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Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Author: Zach Lamb

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

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for joining me. We've got a really exciting lesson today on bureaucracy. I'm going to describe bureaucracy, the characteristics of bureaucracy, and explain bureaucracy as the epitome of rationality, of a rational way of looking at the world and seeing the world. Now, rationality stands in opposition to tradition.

A way that we used to look at the world and the way we use to organize our thinking was in a traditional fashion. Sociologist Max Weber-- hugely important sociologist. We love this guy. He is like a deity in sociology. He theorized the transition from tradition to rationality.

So for starters, tradition then is anything, any idea, custom, habit, belief, that's been handed down from generation to generation. It can be ideas, like beliefs, habits, customs, rituals. Or it can be a material culture.

In traditional society, the mentality is, well, we do this because it's always been done this way. There's not a lot of thought given to why things are done or to change things in a different way. It's just you take the traditions that have been handed down to you from the past, the customs, habits, given to you from the past, and then they just get repeated in society. And in this way, these traditional societies tend to be more stable.

They are also characterized by a mythical or enchanted ethos. They're much more religious people. God explained everything. Religion had a much more prominent role in society as a way to explain why things are the way they are. You were poor because God wanted it that way. Or you were a noble, part of the nobility, because God wanted it that way.

And this wasn't questioned. This was just the way things were. Religion explained it a lot more.

Also, along with this idea of nobility then-- hereditary. Bloodlines were really important in society because you were either a serf or a nobility because you were born into it that way. So status-given, hereditary authority was much more recognized and important in traditional society.

Of course, not every traditional society was like this all the time. But an ideal type is a way to conceptualize this idea of traditional society and use it to think and work with. So then let's turn to an ideal type as opposed to tradition-- rationality. And now, you're much more familiar with a rational organization in a rational worldview, because it's what dominates society today.

Rationality is defined as a calculated, practical, thinking way to look at the world, that is designed to accomplish tasks most efficiently. So efficiency is a huge component of rationality. And along with this we have science. Rather than religious and mythical or mystical thinking, we have a more scientific orientation, a way to look at the world. So in this way, you can say the rational world is disenchanted. It's less mystical relative to the traditional world.

And we use a calculated cost-benefit way to look at the world. What are the costs of this action, as opposed to what are the benefits of this action? What am I going to get out of this, as opposed to what do I have to give up?

It was a process in the evolution of human society, getting from traditional ways of thinking to a more rational way of looking at the world. It was by no means a fast transition or a natural transition that had to happen. And Weber theorized this transition as the rationalization of society, which is the replacement of traditional ways of thinking with rational ways of thinking.

Now, we're going to look now at bureaucracies, the bureaucratic organizational form, something you're very familiar with, as the epitome of this rational world view, this rational way to look at society. Let's turn now and look at bureaucracy.

A bureaucracy is a model for organization, designed to accomplish tasks the most efficient way possible. Commonly when we hear bureaucracy, we think of the business organization, the business bureaucracy. You might work in a bureaucracy, or you might have to deal with a bureaucracy whenever you want to get a driver's license. You have to go to the DMV-- or if you want to get a passport. Or any kind of government organization is commonly thought of as a bureaucracy.

So with those images in mind then, then let's turn to describe the six characteristics of bureaucracy that Max Weber identified, the first of which is specialization. Industrial capitalism dramatically increased the division of labor such that we now each perform specialized tasks. We don't try to do everything ourselves. The division of labor spreads out all of the tasks among all members of society. So you might do this, and another person might do that.

A famous way to look at the division of labor was given to us by an economist, Adam Smith. You may have heard that name before, or you might not have. But anyway, Smith give us an example of the pin maker to describe the division of labor. He said, one person making pins themselves could make a small amount of pins. Say they could make 10 pins a day.

But then, once you bring in somebody else, divide the tasks so somebody's responsible for fashioning the small part of the pin, and somebody then just makes the tops of the pin. And together, they can suddenly make that many more pins, and on and on and on. And as the more specialized the tasks become, ideally the more efficient you can become because not everybody has to switch between tasks and do things like that. So this is a hallmark of bureaucracy, specialization.

Secondly, bureaucracies are hierarchically organized, from high to low. So I have a boss, and my boss has a boss. And they have a boss, and on and on and on. You can see there's this high chain of command here. Bureaucracies are organized that way to ensure good communication.

Think about if you could just run around-- like I can't run around and go talk to the high up boss, the highest boss all the time, every time I want. Think about at Microsoft if everybody could run around and try to talk to Bill Gates all the time. The organization can't function that well, that efficiently, that way. So we have a nested set of hierarchical offices in a bureaucracy.

And thirdly, a bureaucracy has rules and regulations. And very importantly, they have rules and regulations. In order to operate efficiently, you can't leave anything to chance. You want to try to control as much as you possibly can.

There are many rules that govern the conduct of people in bureaucracies and then those who wish to engage the bureau for something. So think about a time you've gone to the DMV. You have to stand in this line, or you have to stand in this line. And then you have to walk up to this counter or that counter. And sometimes they even take a number to try to ensure a proper flow of people.

Everything is controlled and rule-bound. I dare you to just try and walk up to the counter without obeying all of these rules. You might incite a riot. People are going to be like, whoa, what is this offender doing? He's not following the rules. The thing couldn't function without rules.

Fourth, we have this idea of technical competence. The bureaucracy is filled with offices, and there are rules to determine who can fill that office. We don't know each other so well. The bureaucracy is impersonal.

People within it don't know each other so well, and you certainly don't know people wanting to come in and work in the office. So you have to hire somebody with laid out, established qualifications-- so this idea of the resume where you lay out your qualifications. And then after you hire somebody, your performance has to be monitored according to predetermined, laid out standards. So this is this idea of technical competence.

Fifth characteristic of bureaucracy is this idea of impersonality. So it doesn't matter who you are, who you know or what you want or how you might think you're special. Rules come before all else. And in the eyes of a bureaucracy, everyone is treated in the same uniform fashion.

The bureau doesn't care if you're having a bad day or if you can't afford to make your payment or if you don't have the time to wait in line and slide through the whole process. You're going to do it just the same as everyone else. You're not special. You're no different. So this is just this idea of impersonality.

And finally, sixth, we have a premium on formal, written communications. So rather than face to face communication, casually, the bureaucracy depends on memos, on briefs, paperwork, and now email and digital storage-- basically, any form of written communication. So when my boss wants to set up a meeting, I get an email, rather than a question from, say, 10 feet away or two cubicles away.

No, I get an email. And then everything is documented. We're going to have a meeting at this time, this place, do you accept? Well, we could have just had this face to face conversation. But no, it's done through email.

So those are the six characteristics of bureaucracy. But you might be saying, well, so what? Who cares about bureaucracy? Why do we focus on it? Why do sociologists even care?

Well, it's important because Weber saw this bureaucratic form as taking over society and transforming it in its image. And he called this the process of bureaucratization, where all social life would come to be organized like the bureaucracy. Certainly work-- think about your job. Think about these characteristics of bureaucracy and how you see them at your job.

The church now even resembles a bureaucracy. Government certainly is a bureaucracy. The education system is a bureaucracy. The military, all of these things are bureaucracy. Life is filled with bureaucracy.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to bureaucracy. Have a great rest of your day.

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.