The Origins and Problems of Bureaucracy

Before it became so serious, bureaucracy actually started as a joke.

Photo of a brown wooden staircase by Ralfs Eglitis (2019).

The Cambridge Dictionary defines bureaucracy as “a system for controlling or managing a country, company, or organization, that is operated by officials who are employed to follow rules carefully.”

The dictionary also gives another definition of bureaucracy that many of us can relate to: “complicated rules, processes, and written work that make it hard to get something done.”

Other than rules, processes, and paperwork, bureaucracy can be recognized as contracts, hierarchy, official duties, qualifications, and an impersonal approach.

History of Bureaucracy

Photo of an 18th-century painting of Friedrich Melchior Baron von Grimm from Wikimedia Commons.

Some say German journalist Friedrich Melchior Baron von Grimm invented the term bureaucracy as a joke in 1764. Von Grimm joked that a strange disease had taken over France and made the French obsessed with regulation.

The journalist also noted that the French had turned the illness into “a fourth or fifth form of government, under the name of bureaucracy.”

Others say the term bureaucracy (or bureaucratie), which translates to “government by desks,” was invented in the mid-18th century by French Administrator Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay.

Vincent de Gournay invented bureaucratie to talk about an insensitive, rule-based government that couldn’t be bothered with the consequences of its actions.

Photo of four high-rise curtain wall buildings under white clouds and blue sky by Phillip Birmes (2018).

Although the term bureaucracy is relatively new, many civilisations have used the system for centuries, but not at the current scale and intensity.

Organisations have grown in size and range over time. As a result, working relationships have changed from kinship and status to contracts between strangers with common goals and interests.

Industrialisation and the rise of the nation-state also created a need for more administration. Bureaucracy as we know it was designed to control, regulate, and manage people and work on a large scale. It also enabled states to govern their colonies under one rule and ensure compliance.

Cultural Processes Behind Bureaucracy

Photo of gray high-rise buildings by Essow (2018).

Many people see bureaucracy as a solution to the nepotism, corruption, and injustice of kinship-based governments. Yet, bureaucracy uses ‘neutral and fair’ cultural processes that rely on biased social constructs.

Michèle Lamont and her co-authors define cultural processes as the result of people’s actions and the system they live in. The system gives people and organisations ‘neutral’ tools to shape and make sense of themselves, the world, and others.

Below are the different types of cultural processes:

1. Identification

Photo of a UK driving license by Dom J (2016).

Identification occurs when people and groups identify and categorise themselves and others by race, gender, language, citizenship, nationality, and sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, social identities are often flawed because they tend to be binary and normative, making them vital for racialisation, stigmatisation, and evaluation.

Bureaucracies can also create legitimate and seemingly neutral identities to exclude those they don’t consider ‘normal,’ worthy, or capable from resources and opportunities.

2. Standardisation

Photo of silver and gold steel pipe by Cottonbro (2020).

Standardisation occurs when people and organisations use rules that they’ve agreed on to make things uniform.

Many often misunderstand standardisation as fair because it applies the same standards to everyone. However, standardisation doesn’t mean that the standards themselves are egalitarian and inclusive, nor that they’re attainable for all.

Although seemingly neutral, standardisation in white-run bureaucracies tends to intentionally or unintentionally favour white people, making the white experience a neutral and universal norm that others have to conform to.

Also, standardised rules aren’t usually those of the collective but those of a powerful and privileged few. It also often involves making whiteness — not objective agreed-upon rules — uniform.

3. Racialisation

A white jigsaw puzzle Illustration by Pixabay (2016).

Racialisation happens when meaning and importance are given to racial differences. However, it can only occur if people are aware of, and understand these meanings and use them for categorisation and interaction.

Racialisation reduces human beings to objects and stereotypes. It usually happens where there are power inequalities, and it tends to be used on the less powerful to exclude them and maintain social order.

Bureaucracies can use racialisation for stigmatisatisation, standardisation, and evaluation.

4. Stigmatisation

Photo of a black chess piece separated from red pawn chess pieces by Markus Spiske (2018).

Stigmatisation takes place when powerful people or groups judge the identities and differences of those less powerful as negative, unacceptable, or unworthy.

This process separates those who are ‘normal’ (us) from the ‘abnormal’ others (them), and it’s often founded on negative stereotypes and discrimination.

Bureaucracies can legitimately exclude and control people and groups using stigmatisation and other cultural processes.

5. Rationalisation

Photo of a white textile by gdtography (2018).

Rationalisation happens when logic and efficiency replace beliefs, traditions, and values to meet a specific goal. This administrative process thrives on the impersonal, universal rules and rational-legal authority found in bureaucracies.

The process is based on seemingly fair and neutral rational principles that are founded on historical inequalities.

Bureaucracies can use rationalisation to legitimately silence, invalidate, and exclude certain people and groups.

6. Evaluation

Photo of a scientist using a microscope by Chokniti Khongchum (2020).

Evaluation is a process where social values are discussed, defined, and stabilised. It’s essential to bureaucracy and standardisation, and it heavily relies on biased social classification systems.

Bureaucracies use evaluation to determine who is qualified and capable of doing specific tasks or receiving resources and opportunities. As a result, evaluation might also involve identification, racialisation, stigmatisation, and standardisation, which further social inequality.

Conclusion

The term bureaucracy started as a joke made by German journalist Friedrich Melchior Baron von Grimm in 1764. Others say French Administrator Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay invented the term in the mid-18th century.

Many see bureaucracy as a saving grace from injustice and corruption. However, although it can improve efficiency and communication in organisations, its rules and procedures are based on discriminatory cultural processes that further corruption and social inequality.

With that said, the question arises: should we throw bureaucracy away?

I don’t know, but a good starting point would be to realise that even the most upstanding bureaucratic organisations recreate social inequality through seemingly fair and neutral rules and processes.

Instead of being discouraged or in denial, we should accept this and do what’s necessary to break the cycle.

“The truth will set you free — but first it will piss you off.” Gloria Steinem