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Max Weber discusses the conditions that give rise to the bureaucratic organizational structure and identifies its defining characteristics in the essay “Bureaucracy,” from his work Economy and Society[1].  He locates the emergence of bureaucracy with the rise of mass democracy, suggesting that bureaucracies emerge when societal differences become leveled.  Bureaucracies require financial support, so these organizations typically require a money economy and stable government resources.  “Once it is fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy,” Weber famously notes (1946: 228). While a modern reader may have a somewhat negative connotation with the term bureaucracy, Weber argues that bureaucracies tend be superior to other organizational forms in their speed of action and ability to maximize outputs for the minimal inputs.

Weber’s conceptualization of bureaucracy includes several notable features.  These include a system of rules that govern organizational behavior and procedures and the presence of a well-defined hierarchy among positions within the bureaucratic order. Also featured in a bureaucratic system are formal, written communications and files – Weber would have been referring to literal letters and documents, whereas a contemporary bureaucracy would fulfill this through emails and electronic files.  Specialization is another feature; these positions typically require a specific expertise. Moreover, these positions are impersonal; that is, a particular person does not define a job’s function, but rather a job is fixed and multiple people can hold a given position over time.

Within organizational theory, scholars from the New Institutionalism perspective dispute Weber’s explanation for what factors give rise to bureaucracy.  While Weber suggests that bureaucracy is a product of optimization within an organization, foundational New Institutional theorists have argued that bureaucracy arises from the codification of institutional myths (Meyer and Rowan 1977); these rules then lay the groundwork for the formal, bureaucratic structure that ensues.  DiMaggio and Powell (1983) further comment on the proliferation of the bureaucratic organizational form, suggesting that the dominance of the bureaucratic form has not come about through competition or efficiency (as Weber would suggest), but rather organizations tend to imitate one another (institutional isomorphism), resulting in organizations that are more similar over time but not necessarily more efficient.

Bureaucracy is a particularly useful lens for understanding organizational founding and emergent organizations, as it provides a framework for analyzing the formalization process within organizations.  In the religious realm, as new churches are started, new denominations emerge and the parachurch sector continues to grow, bureaucracy is a way to study the trajectory of these organizations as they develop from an idea to a fully functioning organization.

[1] The source of the original German version. The first site of the English translation of the “Bureaucracy” appears in Gerth and Mills(1946); the essay also appears later slightly revised in Roth and Wittich’s 1978 English translation of Economy and Society.


DiMaggio, Paul J. and Walter W. Powell. 1983. “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.” American Sociological Review. 48:147-160.

Meyer, John W. and Brian Rowan.  1977.  “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony.”  American Journal of Sociology.  83: 340-363.

Weber, Max. 1946. “Bureaucracy” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology,  Pp. 196-244.  Edited by Gerth, H. H. and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford, 196-244.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittch. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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