (Paper I)



  • Origin of the Term
  • Bureaucracy: Meaning
  • Forms of Bureaucracy
  • Type of Bureaucracy
  • Max Weber and the Concept of Bureaucracy
  • Origin of Bureaucracy
  • Theory of Domination
  • Ideal Type
  • Rational type of bureaucracy -main characteristic features
  • A Critical review of Webrian Concept of Bureaucracy
  • Post-Weberian Development

Origin of the Term

The term bureaucracy is derived from the Latin term ‘bureau’. Bureau means writing table of desk. In French “la Bure’ means a cloth used on tables of public authorities. From table cloth, the table covered by cloth got the name ‘bureau’. Later ‘bureau’ began to be used for the office room where table is kept. Thus by 18th century the term began to be used to refer to a place where officials work. The suffix ‘cratic’ is derived from the Greek word which means ‘rule’. Thus ‘bureaucracy’, refers to rule of officials.

It was a Frenchman de Gournay, who first coined the term ‘Bureaucracy’ in the middle of the 18th century. He wrote, “We have an illness in France which bids fair to play have with us; this illness is called bureaumania.” It seems that do Gournay used the term in a criticizing tone. This is evident when he said that “officials are not appointed to perform public interests, but public interest is established so that offices might exist.” The important conceptual innovation by de Gournay’s was identification of a group of rulers and methods of governing.

In Germany the word ‘bureaucracy’ was called ‘burokratic’: In Germany it was defined as “The authority or power which various government departments and their branches arrogate to themselves over fellow citizens.” In Italy the dictionary meaning was “neologism’, signifying the power of officials in Public Administration.

Bureaucracy: Meaning

J. S. Mill used the term bureaucracy to denote the professional governors of the government in a society. To Laski bureaucracy is rule of the officials in a system of government. Herman Finer also described bureaucracy as rule by officials. Mosca described bureaucracy as one class of ruling elites whose rule is absolute. Michels has expanded the concept of bureaucracy to include salaried professionals in government and non-government and non-governmental agencies such as political parties. Marshall E. Dimock identified bureaucracy with institutions and large scale organizations in society. John A. Vieg says that its means ‘desk government’ or management by bureaus’. For Prof. Chales Hyneman, bureaucracy is big organisation. Another definition of bureaucracy is that it is “a hierarchical organisation of officials appointed to carry out certain public objectives.”
Martin Albrow made a good study of bureaucracy and traced the coinage of the term since 18th century and noted that its definition falls under seven categories.

1. rational organisation;
2. organizational inefficiency;
3. rule of officials;
4. public administration;
5. administration by officials;
6. an organisation form characterized by such qualities as hierarchy and rules and ;
7. an essential quality of modern society.

Forms of Bureaucracy

The term ‘bureaucracy’ is being used with different meanings to signify different things. Bureaucracy, however, was originally conceived as a negative or perverse concept. It was Max Weber, a German Sociologist, who gave it a respectable and positive implication. The term bureaucracy is used in the following different terms:

1. Bureaucracy as a Form of Government: Aristotle when considering his three type of constitution-Kingship, Aristocracy and Policy suggested that each had its deviation or corrupted forms, among which he included Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. No dubt bureaucracy as a system of government would in such a scheme be included Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. No doubt bureaucracy as a system of government would in such a scheme be included as a corruption of aristocracy.

2. Bureaucracy as Form of Organisation: The scholars like Pfiffner, E. N. Gladden and Max Weber used the term in this sense.

3. Bureaucracy as a Big Government: Where large scale enterprises exists, there bureaucracy will be found. Chales Hyneman observes that bureaucracy is a big organisation.

4. Bureaucracy as an Ideal Construct: Max Weber regarded bureaucracy as a universal social phenomenon and the means of carrying ‘community action’ over into rationally ordered ‘social action’. He outlined the characteristics of the ‘ideal type’ from functional point of view.

5. Bureaucracy as a Rational System of Working: In administration rationality means cost-effectiveness, productivity and efficiency. Peter Blau, believes that bureaucracy as an organisation maximizes efficiency in administration.

6. Bureaucracy as an Ailment of Organisation: According to Harold J. Laski, Bureaucracy is the term usually applied to a system of government the control of which is so completely in the hands of officials that their power jeopardizes the liberties of ordinary citizens.

Bureaucracy would mean bureau rule, much as autocrat means the rule by the despot and democracy the rule of the people. According to Garl J. Friederick, “Bureaucracy is a form of organisation marked by hierarchy, specialization of roles and a high level of competence displayed by incumbents trained to feel these roles.” F. Morstein Marx defines as “the type of organisation called bureaucratic in this widely used sense has several unmistakable characteristics. They included as principal factors hierarchy, jurisdiction, specialization, professional training, fixed compensation n and permanence.”

Type of Bureaucracy

Broadly, the bureaucracy is categorized into four types of Morstein Marx, viz.,

1. The Guardian Bureaucracy;
2. The Caste Bureaucracy;
3. The Patronage Bureaucracy; and
4. Merit Bureaucracy.

1. The Guardian Bureaucracy: Plato’s concept of the philosopher king is an example of the guardian bureaucracy. They were considered the custodians of justice and welfare of the community. This type may be defined as “a scholastic officialdom trained in right conduct according to the classics.” These guardians were expected to develop a moral fortitude and they can exert influence upon the exercise of power subject to righteousness. Such in Prussia between 1640 and 1740 A.D.

2. Caste Bureaucracy: Caste bureaucracy is generally found in oligarchical political systems. Under such system only persons belonging to higher castes can become public officials. For example, in ancient India, only Brahmins and Kshatriyas could become higher officials. In England, for example, aristocratic classes were preferred to the civil service position. The civil services during the early Roman Empire, Japanese civil services in 1950’s are a few example of the caste bureaucracy.

3. Patronage Bureaucracy: This type of bureaucracy is also called ‘spoils system’. Under this system, the protégés of the politicians are nominated to the civil services. The public jobs are distributed as personal or political favours to their supporters. The U.S.A. has been the traditional home of the spoils system, though patronage had full sway even in the U.K. till the middle of the 19th Century. Under the spoils system in the U.S.A. each administration has a fee to hire and fire virtually all federal workers: “To the victor, the spoils.”

4. Merit Bureaucracy: The object of merit bureaucracy is to recruit the best man for the public service, his merit being judged by objective standards. In this bureaucracy recruitment is based on qualifications and governed by competitive examination.

Historically, it has been observed that bureaucracy antedates development administration and does not fit in with the requirements of modernization. Conservatism rather than change is the essence of bureaucracy. Culturally also, as the critics have maintained, the bureaucratic from of organisation does not suit the needs of the traditional societies that are currently going through a process of change. Bureaucracy has also been critised as urban oriented and elitist in nature and unrelated to the needs of rural areas where most of the people of the developing countries live.

In brief, it is argued that bureaucracy is an ailment of organisation. It is unresponsive to popular demands and desires; undue formalism, self aggrandizement, empire building et. Are some of its negative features. Red tape, delay, buck-passing, pigeon holding, indecision, etc. are forms of administrative inefficiency and identified as bureaucratic incompetence.

Max Weber and the Concept of Bureaucracy

Origin of Bureaucracy: Weber has examined the reasons for the rise of bureaucracy in the modern state. According to him, the system of free enterprise and money economy, the essence of capitalism, fostered bureaucracy. In the face of fierce economic competition, capitalist enterprises needed a highly efficient organizational form. Capitalism requires and encourages strong and orderly governments in its own interest. The bureaucratic principles gave the enterprises the capacity to accomplish economic planning to maintain a stable market for goods and services. It was on the demand of the capitalist enterprises that corporate principles of administration were soon transferred to public agencies. Weber observes, “The capitalistic system has undeniably played a major role in the development of bureaucracy. Indeed, without it capitalistic production could not continue…. Its development, largely under capitalistic auspices, has created and urgent need for stable, strict, intensive and calculative administration. It is this need which gives bureaucracy a crucial role in our society as the central element in any kind for large-scale administration.” Weber further observes, “Capitalism is the most rational economic basic for bureaucratic administration and enables it to develop in the most rational form, especially because, from a fiscal point of view, it supplies the necessary money resources.”

Theory of Domination: Weber’s theory of bureaucracy is a part of his theory of domination. Domination means the authoritarian power of command. In other words, he raised the question as to how one person exercises power over others. His answer was that the exercise of power becomes acceptable if it is justified or legitimized. Legitimation in one way leads to one type of domination; legitimation is another way leads to one type. He thus laid down three types of detonation: (i) traditional, (ii) charismatic domination, and (iii) legal nomination. The conformity with customs and personal arbitrariness are two characteristics of traditional domination. Charism and its acceptance forms of basis of charismatic domination. In a legal rational domination, obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal rules. Legal domination is based upon belief in the desirability of rational principles. Legal domination is best exemplified by bureaucracy. The position of the bureaucrat, his relations with the ruler, the ruled and his colleagues are regulated by impersonal rules.

Ideal Type

Drawing on studies of ancient bureaucracies in Egypt, Rome, China and the Byzantine empire as well as on the more modern ones emerging in Europe during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, Max Weber formulated an ‘ideal type’ model of a bureaucratic form of organisation. Weber wanted to construct an ‘ideal type’ or a mental map of a fully developed bureaucracy. The ‘ideal type’ is a metal construct that cannot be found in reality. It is an abstraction, an idea or a mode. He constructed an ‘ideal’ type of bureaucracy that he felt ought to be followed in modern state system.

Thus, in Weberian analysis, bureaucracy is not to be confused with the civil services. It refers to the sociological concept of rationalization of collective activities. It describes a form or design of organisation which assures predictability of the behaviour of employees.

According to Weber, “Bureaucracy is by far the most efficient instrument of large scale administration which has ever been developed and the modern social order has become over-whelming dependent on it.” He maintained that a purely bureaucratic type of administrative organisation was capable of attaining the highest level of efficiency. He further writes, “This type of organisation is in principle applicable with equal facility to a wide variety of different fields. It may be applied in profit making business or in charitable organisations, or in any number of other types of private enterprises services ideal or material ends. It is equally applicable to political and to religious organisations. With varying degrees of approximation to a pure type, its historical existence can be demonstrated in all these fields.”

Thus Weber contributed a rational type of bureaucracy having the following main characteristic features:

1. Division of Labour: The total task of the organisation is broken down into a number of specialized functions.

2. Well Defined Authority: Hierarchy: Hierarchy is the second fundamental characteristic which is found in a pure bureaucracy. There is a separation between superior and subordinate offices, i.e., each lower office is under the control and supervision of a higher one. Weber attaches greater importance to the principle of hierarchy and observes, “the organisation of offices follows the principle of hierarchy, that is, each lower office is under the control and supervision of a higher one.

3. Abstract Rules: Bureaucracy operates in accordance with the rules. These rules operate only in relation to the official job of an office holder. The role of rules has been stressed by Weber so that personal favours, arbitrariness, grace or gratitude may not hinder the working of an organisation.

4. Impersonality: A bureaucratic from of organisation does not entertain irrational sentiments. Officials are expected to carryout their duties without allowing themselves to be influenced by their personal likes and dislikes.

5. Monthly Salary and Pension Right: Officials hold office by appointment and on the basis of a contractual relationship between themselves and the organisation. Then there are fixed salaries which are given in accordance with the nature of the job and responsibility as well as the social status. In addition, there are chances of promotion and career advancement on the basis of seniority and merit.

6. Official Records: One important feature of Weberian bureaucracy is that “the administrative acts, decision and rules are formulated and recorded in writing even in cases where oral discussion is the rule or is even mandatory.

These above mentioned features constitute Max Weber’s ideal, pure or rational type of bureaucracy. At the hands of Weber, bureaucracy emerged as neutral, hierarchical, organized, efficient and inevitable in contemporary society. This was ‘idea type’ bureaucracy. In fact the ideal type is never actualized. The characteristics of bureaucracy were precision, continuity, discipline, strictness and reliability. These characteristics made it technically the most efficient form of organisation. Max Weber had defined bureaucracy in terms of its structural characteristics.

A Critical review of Webrian Concept of Bureaucracy

1. Ideal Type is a mental model: Weber wanted to construct and ‘ideal type or a mental picture of a ‘fully well developed’ bureaucracy. The ideal type of a mental model that cannot be found in reality. It is a concept conveying an image or an Idea.

2. Authoritarian norms have been embodied: According to Car J. Friederich highly authoritarian ‘norms’ have been embodied in Weberian terminology. It seems to the author that Weber’s fully developed bureaucracy is most nearly represented by three modern organisation: (1) an army, (2) a business concern without any sort of employee or labour participation in management, (3) totalitarian party and its bureaucratic administration.

3. Dysfunctional aspects of bureaucracy: Bureaucracy has also been viewed from the perspective of the ‘pathological’ or ‘dysfunctional’ aspects of its behaviour including show-news, ponderousness, routine and complication so procedures, causing frustrations to the member, clients or subjects of administrative organisation.

4. Alienation of individual: Weberian bureaucracy has been labeled as impersonal, based on rules and procedures. According to Meyers, “Employees participation in these organisation are characterized as feeling alienated an personally unfulfilled because of the limitations which the organisation’s efficiency place on their tree and creative participation in the production process.”

5. Anti-democratic: Weberian model of bureaucracy is opposed to democracy. Weber recognized that bureaucracy concentrates power in the hands of those who are in charge of bureaucratic machinery and that such a concentration of power is against the basic premises of democracy.

6. Ignores informal relationships: Weber’s model is confined to the stuffy of formal bureaucratic structure only. It fails to take notice of the informal relationships, informal norms values in the organisations.

7. Misfit for transformation of societies: The bureaucratic form of organisation has been quite useful at a certain point of time in history. But its capacity for adaptation to change is, however, rather low.

Simon and March observe that Weberian ideal type would not attain maximum efficiency as it emphasizes more on the structure of the bureaucracy than on the human beings who personify it. La Palombara points out that, “a bureaucracy heavily encumbered by Weberian derived norms may be a less efficacious instrument of economic change.” Robert Merton and other sociologists have questioned the rationality of the legal rational model of Weber for it also produces certain dysfunctional consequences. Phillip Selznick, pointing to the division of functions in an organisation, shows how sub-units set up goals of their own which may conflict with the purpose of the organisation as a whole.

In the light of these criticisms in the early 1960’s the demise of bureaucratic types of organisations was predicted. Warren G. Bennis had observed, “This form of organisation (bureaucracy) is becoming less and less effective, it is hopelessly out of joint with contemporary realities, and …. New shapes, patterns and models—currently recessive are emerging which promise drastic changes in the conduct of the corporation and managerial.” The vacuum created by the eclipse of bureaucracy, according to Bennis, will be filled up by temporary work system which will be more adaptive to rapid social changes.

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