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Definition of Bureaucracy

(noun) An organization with formal procedures and standards; typically having a clear division of labor, explicit rules, and a hierarchy of authority.

Examples of Bureaucracy

  • city hall
  • department of motor vehicles

Etymology of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification: bu·reauc·ra·cy

Audio Pronunciation

– American English
– British English

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /byu-rAHk-ruh-see/
  • British English – /byuuh-rOk-ruh-see/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /bjʊˈrɑkrəsi/
  • British English – /bjᵿˈrɒkrəsi/

Usage Notes

  • Plural: bureaucracies
  • Commonly, the term “bureaucracy” connotes hierarchical structures in a negative light due to the absence of individual freedom of initiative and the overuse of delegation or regulations.
  • Weber identified two types of authority that had dominated previous social organization: traditional authority and charismatic authority. Weber then identified a new type, rational-legal authority, which lead to his theorization of how bureaucracies operate. Weber posited that society as a whole was moving toward the cold, rationalism found in buearaucracies.
  • An aversion to bureaucracies is called bureausis.
  • People who work in a bureaucracy lack autonomy.
  • Bureaucracies exist in the private and public sector.
  • A (noun) bureaucrat (adverb) bureaucratically (verb) bureaucratizes a (adjective) bureaucratic organization.

Related Quotations

  • “Bureaucracies generally reward compliance, not defiance. In bureaucratic settings, one does not typically advance by being the defiant, rugged, and fiercely independent individualist of American folklore, but by going along to get along, being a team player, following the rules and procedures, and slowly climbing the bureaucratic ladder one step at a time” (McNamee and Miller 2013:171–72).
  • “Bureaucracy represented a new group of rulers and a new method of government in contrast to monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The concept of bureaucracy began to refer to power over the population. By the nineteenth century, the theme of bureaucracy as a threat to democracy developed into ideas that democracy was the fundamental corrective to the routine, inflexibility, and power that came to characterize bureaucracy” (Colignon 2007:179).
  • “Some bureaucracies perpetuate inequalities of race, class, and gender because this form of organizational structure creates a specific type of work or learning environment. This structure was typically created for middle- and upper-middle-class white men, who for many years were the predominant organizational participants” (Kendall 2011:194).
  • “The development of the modern form of organization of corporate groups in all fields is nothing less than identical with the development and continued spread of bureaucratic administration. This is true of church and state, of armies, political parties, economic enterprises, organizations to promote all kinds of causes, private associations, clubs, and many others. Its development is, to take the most striking case, the most crucial phenomenon of the modern Western state” (Weber 1947:337).

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Additional Information

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Colignon, Richard A. 1969. “The Sociology of Organization.” Pp. 179–88 in 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook, edited by C. D. Bryant, and D. L. Peck. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller, Jr. 2013. The Meritocracy Myth. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Weber, Max. [1922] 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Cite the Definition of Bureaucracy

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “bureaucracy.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved May 23, 2024 (https://sociologydictionary.org/bureaucracy/).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

bureaucracy. (2013). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary. Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/bureaucracy/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “bureaucracy.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Accessed May 23, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/bureaucracy/.

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“bureaucracy.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Ed. Kenton Bell. 2013. Web. 23 May. 2024. <https://sociologydictionary.org/bureaucracy/>.