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bureaucracy

bureaucracy (byŏrŏkˈrəsē) [key], the administrative structure of any large organization, public or private. Ideally bureaucracy is characterized by hierarchical authority relations, defined spheres of competence subject to impersonal rules, recruitment by competence, and fixed salaries. Its goal is to be rational, efficient, and professional. Max Weber, the most important student of bureaucracy, described it as technically superior to all other forms of organization and hence indispensable to large, complex enterprises. However, because of the shortcomings that have in practice afflicted large administrative structures, the terms bureaucracy and bureaucrat in popular usage usually carry a suggestion of disapproval and imply incompetence, a narrow outlook, duplication of effort, and application of a rigid rule without due consideration of specific cases. Bureaucracy existed in imperial Rome and China and in the national monarchies, but in modern states complex industrial and social legislation has called forth a vast growth of administrative functions of government. The power of permanent and nonelective officials to apply and even initiate measures of control over national administration and economy has made the bureaucracy central to the life of the state; critics object that it is largely impervious to control by the people or their elected representatives. The institution of the ombudsman has been one means adopted in an attempt to remedy this situation. Others has been collective decision making and organizational structures that emphasize minimize hierarchies and decentralize the power to make decisions. Administrative bureaucracies in private organizations and corporations have also grown rapidly, as has criticism of unresponsive bureaucracies in education, health care, insurance, labor unions, and other areas. See also civil service; industrial management.

See M. Dimock, Administrative Vitality: The Conflict with Bureaucracy (1959); R. Bendix, M. Weber (1960); C. Barnard, Functions of the Executive (1980); M. Albrow, Bureaucracy (1970); P. M. Blau, Bureaucracy in Modern Society (2d ed. 1971); J. Hage, Theories of Organization (1980); K. Ferguson, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy (1984); C. Perrow, Complex Organizations (3d ed. 1986).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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