Bureaucracy: Definition, Meaning and Concept

Bureaucracy can be defined as a system of government in which most of the important decisions are taken by state officials rather than by elected representatives. Let’s understand the Bureaucracy Definition, Meaning, and complete Concept.

The term, bureaucracy, is the paronymous of a bureau, used from the early 18th century in France not just to refer to a writing desk, but to an office, i.e., a workplace, where officials worked.

The original French meaning of the word bureau was the green woolen cloth used to cover desks. The term bureaucracy came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, and from there rapidly spread to other countries.

The Greek suffix -kratia or kratos – means power or rule. Bureaucracy thus basically means office power or office rule, the rule of the civil service.

Definition of Bureaucracy

Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1971) defined bureaucracy as “a system of administration marked by constant striving for increased functions and power, by lack of initiative and flexibility.

In difference of human needs or public opinion, and by a tendency to defer decisions to superior or to impede action with red tape… the body of officials that gives effect to such a system.”

Bureaucracy definition according to Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines bureaucracy as a professional corps of officials organized in a pyramidal hierarchy and functioning under impersonal, uniform rules and procedures.

Believe it or not, bureaucracy existed long before words and theories were devised to describe it in detail. The Chinese Song dynasty, for example, constructed a centralized bureaucracy with civilian scholar-officials.

This system of rule led to a much greater concentration of power in the hands of the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than was achieved in previous dynasties.

Literality meaning of Bureaucracy

It, however, literally connotes that power is in the hand of officials. Sociologists use this term to designate a certain type of structure, a particular organization of rationally coordinated unequal, and reject the term, which equates bureaucracy with red tape, inefficiency, and similar negative connotations.

Sociological Perspective of Bureaucracy

In the social sciences, the term usually does not carry the pejorative associations of popular usage. Bureaucracy is a kind of formal administrative structure. It has distinctive characteristics and problems.

Understanding Bureaucracy and its Concept

Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science referring to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules are socially organized. This office organization is characterized by standardized procedure, formal division of responsibility, hierarchy, and impersonal relationships.

Through and through, bureaucracy is one of the institutional anchors for the effective functioning of the democratic system and the enforcement of the rule of law.

Bureaucracy—a Sociological Tool

Organizations surround us. Bureaucracy is a blueprint for organizing human activities for the desired end. It is a sociological phenomenon that has evolved throughout the history of civilization.

As a sociological tool, it has been used to build pyramids, invade nations, cure illnesses, keep criminals incarcerated, land on Mars, massacre millions, educate, and so on.

It is the tool of power, an effective device to control and direct human effort and behavior. The bureaucratic theory of Max Weber has been a point of departure for the development and modification of organizational structure to influence the flow of interrelationships within organizations.

The degree of bureaucracy in an organization sets the boundaries for human action. These boundaries that regulate people’s freedom have a by-product known as alienation. The construct of alienation has been studied in relation to bureaucracy. It has been demonstrated that people who work in bureaucracies have a limited “say” in what they do. For good or for evil, bureaucracy is the machinery to control human behavior. What matters is how to use this device without alienating people.

Range of Meaning

Bureaucracy refers to a professional, full-time administrative staff with life-long employment, organized careers, salaries, and pensions, appointed to office and rewarded on the basis of formal education, merit and tenure.

Bureaucracy can also be seen as a rational tool for executing the commands of elected leaders. In this perspective it is an organizational apparatus for getting things done, to be assessed on the basis of its effectiveness and efficiency in achieving pre-determined purposes. Bureaucratic structure determines what authority and resources can be legitimately used, how, when, where and by whom.


Bureaucratic characteristics or dimensions could create different configurations of bureaucracies. Since the 1960s, dimensional approaches to studying bureaucracy have been used. Hall was among the first to bureaucratic dimensions in organizations empirically.

After an extensive literature review, he identified six dimensions of bureaucracy: hierarchy of authority, division of labor, rules, and regulations, procedural specifications, impersonality, and technical competence.

Hierarchy of authority, rules and regulations, procedural specifications, and impersonality clustered together while the division of labor and technical competence clustered together.

The higher-order dimension formed by the first set of dimensions is a measure of bureaucratization while the higher-order dimension formed by the second set of dimensions is a partial measure of professionalism. Isherwood and Hoy (1973) confirmed that Hall’s six dimensions cluster under two separate second-order dimensions.

Bureaucracy as an Institution

Out and out, bureaucracy is also an institution with a raison d’etre and organizational and normative principles of its own. The administration is based on the rule of law, due process, codes of appropriate behavior, and a system of rationally debatable reasons. Bureaucracy, then, is an expression of cultural values and a form of governing with intrinsic value.

Over and Above

Bureaucracy is more than a stock of human resources, an organizational apparatus, or an employment system. It is an articulated set of operating rules and guidelines regulating the executive branch that aims to give continuity, coherence, and relevance to public policies while ensuring a neutral, objective, and non-arbitrary exercise of public authority.

The bureaucracy is a key factor in encouraging inter-temporal agreements, especially through its role in putting such agreements into practice. A neutral and professional bureaucracy limits the scope for the adoption of opportunistic policies and enhances the trust of actors that commitments made, as a part of policy agreements will be fulfilled.

Examples of bureaucracy

Examples of everyday bureaucracies include governments, armed forces, autonomous bodies, corporations, hospitals, courts, ministries, educational institutions and political parties, etc. measure

Vagueness Curbside

Even though the concept of bureaucracy enwraps political sociology and public opinion, it has remained so vague that it is important to ask about the characteristics of the phenomenon it asserts to describe. One may receive an impression of the diversity or ambiguity of its connotation.

Veritably, bureaucracy appears as something incredible that everyone comments upon, feels, and experiences, but which keeps from abstraction.

Abstract Vs Concrete

It is an abstract bureaucracy that bears a negative connotation, while the concrete noun – a bureaucracy, a synonym for an organized civil service-does not necessarily do so.

This distinction allows us to imagine that there could be bureaucracies that are not bureaucratic in the pejorative sense. From this one might conclude that the essential problem for poor countries is designing the institutional context for a non-bureaucratic bureaucracy.

Before jumping to this conclusion, however, it is necessary to be more precise about what is wrong with bureaucracy in the abstract sense.

Bad Bureaucracy

Those who use bureaucracy as a term of abuse, rather than a neutral description of a body of government officials, are probably making one or more of five complaints.

The most fundamental complaint is that officials are accountable only to their superiors, and not to those whose affairs they administer. This implies no accountability to the governed. Bad bureaucracy then is the lack of popular accountability of officials.

The bureaucracy, to the extent that it provides goods and services, operates without any competition and thus has no incentive to force down the costs of production of public services. Bad bureaucracy is pervasively inefficient.

This complaint runs parallel to the previous one. To the extent that the bureaucracy is providing regulatory services, it is in danger of being captured by the private interests whose activities it is intended to regulate.

When regulatory capture has taken place, bad bureaucracy becomes the creator and distributor of rents and vested interests in the private sector (Stigler 1975).

Modem bureaucracies operate by making and enforcing rules that apply to categories of people. The purpose of this practice of making general rules is to eliminate arbitrariness, personal favoritism, and objectionable discrimination in administration. Bad bureaucracy is the legalistic implementation of category-based rules.

This is about the multiplication of offices and departments, which then operate without adequate coordination. The proliferation of different offices induces a failure of high-level overall control of the bureaucracy.

In these conditions, delegation becomes incoherent, and bureaus operate with overlapping and conflicting functions. As a result, people suffer unnecessary delays while trying to find out which office is responsible for the matter concerning them. Bad bureaucracy is the bureaucratic expansion and the blurring of responsibilities that it induces.

Odd Perception of Bureaucracy

For the most part, we have educated ourselves to see bureaucracy as a necessary evil, a self-protecting and self-enhancing institution permanently embedded in complex economies. And given the long-held belief that not much can be done about bureaucracy, it has occupied little in the way of analytic attention.

Diverse angles of perceptions

There are well-accepted theories of why it exists; none are mutually exclusive. The most important seems to be that it is necessary for organizations to achieve scale and maintain the organization’s authority and purpose as it grows.

Others suggest bureaucracy exists to ensure fairness, especially within the public sphere; or, to maintain and store information that is needed for the organization to proceed. Nearly all theorists see it as orthogonal to human creativity and innovation.

The Ideal Type of Bureaucracy

As an ideal type, bureaucracy has clear characteristics, preconditions, and effects. Practice at best approximates the ideal type and public administration is never a fully developed bureaucracy. There are fluid and overlapping organizational principles and the functioning, emergence, growth, and consequences of bureaucracy depend on a variety of factors.

Effectiveness of Bureaucracy

Peter Evans (2003) has proposed that the effectiveness of public institutions depends on hybridity, an integrated balance among three different modes of guiding public action.

The three modes are: enhancing bureaucratic capacity, defined in terms of Weber’s ideal type characteristics; following market signals, conveying the costs and benefits of public resource use; and empowering bottom-up democratic participation to check that state action reflects the needs and desires of ordinary citizens.

The Risk Factor

Bureaucracy is, in its essence, a means of communication whose purpose is to reduce risk. Within organizations, the risk-averting dialogue is articulated in rules that bound the behaviors of people and control processes. There is also an inter-institutional dialog that establishes rules, which similarly limit individual decision-making in order to reduce risk and to comply with larger social objectives articulated by the legislature.

Weber’s Concept of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is often used as a pejorative slogan, as well as, a label for all public administration, or any large-scale formal organization.

Max Weber, however, made bureaucracy an analytical concept, decoupled from the polemical context in which it had emerged. Here the term signifies, a distinct organizational setting, the bureau or office: formalized, hierarchical, specialized with a clear functional division of labor and demarcation of jurisdiction, and standardized, rule-based, and impersonal.

Weber- Rules & Orders

He defined domination based on the authority and the validity of order as questions of degree and probabilities. Orders could be interpreted differently, there could be contradictory systems of order and the key questions were: how often and under which conditions do bureaucrats actually comply with rules and commands, and how often are rules and commands enforced?

Bureaucratization was stimulated by the quantitative and qualitative expansion of administrative tasks, but its direction and the reasons that occasioned it could vary widely.

Weber saw the bureaucrats’ willingness and capacity to follow rules and orders as depending on a variety of mechanisms. The motivation was a result of material incentives inherent in life-long careers, as well as socialization and training in educational and bureaucratic institutions.

The bureaucracy’s capacity to follow formal rules or ethical codes depended on their own qualifications and orientations but also on the leaders’ ability to give direction and the continuous availability of resources.

Weber’s Sociology

Weber’s sociology differs from others of his era in that it is not descriptive so much as what Mises refers to as General Sociology, which “approaches historical experience from a more nearly universal point of view than that of the other branches of history.”

Thus, Weber was deeply embedded in historicism, opposed to all general schemes, and refused to explain in causal terms. He compliments bureaucracy for its greater efficiency and its leveling effects on society. However, he recognizes that bureaucracy is not entirely a positive development and suggests that it may stifle enterprise, as it did in ancient Rome.

He makes an assertion that bureaucracy’s power grows as its greater technical knowledge invites influence that outstrips its supposed neutrality. The bureaucratic order would become a “housing of that future serfdom to which, perhaps, men may have to submit powerlessly, just like the slaves in the ancient state of Egypt.”

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