The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: This 1,200-word entry explains the origin of the term, gives the two main definitions, and describes Max Weber's contribution to the study of bureaucracy.
The concept of bureaucracy was invented in the 18th century by Vincent de Gournay, a French physiocrat economist. Starting with traditional typologies of regimes, de Gournay wrote about a fourth or fifth form of government he called "bureaucratie." He invented the term by attaching the Greek suffix for "rule," cracy, to the French word bureau. The term quickly entered international political discourse.
The entry notes that scholars differ widely about the term's meaning. Broadly speaking, there are two main definitions: (1) rule by officials, and (2) a particular form of organization. Most scholars using the first definition regard rule by officials as the prevalent form of government in modern society. They further believe these officials are the ones with the real power in any political system administered by means of bureaucracy.
The second definition is associated with the work of Max Weber. In the early twentieth century, Weber challenged the first definition, arguing that bureaucracy is a particular form of organization. Weber argued that defining bureaucracy as rule by officials confused power and authority--the latter term meaning power cloaked with legitimacy. According to Weber, power in modern society is "legal" rather than "traditional," and therefore requires a government of laws and not men. In this sense, bureaucracy is a system of positions and not of people.
The entry concludes by briefly mentioning the work of Robert Merton and Michel Crozier, and how they have elaborated Weber's theories.