"Red tape" ... "You can't fight city hall" ... "climbing the corporate ladder" ... "suits" ... "clients" ... "the bottom line is the bottom line" .... We live in bureaucracies which penetrate every aspect of our existences. We are citizens, employees, unemployed, students, teachers, clerks, patients, customers, drivers, subscribers, debtors, prisoners, etc. All of these terms can be said to describe social roles that connect us to formal organizations.
In this course we will explore the nature of formal or bureaucratic organizations. We will look at bureaucracy and bureaucratic processes in five interrelated areas (see Hummel's Preface): socially, culturally, psychologically, linguistically, and most importantly, as a political system -- a system of power. Let's very briefly develop some working assumptions from these five areas.
In one of his earlier writings, Karl Marx described bureaucracy like this: "The principle of its knowledge is...authority, and its mentality is the idolatry of authority. But within bureaucracy the spiritualism turns into crass materialism, the materialism of passive obedience, faith in authority, the mechanism of fixed and formal behavior, fixed principles, attitudes, traditions. As far as the individual bureaucrat is concerned, the aim of the state becomes his private aim, in the form of the race for higher posts, of careerism."
- A bureaucracy imposes, and is characterized by, certain types of social relationships -- typically a hierarchical system of authority -- as well as horizontal coordination of tasks.
- Bureaucracies imply "bureaucratic culture" -- that is, norms, values, beliefs, knowledge, and even morality that are typically bureaucratic.
- Psychologically, bureaucracies promote a bureaucratic way of thinking or an "organizational mind."
- Bureaucracies produce their own language or linguistic categories for defining the world. In popular jargon, this bureaucratic language is known as "bureaucratese."
- Bureaucracies are systems of power -- social organizations whose purpose is to control material, informational, and especially human resources.
But the real pioneer of the sociology of bureaucracy was Max Weber. Weber understood bureaucracy in much the same way as Marx. He understood bureaucracy as a principle of social organization which historically only comes into being with the modern state and as he said, with "the most advanced institutions of capitalism." Weber understood the growth of command by large-scale, alienating, and impersonal bureaucracies to be a historical principle of development in Western society, in a process that he called
"rationalization." Social organization would, to Weber, become progressively more machinelike. People would, as a result, lose more and more of their freedom and community control over everyday life. This would impose upon us the "iron cage of organization."
An important question addressed in this course is whether or not the bureaucratic form of organization itself and this progressive loss of freedom which Weber described as our fate, are inevitable? Are more human and humane forms of organization and society possible?
In emphasizing the study of bureaucracies as political systems we must look not just at the "intra-organizational" distribution of power and authority, but at bureaucratic organizations in the context of larger, even global political and economic contexts
like the state, class, and market. Bureaucracies or formal organizations, which are for us the contexts in which we live our lives, are themselves contained in larger and more inclusive contexts of power.
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