What is Bureaucracy? Definition, Theory, Principles, and Criticism

What is Bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy is an administrative structure that features full-time officials, who are arranged in a hierarchy of subordination, and whose work is governed by the specialization of function, as well as by formal rules and documents. Bureaucracy leads to efficiency and predictability of work.

Weberian Bureaucracy:

The German sociologist, Max Weber is the founding figure of organizational sociology and bureaucracy. Weber defined three types of authority:

  • Rational-legal (based on rules) authority
  • Traditional authority
  • Charismatic authority (in which the leader is seen by the followers as being extraordinarily gifted e.g. Martin Luther King)

In a bureaucracy, authority is rational-legal. For Weber, bureaucracy is defined as being a social organization in which there are full-time administrators, arranged in a hierarchy, who have well-defined roles and follow rules. Bureaucracy is superior to other forms of organization in:

  • Its ability to control subordinates and make them give priority to performances/roles over personal feelings, which in turn facilitates efficient working.
  • It also has extensive paperwork and records.
  • Bureaucratic officials are superior in their knowledge of keeping files and official secrets.

Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy

According to Weber’s ‘theory of bureaucracy’, bureaucracy is the basis for the systematic formation of any organization and is designed to ensure efficiency and economic effectiveness. It is an ideal model for management and its administration to bring an organization’s power structure into focus. Weber (1922) popularly characterized a bureaucracy as having:

  • a hierarchy of authority i.e. legitimate authority
  • a clear division of labor i.e. specialization of tasks
  • explicit rules i.e. formalization
  • impersonality


In the late 1800s, Max Weber criticized organizations for running their businesses like a family where there are no strict rules, driven by emotional attachment rather than work efficiency as a priority. Weber believed that such informal organization inhibited the potential success of a company because power was misplaced. He felt that employees were loyal to their bosses and not to the organization. Eventually, Weber created the idea of bureaucratic management where organizations needed to be more authoritative, rigid, and structured.

Weber believed in a more formalized, rigid structure of organization known as a ‘bureaucracy’. This non-personal view of organizations followed a formal structure where formal rules, legitimate authority, and competence were characteristics of appropriate management practices. He believed that a supervisor’s power should be based on his/her position within the organization, his or her level of professional competence, and his/her adherence to rules and regulations.

Characteristics of Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy

Or Principles or Characteristics of Bureaucratic Organizations

To better understand the idea of bureaucracy, let’s look at some of its characteristics:

A well-defined formal hierarchy and chain of command:

The hierarchy distinguishes the level of authority (power) within an organization. Individuals who hold higher positions will supervise and direct lower positions within the hierarchy.

E.g., For Maria, the Manager supervises a team of four sales representatives. Maria’s position within the organization as a supervisor gives her authority over those four sales representatives to direct and control their actions to ensure organizational goals are met.

Existence of explicit rules and regulations:

Explicit rules refer to how rules are outlined, written down, and standardized. It means that an organization operates or is managed by a standard set of rules and regulations. E.g. when an employee is sick and cannot make it to work that day, he or she must call out to their direct supervisor.

If one of John’s sales reps is sick, they are expected to call him directly to inform her of their absence. Any employee who fails to do this will be subject to termination. All of John’s employees are expected to follow this rule, and John is expected to enforce this rule equally among his employees.

Division of labor and work specialization:

Each member of the bureaucracy has a specialized task to perform. This way, an employee will work on things with which he or she has experience and knows how to do well.

E.g. let’s say two of Maria’s sales representatives are experienced in selling products to the vendor in the western region of the country due to their extensive experience working in that area. Maria would then put those two employees in charge of that specific region and would place the other two sales reps in the eastern reason.

Meritocratic basis of hiring:

At least, in theory, bureaucracy is meritocratic, meaning that hiring and promotion are based on proven and documented skills, rather than on nepotism or random choice.

To provide effective and efficient services and carry out functions, it hires workers with high technical and professional competence which eventually leads to the achievement of the organizational (bureaucratic) goals.


It is the office that is important, not the individual who holds the office and you work for your organization, not the boss. Workers/ employees are replaceable units and they are just there to fulfill a particular function.

Hence, relationships among staff are impersonal (i.e. not personal) and involve no emotional sentiments. So long you generate fruit for the organization (company) you remain there and vice versa.

A standard of formal written communication and records:

The records of events and activities are maintained in bureaucracy. As a result, workers do not have to spend much time sending memos back and forth.

Criticism of Bureaucracy:

Bureaucracy has several positive aspects as it is intended to improve effectiveness, ensure equal opportunities, and increase efficiency. There argue times when a rigid structure of the organization is needed. However, critics argued that there is a clear component of irrationality within the rational organization of bureaucracies. Some of the major critiques of bureaucracy are:

  • Firstly, bureaucracy creates conditions of alienation in which workers can not find meaning in the repetitive, standardized nature of the tasks they are obliged to perform. So it is criticized for inflexibility and low output.
  • Secondly, it can lead to bureaucratic inefficiency, and ritualism (red tape). They focus too much on rules and regulations to the extent of undermining the organization’s goals and purpose. So, it is a barrier to innovation.
  • Thirdly, it has a tendency toward inertia which means instead of changing their direction, bureaucracy focuses on perpetuating themselves rather than effectively accomplishing or re-evaluating the tasks they were given.
  • Finally, Robert Michels (1911) suggested, bureaucracies are characterized by the iron law of oligarchy (Oligarchy: a small group of people having control of a country or organization) in which the organization is ruled by a few elites (rich and powerful group). The organization serves to promote the self-interest and needs of oligarchs and not the needs of the public or clients.

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