The bureaucracy

(based on Charles Perrow’s chapter, Why Bureaucracy?)

Bureaucracy-Whose idea was it? Bureaucracies have been around, in various forms, for many centuries (think Catholic Church . . . ). It was sociologist Max Weber who first understood the importance of the bureaucratic organization and its increasingly pervasive influence on modern society. According to Weber, who like many sociologists, was interested in the sweeping social changes taking place during the Industrial Revolution (opposed to anthropologists, who were more interested in archaic, traditional societies and culture), the bureaucracy was an organizational variant of a process he referred to as rationalization. We have them because they are efficient organizational means of dealing with increasing size and complexity, which characterized the growth of most societies from the 1800s on.

Weber talked about three sources of legitimate authority–charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. The first is charismatic authority–think of the cult leader, the Ayatollah Khomeni in Iran, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Adolph Hitler, David Koresh, etc. These individuals (historically most often men, imagine that!) commanded authority by their very personas. What often becomes difficult with authority based on a charismatic leader, however, is the problem of succession. Unless one can make the transition to some other form of legitimacy, successors aren’t likely to possess the sort of charisma that commanded allegiance. Charismatic leaders can do great things–the ‘benevolent dictator’ comes to mind, although I can’t think of any off hand. Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya began as a benevolent dictator, but his reign ended in corruption. At least the more notorious and well-known were sociopaths (Hitler, Joseph Stalin from Russia, Pol Pot from Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Jean Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic). Recently we have the example of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, whose successors simply didn’t possess that charisma that translated into legitimate rule and less need for coercion.

Traditional authority is, well, rooted in tradition. Another way of thinking about it is, ‘this is the way it’s always been done.’ This is often the rationale behind cultural explanations and justifications people give (some women’s support of female circumcision as practiced in regions of Africa fits this explanation). The classic example of traditional authority would be the monarchy, the alleged ‘divine right of kings’ (i.e., a king’s right to rule is straight from God). And how could you ask for a much better claim to authority and legitimacy than that?? Gerontocracies are also examples of traditional authority (e.g., the elders hold the highest positions, based on the belief that elders hold great wisdom and knowledge). The cliff-dwelling Dogon tribe of Central Mali was ruled by the eldest male, the Ogon, who sat on a stone throne, from where he resolved disputes and made important decisions for the village. Traditional bureaucracies exist, and in fact Weber argued that the emergence of the rational-legal bureaucracy was an effort to root out some of the more glaring dysfunctions associated with traditional authority–favoritism, nepotism, arbitrary rule, etc. Glaring for those who didn’t benefit, that is.

So the third type of authority Weber discusses is rational-legal. The US Constitution is a classic example–based not on tradition or personal charisma, but on the law. The University’s system of rules and policies is another. It’s all written down and relatively rational in terms of how it should function–in other words, Weber would say that its functioning shouldn’t change much with the change of individuals in the system. It’s structural, and rooted in law and convention.

Some traits of the rational-legal bureaucracy (we’ll skip the rational-legal part from here on out):

  • 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–it’s important for knowing who is supposed to answer to whom, for instance
  • Division of labor (based on expertise, training)–who’s supposed to do what. This often leads to specialization
  • Formal rules governing behavior, performance–keeping those pesky humans from bringing too much of their personal lives to work . . .
  • 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. They are ‘top down,’ meaning decisions and authority flow from the top to lower tiers in the organization. But remember–looking at an organizational chart may not tell you a whole lot about how a bureaucracy functions in practice–only on paper. For instance, in many office situations, the clerical support staff are critical to the functioning of the organization, and office managers may be ‘gatekeepers,’ making relatively low wages, but controlling access to those higher up the food chain.


  • Fixed salaries–not bribes. Rewards should be relative to effort.
    • look at CEOs and stock options-CEOs of some of the fallen companies in the last several years (e.g., Enron, WorldCom) were filing fraudulent reports about their companies’ earnings, in order to keep stock values high (and investors buying based on false information), at least until they could sell off their own stock options at considerable gain;
    • There has been a great deal of fraudulent Medicare billing, for instance for services that were never rendered;
    • 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)?
  • In bureaucracies there is a distinction between office and officeholder, separation of property ownership (property belongs to the organization, the officeholder draws a salary)

Individual protections

Some level of security for workers:

  • protection from termination, for instance
  • tenure-willingness to invest in human capital for the organization (yes, sometimes people get tenure and become dead weight, but the benefits, says sociologist Charles Perrow, outweigh the costs–tenure is an incentive for people to invest in learning new skills, and it offers protection when the required skills sets change, which for instance happend during the agricultural mechanization period in the 40s and 50s)
  • against arbitrary use of power (e.g., unfounded termination, expulsion, etc.)
  • career-oriented, with promotions (again, for companies investing in the long -term, this represents efficiencies. In companies like McDonald’s, where employees job skills are so narrow, and they learn little over time, their value doesn’t increase, they could be replaced with a day’s worth of training and thus they are entirely expendable)
  • 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)

So . . . doesn’t sound so bad, does it? And it probably sounds different than what you’ve thought of–‘bureaucracy’ often has a negative connotation in popular literature. But without some fairly routinized procedures, for instance to deliver food stamps to millions of clients, it might be a very expensive proposition. So for some tasks, bureaucracies may be well-suited. The key becomes how people are treated, and there are times where we all wish we were treated as individuals (particularist), and others when we wish we were all treated the same (universalist).

How does universalism apply in social welfare? (look at the history of the 1960s, discretion used by agencies in denying welfare to blacks in the inner cities)

  • Relationships with clients, eligibility;
  • There is considerable variation from state-to-state (why would there be variation?)
  • As Sociologist Charles Perrow writes, ‘organizations are tools, the bureaucratic ideal assumes the uses of the organization are legitimate’. Yes, Weber spoke of efficiencies with bureaucracies, but he was well aware of the capacity for power to corrupt the potential efficiencies. Who are welfare agencies designed to protect?
  • As in anything, before we conclude that an outcome was unintended, or inefficient, or anything for that matter, we should examine possible ulterior motives of those making decisions.

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-can become personal fiefdoms, so to speak–any examples from your own work histories?
  • the informal structures-organizational charts only tell you so much about how organizations work (do you understand an organization if you see its chart? Why/not? Role of administrative/clerical personnel)
  • 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.’ He broke down workers’ tasks, people’s skills, essentially ‘cracked their code’, and put the value into management (cutting wages in the process), which then dictated what unskilled workers were to do and supervised them while they did it.
  • 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. But the evidence is not clear on this. Sometimes bureaucracies and hierarchies actually depend on some independence in decision making–hierarchies don’t necessarily imply concentrated power at the top (though that often happens, it isn’t predestined by the structure of the organization)
  • Uncertainty and rules. Actually, the organization with rules may be preferable. All organizations have rules, the ones that write them down have workers who better understand the expectations. Rules of the informal variety have to be learned the hard way, and often serve to discriminate against certain workers or classes of workers who aren’t privy to the unwritten rules. Some of us have worked for those firms whose main qualifications for hiring seem to be kin relations.
  • 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, often quite effective means of wielding organizational power, within and outside the organization. Even the best-intended bureaucracies can be used to serve narrow interests. Also, what does this mean with respect to social welfare? Is the prevailing model heavily bureaucratized? And who is it designed to serve, and how? As you read through the Hays chapters, keep this in mind.

Lareau, Unequal Childhoods, and bureaucracy

You should be able to make the connection between bureauracy and Annette Lareau’s thesis of different child-rearing practices and different spectra of opportunity. Bureaucracies are generally populated by the educated middle-class. Lareau makes that clear in her analysis. Are welfare agencies any different? If lower- and working-class families are less likely to have much trust in these institutions, yet are the most likely to need them–especially the welfare system–what is the likely outcome, and how are they likely to perceive bureaucracies? It’s no coincidence that politicians exploit this popular conception of ‘bureaucracy’ and attempt to equate it with bloated, wasteful and inefficient government programs (even though they’re presumably a part of it, and on the public payroll). Private companies also use the anti-bureaucracy rhetoric, a recent example being the privatization occurring within the corrections industry.

So . . . think about the welfare history we’ve discussed in class. Is the rational-legal bureaucracy important to that history? How?

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