26 Jun 2011

The emergence of bureaucracy

Posted by jofr

bu·reau·cra·cy. A bureaucracy is a boring thing at first sight. Bureaucracy is a form of rigid, strict and inflexible management by guidelines, policies and regulations which can be found in government institutions and large organizations. Unnecessary procedures are common. Impersonal behavior is frequent. The dictionary says it is “the administration of government through departments and subdivisions managed by sets of officials following an inflexible routine”. But if we take a closer look, the history of bureaucracy is quite interesting, since the emergence of bureaucracies is linked to the emergence of higher cultures, ancient civilizations and large corporations. Here’s why.

When and how does a bureaucracy emerge? If democracy is rule of the people (demos) and aristrocracy the rule of the best (aristos), then bureaucracy is the rule of the office (bureau). Or government of the “deskholders” and administrators. An office today uses computers, but traditionally it uses typewriters and printed forms, and the staff used to fill out these forms and write everything down. Public officials and civil servants must obey precisely a large number of regulations, policies and guidelines. Bureaucracy emerges if a large social system is organized by a large set of rules, regulations, policies and guidelines. If it is organized and governed like a machine. If it works like a machine. It is the result of an adaptation of a social system to the economic, industrial world.

Let us look back to the time when bureaucracies and bureaucratic institutions emerged during the time of industrial revolution. Max Weber (1864-1920), one of the founders of sociology, lived like Karl Marx (1818-1883) in a time when the social and the economic world collided. He viewed bureaucracy as the best and most efficient form of organization. It is no accident that bureaucracy is the key aspect in his most important work, which is named “Economy and Society”: bureaucracy emerges when economy and society collide. To make a large organization or company work like a machine, each role has to be described in detail by policies and guidelines, and the individual actors have to follow these guidelines consequently. The detailed description of each role make the system independent from the individual actions. The result is that the actors become interchangeable. They work like an exchangeable machine part or impersonal object. One of the consequences of bureaucracy is the complete avoidance and suppression of all subjectivity and creativity. The advantage is efficient and predictable work. The drawback is rigid, inflexible and impersonal behavior and sometimes unnecessary work. Bureaucrats care more about rules than about people/users/customers. It does not make sense to argue with a member of a really bureaucratic system, you could better try to talk with a coffee or cash machine.

Even a single person can act like a machine sometimes. An example is the amazing Glenn Gould. He played a bit like a machine. If the mind of normal people can be described as a “society of mind”, Gould had perhaps a “bureaucracy of mind” – since a perfect bureaucracy works seamless like a machine. This would fit to his weird behavior in his late years (if you want to more about this genius, Kevin Bazzana has written a nice biography about him named Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould).

Yet bureaucracy is not necessarily a bad thing overall. Weber thought it was good, because it is the most efficient form of organization and the most rational means of exercising authority over human beings. Without bureaucracy there would be no culture at all, at least not the culture we know, since it is commonly associated with the origin of the first writing system in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. The cuneiform writing system developed by the ancient Sumerians was certainly a product of bureaucracy and bureaucratic government. It was used to mark the number of distributed goods on clay tablets. Bureaucracy enabled the ancient Egyptians to build pyramids, the ancient Sumerians to build Ziggurats, and the ancient Chinese to build their Great Wall of China. The scribes in ancient Egypt or ancient Sumer, and the scholars in ancient China enabled the first bureaucracies, because in a bureaucracy, everything has to be documented and written down according to certain rigid rules. Such administration requires a writing system and people who know how to use it. So the first bureaucracies came along with a writing system to record the activities, schools to educate scribes or public officials, and institutions where the public officials work. And again we find an adaptation of a social system to the economic, industrial world. This time it was not the typewriter, but the papyrus scroll and the pen, or the clay tablet and the wedge shaped reed, which were used to apply the writing system. The reason why writing systems were invented was because the first civilizations with “industrial” agriculture needed to record their gains, losses and surpluses.

Today we can observe the emergence of bureaucracy at large organizations and internet sites. An example is the high bureaucracy in the EU. Everyone in Europe knows that the European commission is synonymous with bureaucracy, which is not surprising, because the EU consists of many different independent states and parties with even more languages and opinions. If all these parties want to organize themselves in a meaningful way, they must eventually setup a set of rules and guidelines. One could say the larger the variety and diversity, the higher the bureaucracy. Or: the more fragmented a social system is, the higher are the constraints of bureaucracy. The variety and diversity in the EU is very high, and the bureaucracy has reached an unparalleled height. If we are honest, then we must admit that some regulations of the EU are not much more understandable than the Sumerian cuneiform tablet shown on the left, take for example the Commission Regulation (EC) No 2257/94 which specifies standards for bananas.

Other examples can be found among large Wiki sites like Wikipedia or Stackoverflow, where bureaucracy rules. Wikipedia is fascinating, but it is also the biggest online bureaucracy with very impressive set of regulations, policies and guidelines. Stackoverflow begins to develop a set of guidelines and policies as well. At both sites, a large number of bureaucratic administrators and proud moderators supervises if the content is in exact and precise compliance with regulations, policies and guidelines. Critical content is removed, deleted and closed immediately. In case of doubt the guidelines rule. Large wiki sites, huge organizations and big companies somehow tend to produce bureaucrats who strictly follow fixed objective rules. Apparently these are the only rules people with subjective experiences and many different point of views can agree on. Large organizations and companies are complex systems. They can only work like a predictable machine if they become a bureaucratic system, if actors are turned into objects. Matt Webb said about companies:

The company’s decisions aren’t actually the shareholders’ decisions. A company has a culture which is not the simple sum of the opinions of the people in it. A CEO can never be said to perform an action in the way that a human body can be said to perform an action, like picking an apple. A company is a weird, complex thing, and rather than attempt (uselessly) to reduce it to people within it, it makes more sense – to me – to approach it as an alien being and attempt to understand its biology and momentums only with reference to itself. Having done that, we can then use metaphors to attempt to explain its behaviour: we can say that it follows profit, or it takes an innovative step, or that it is middle-aged, or that it treats the environment badly, or that it takes risks. None of these statements is literally true, but they can be useful to have in mind when attempting to negotiate with these bizarre, massive creatures.

A useful metaphor to describe an ideal bureaucracy would be: we can say it works like a machine. This would be totally in agreement with Max Weber, who viewed an ideal bureaucracy as a formal hierarchical structure combined with a purposely impersonal management by rules. He says in “The Theory of Social and Economic Organization”: “A fully developed bureaucratic mechanism stands in the same relationship to other forms as does the machine to the non-mechanical production of goods. Precision, speed, clarity, documentary ability, continuity, discretion, unity, rigid subordination, reduction of friction and material and personal expenses are unique to bureaucratic organization.”

(the image of a typewriter is from Flickr user zanucki, the image of a cuneiform tablet is from Wikipedia)

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  1. […] corporation, culture or organization emerge during the course of time: the identity emerges. The bureaucratic rules of Wikipedia and Stackoverflow are an […]


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