A Brief History Of Bureaucracy

The Chinese, western royal courts, churches, and the Industrial Revolution have all shaped the history of bureaucracy.

In the government, academic, and corporate worlds, buzz words change almost frequently enough for people to require a pocket dictionary that can be updated weekly. Despite any name put to it over the centuries, however, the primary instrument or tool of authority for the exercise of power continues to be "bureaucracy".

The term, "bureaucracy", basically means "rule by office." It derives from the French word "bureau", meaning office or desk, and the Greek word "kratein", meaning "to rule." Given that, many cultures had bureaucracies of sorts in place long before the term entered common parlance.

Confucianism, which has permeated Chinese life for centuries, contains philosophic elements that in effect are preconditions for a bureaucratic regimen, notably two of the four guiding principles (dragons) - respect for education and compliance with authority. Early Chinese commerce, including the first money economy, tax collecting, military conscription, among other facets of Chinese daily life, were so thoroughly ordered by application of the Confucian tenets that successful invaders were assimilated into the Chinese culture and social structure. To be sure, there were some changes at the top of the social order but their effects did not have the strength to filter down through the ranks to the point they particularly impacted on daily life in the cities and villages. Sheer size of the country, both geographically and demographically, dictated that for the most part existing officialdom could not be replaced wholesale without great socio-economic upheaval.

In more modern times we have seen nearly the opposite of that process in the transformation of the trade labor union movement, a transformation driven, nevertheless, by the need to accommodate bureaucratic tenets. Unions began as individual locals dealing with local labor issues. However, because locals in themselves lacked the strength to negotiate with corporations operating nationally, the locals were compelled to affiliate nationally and, in effect, set up a parallel bureaucratic structure - like negotiating with like. The structure rapidly became more than the sum of its parts - it became an entity in its own right. The voice of individual locals was diminished as authority was transferred to or appropriated by the national body.

While today the term bureaucracy is most closely associated in the public mind with governments, ironically, even lobbyists against excessive government red tape and other perceived forms of bureaucratic bloat have had to bureaucratize their operations in order to function.

The American social scientist, C. Wright Mills, has argued that private bureaucratic development came before government. However, in Western cultures, monarchic and religious structures--governments of their day--could be viewed as bureaucratic, though much less complex than those today.

In place back then were hierarchies of offices, each with defined areas of responsibility, considered by Mills to be a criterion for a bureaucracy. Another key component described by Mills was also prominent - a structure to "regulate and service the properties of men, other than one's own [property]."

The coming of the Industrial Revolution accelerated the development of bureaucracies, and, somewhat like Confucianism, Western religions tended to imbue this development with ethical justification.

The concept of people having a "calling" or specialization, according to sociologist Max Weber, provided worldly activity with a religious significance. One's duty was to aspire to a calling and, once achieved, maintain it. That, on the religious side, was described in the Puritan view that "by their fruits ye shall know them,." a theme that in varying degrees still influences and strengthens the bureaucratic characteristics of being "rational, ordained (by authority), accountable, and bound by rules or laws."

Trade guild structures of the time provided all of these elements and helped affirm acceptance of the bureaucratic virtue of standardization. Although today's labor markets have changed since those days, many of the professions - medicine, accounting, law, engineering, among others-remain not only guided by regulation but in many cases the authority regulates the number of entrants into the field. The same holds true within academic institutional bureaucracies, notably the universities.

Standardization may appear to have broken down somewhat and there is much discussion of individuality and personal empowerment, but the uniformity of life and social good order is being supported by other rigid, no less bureaucratic measures. Political correctness could be regarded as one of these.

The process starts early in life for many. Consumer demand and career expectations are carefully nurtured. The teen and pre-teen marketplace and its uniformity of cultural goods on offer is an example. Even outrageous behavior, if it occurs within predetermined (by authority) parameters, is a part of the process.

As labor has become increasingly specialized and compartmentalized within bureaucratic structures expressive of organizational values, definitions and title have taken on significance often greater than the actual work they presumably describe. What these do serve to do is support increasing staff while simultaneously diffusing responsibility, in part explaining how bureaucracies, by task multi-layering, tend to expand. This expansion, in turn, then serves to distance the upper level of the hierarchy from the end users of whatever the organization's objects. The face of a corporation becomes a symbol. Logos are judged by market recognition testing but who would recognize the CEO or principal stock holder on a street corner?

In the high tech employment market, human resource experts tell us, there is no job security within an individual company. Workers, even CEO's, tend to change jobs every two or three years. But, if high tech is viewed as a bureaucracy in itself, of which the companies are individual parts, the uniformity of specialization across the industry gives constancy to a calling, especially given the prevailing view that continuing formal education is almost a cradle to grave value.

Specialization also serves another bureaucratic function. In the context of uniformity, e.g., like skilled and credentialed people working only with peers, there is an easy, almost seamless, flow of personnel from private sector to government - common in Japan; and from government to the private sector - common in the United States and other Western countries. For this process to work, clear professional identities are essential, and bureaucratic structures are the best suited to date to enable this to occur.

Good or bad, beneficial or destructive, the bureaucratic approach to organization, whether corporate, governmental, academic or simply communities of people, can be argued to have made growth and stability possible in human society for many centuries, whatever its buzz word of the week.

© High Speed Ventures 2011