Summary: bureaucracy

BureaucracyWhose idea was it?

Three sources of legitimate authority

  • charismatic,
  • traditional, and
  • rational-legal

Some traits of the rational-legal bureaucracy

  • equal treatment of employees
    • sources of unequal treatment-nepotism, politics, individuals’ personalities, sexism/racism/ageism
  • people are hired/retained because of their qualifications, skill, expertise
  • the office belongs to the organization, not the individual (separation of office and officeholder). So offices aren’t to be used for personal enrichment (e.g., shaking down welfare clients)
  • standards of work and output. There are expectations of workers.
  • record keeping (this allows a company or agency to hold people accountable to expectations, to what they’re supposed to be doing on the job)
  • rules (serving organization’s interests, binding workers and managers)

Three areas of particular importance are:

Hierarchical structure

  • Accountability
  • Division of labor (based on expertise, training)
  • Formal rules governing behavior, performance
  • Provides control over what workers do (grounds for termination, for instance)
  • Allows for coordination of effort (who is supposed to work with who?)
  • Hierarchical structures can tend to concentrate power at the top, also.


  • Fixed salaries–not bribes.
    • What if welfare case workers were rewarded for reducing the rolls (that is, having less clients, either through denying eligibility claims, or placing clients in work settings)?
  • Distinction between office and officeholder, separation of property ownership

Individual protections

Some level of security for workers:

  • protection from termination, for instance
  • tenure
  • against arbitrary use of power (e.g., unfounded termination, expulsion, etc.)
  • career-oriented, with promotions
  • obedience is to the office, not the person
  • there are grievance procedures

EQUAL TREATMENT: These protections represent attempts to foster universalism over particularism–protection of employees, equity (in the name of efficiency, remember)

How does universalism apply in social welfare?

  • Relationships with clients, eligibility;
  • There is considerable variation from state-to-state (why would there be variation?)
  • As Sociologist Charles Perrow says, ‘organizations are tools, the bureaucratic ideal assumes the uses of the organization are legitimate’.
  • Ulterior motives, explicit and latent functions …

Problems with bureaucracies

Humans are pesky critters

  • They (we) bring their personal lives into organizations
    • examples in the workplace-the water cooler, sending around emails, problems from home, phone calls, etc., work/other things to do on computer … pilfering supplies)
  • in a bigger sense, offices can be appropriated
  • the informal structures-organizational charts only tell you so much about how organizations work
  • People are not robots- -this has been a constant irritation for employers
    • F.W. Taylor and Taylorism–variation in worker productivity, worshipping at the altar of efficiency
    • Taylor studied the ‘science of management.’
  • bureaucracies and change:
    • they’re often unadaptive (weren’t generally created to respond to changes)-
    • routine vs non-routine tasks (how does this work in welfare? Which do bureaucracies handle best and why?)
  • Power: there’s a potential for centralization.
  • Uncertainty and rules. Better unwritten (probably not)?
  • They’re impersonal-yes, but that’s part of the point, isn’t it? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the impersonal nature of a bureaucracy?

Keep in mind–Bureaucracies are TOOLS

Lareau, Unequal Childhoods, and bureaucracy: Which children tend to be brought up with an understanding of middle class values and an understanding of how to interact with institutions, and which are more likely to learn the dual lessons of avoidance and mistrust?


Charles Perrow. 1986. Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay. NY: McGraw-Hill.