What is Bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy is a “form of organizational structure based on rational-legal authority that enables complex administrative tasks to be accomplished in a rational, fair, and efficient manner” (1). According to Jonathan Law, the concept refers to,

“A hierarchical administrative system designed to deal with large quantities of work in a routine manner, largely by adhering to a set of strict and impersonal rules; it is characterized by its permanence and stability, its body of experience and precedent, and its absence of a reliance on individuals” (2).

Max Weber (1864-1920) is generally recognized as providing the most original contribution to the study of bureaucracy. He viewed bureaucracy as essential for organizations in the modern world. Weber maintained that the ideal form of bureaucracy contains the following elements:

  1. A division of labor
  2. Hierarchy
  3. Formal lines of authority and command
  4. Authority vested in an office (position)
  5. Rules and regulations
  6. Officials trained to undertake their duties
  7. Career advancement based on merit
  8. Impartial application of rules and rational decision-making.

Weber also acknowledged the potentially dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy could have on people through its stringent regulations, procedures, and inflexibility. He used the metaphor of the iron cage to convey this concern. It is not therefore uncommon for the term itself to be used as a criticism of an organization or institution based on members or employees feeling too constrained and lacking autonomy.

In practice, all organizations or institutions in private or public spheres of an economy function using some form of bureaucracy, indicating that it is more accurate to refer to the “extent of bureaucracy” in an organization.


1. Jeanes, Emma. 2019. A Dictionary of Organizational Behaviour. Oxford University Press.

2. Law, Jonathan. 2016. A Dictionary of Business and Management (6 ed.). Oxford University Press.


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