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Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Author: Paul Hannan

Recognize the components of bureaucracy, and how bureaucracy contributes to the rationality of society.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain, Images from, Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology-- Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on characteristics of bureaucracy. As always don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today we're looking at characteristics of a bureaucracy. One thing that you need to think about when you're thinking about practices is that they all are-- kind of come from the idea of formal organization. So let's take a step back and look at the way organizations have changed.

Max Weber was the one who had this idea and put them with these different terminologies here. Traditionally-- I mean organizations have been around for a long time. And organizations have existed in different types of society. Well, a culture or society that transfers ideas primarily just from generation to generation, you can call that tradition.

As things have progressed, cultures have used other ways to think about ideas. Rationality is a culture that uses ideas to think rationally and efficiently. So the rationalization of society is when a society switches from thinking in a traditional way to a rational way of thinking. Now, all these different ways, these tie into kind of the foundation of bureaucracy and how they work. And a bureaucracy really exists in that last stage, when society as a whole has transitioned to rationality.

So what is a bureaucracy then? Well, a bureaucracy is an organization that works together using the efficiency of rationality. So it's really trying to think logically and work through decisions to find the most efficient way to get work done. And Weber had a couple of different characteristics of bureaucracy that helped really define what makes a bureaucracy different from just an organization.

So here are the five characteristics. The first one is specialization. So on the screen they have those three different tools. You wouldn't use a hammer to get a screw out of a wall. And you wouldn't write with a screwdriver. All those tools are very specialized.

Well, in a bureaucracy people's jobs are highly specialized. You're not someone who's a generalist, who does a bunch of different things. You generally have one specific task inside the bureaucracy. And that's all you're worried about.

Another characteristic of a bureaucracy is that it's really hierarchical. So a hierarchy is where you have a small group at the top. And it filters down. And so there's like-- a chain of command is a military term, where there's people directly above you. Well, bureaucracies have this hierarchy or the structure of a hierarchy.

Another thing that bureaucracies have is they have a lot of written rules and regulations. In fact, the primary way they really function is by having people follow these rules and regulations.

The fourth characteristic of a bureaucracy is that it's impersonal. So when you have an individual, that individual gets blurred out. The individual isn't necessarily the focus. All individuals are seen as interchangeable, as just different cogs of this bureaucracy.

The last characteristic is record keeping. So record keeping is just that bureaucracies really are an organization that is founded on paper. And in the modern world, it doesn't actually have to be paper. It can be email. It can be memos. But there is a paper trail.

There's these records that are being kept of who's ordering who to do what; where are the supplies being bought, from here to there; where is this money being transferred. There's always record keeping involved.

So today's take-away message. Today, we learned about tradition, which is a culture that transfers ideas from generation to generation; rationality, which is a culture that uses the ideas of thinking rationally and efficiently. And then a rationalization of society is when a society which from a traditional way of thinking to a rational way of thinking.

Then we looked at a bureaucracy. And that's just an organization that works together, using the efficiency of rationality. And there's five different characteristics that Weber laid out for bureaucracy. And that's specialization, hierarchy, written rules, impersonality, and record keeping.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work. And hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know

A model for organization that is designed to accomplish tasks with the maximum efficiency possible.


Calculated, practical, cost-benefit reasoning designed to accomplish tasks efficiently.

Rationalization of Society (Process of, Max Weber)

The movement from traditional ways of thinking, behaving, and feeling, to modern, rational ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.


Beliefs, values, practices, and customs that are handed down from generation to generation in society.

Weber's Six Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Max Weber argued that the bureaucratic organizational form is characterized by six features: 1) Specialization and Division of Labor; 2) Hierarchical Authority Structures; 3) Rules and Regulations; 4) Technical Competence Guidelines; 5) Impersonality and Personal Indifference; 6) A Standard of Formal, Written Communications.