Historical Forces Behind Bureaucratization

by Jonathan H. Turner in Sociology


One of the fundamental reasons behind the emergence of bureaucracies is that they permit the performance of large-scale tasks Without the complex, yet systematic, organization that a bureaucracy can provide, we could not accomplish much of what we now take for granted The emergence of formal organizations can be traced hack to the early societies that began to under-take social projects and tasks of increasingly larger proportions and dimensions (Blau & Meyer, 1971).

Egypt can probably be credited with the "invention" of bureaucracy. This society was one of the first whose conditions gave rise to formal organizations. Projects such as the building of the pyramids and the construction of irrigation canals throughout the country could not have succeeded without the basic characteristics of bureaucracies-the specialized division of labor, formal norms coordinating role behaviors of large numbers of workers, and the hierarchical arrangement of positions for a more efficient chain of command

Bureaucratic Systems were also born of a desire for military conquest as well as for defense against aggressors. In battle, the degree of organization of troops could be critical. In addition, as warfare became large scale, the problems of coordinating masses of soldiers necessitated bureaucratic organization

One of the most important developments favoring the emergence of formal organization was the introduction of a money economy (Weber, 1947, BIau & Meyer, 1971). Like bureaucracy, money is a comparatively recent human invention and it laid the basis for an entirely new type of social relation: the payment of wages for work performed. Before the widespread use of money to buy labor, tasks were performed out of a sense of duty to kin or to feudal lords, and slaves were a major source of mass labor Moreover, most exchanges occurred by bartering goods and services. With a money economy, workers could be induced to provide their labor and could he organized into large-scale enterprises without the problems of social control created by slaves or the inefficiencies of barter over goods. Imagine the problems of organizing large-scale tasks by convincing unpaid families to work, for example, by maintaining order among disenfranchised slaves, or by paying each worker in food and clothing. Of course, slavery was an early technique for performing large-scale tasks, as the building of the pyramids testifies or as the American plantation system demonstrates. Money exchanged for labor proved even more efficient than slavery, however, and thus allowed for the creation of even larger bureaucracies organized for engaging in even more complex tasks.

Capitalism was also a major factor in the general advancement of bureaucracy. Early capitalistic systems required an unregulated competitive market in which money, work, goods, and services could be exchanged in pursuit of economic gain. Capitalism also encouraged large-scale enterprises, since in capitalist economies large corporations came to dominate the market. Such large-scale enterprises used the incentive of wages to draw workers into increasingly more complex tasks. This required bureaucratic organization.

Religion too has also been the impetus behind the development of bureaucracies. The organization of the Catholic church, for example, which sought to extend its influence to larger and larger masses, encouraged the creation of church bureaucracies.

 Structural Conditions Behind Bureaucratization

 Although these historical factors give some insight into the general trend toward formal organizations over the centuries, they do not fully explain why some organizations are highly bureaucratized and others are less so. For an explanation we must examine certain structural considerations that help account for the existence of these variations.

Population growth has had a great influence on the need for more efficient methods of social organization. Bureaucracies meet these kinds of demands. The societies of the world have experienced exponential growth in population, especially in the last two centuries. This is why it has often been necessary to use formal types of organizations to control and supervise these larger masses of people in an effort to deal more efficiently with the problems of organizing work and activity among large numbers of individuals. The provision of adequate food supplies and the creation of activities to keep people occupied are two such problems that bureaucracies help resolve. Since formal organizations create many positions and are able to direct these toward the completion of goals, they represent one answer to the problem of socially absorbing increased numbers of people. Without their development, we probably would never have witnessed the present population explosion because famine and general social disorder would have kept the population explosion under control. (This is one case, then, in which bureaucracies have proved to be a mixed blessing.)

Enlargement in population increases consumer demands for goods and services. The economy must then seek to produce more in an effort to meet the expanding demands of larger numbers of people. As it does so, it organizes into bureaucracies.

The creation of bureaucracies themselves often requires other bureaucracies to supervise and control them. The activities of governments can be viewed in this context. Much of what government does is supervise the interaction and relations among other bureaucracies.

These are not all of the historical and structural forces behind the emergence of formal organizations. Such forces provide a sampling of reasons, however, for the dominance of bureaucratic forms, They represent a means of coping with the organizational problems of large-scale tasks and the problems of coordinating and controlling a large number of individuals.