Max Weber inaugurated a sustained interest in the study of bureaucracy when, in 1921, Economy and Society was posthumously published. Weber was interested in bureaucracies not only because they are one of many models of organization that have emerged throughout history, but because in modern, capitalist societies, they are the dominant form of governance and, therefore, of exerting power over others. The bureaucratic model of organization is a common denominator across a variety of public and private institutions, connecting the administration of universities and hospitals, for example, to that of private corporations and NGO’s. Studying bureaucracies is therefore central to understanding the State and how society at large works.

According to Weber (1978), six main characteristics define bureaucracies:

      1. 1. Bureaucracies are internally organised so that offices have clear functions and are hierarchically positioned in relation to one another;


      1. 2. This organisational hierarchy results in a system in which processes have to flow in determined ways and through the offices responsible for the activity in question;


      1. 3. Actions of bureaucracies should always be in accordance with written rules that constitute official documents;


      1. 4. Bureaucratic officials have specialized training;


      1. 5. Their job is a full-time function and they act in accordance with general rules and regulations, not guided by personal preferences or particular interest.


    1. 6. And, finally, career advancement is based on technical knowledge and decided by the organization to which the officer belongs – not by individuals.

As Hoag (2011) observes, bureaucracies are ambivalent: they represent themselves as efficient and objective, but common sense also associates them with opaqueness and, many times, slowness. It is undeniable, however, that these organizational machines constitute a particular type of knowledge composed by a network of artefacts, practices and social actors. And it is by looking into this matrix that the production and consequences of both ‘objectivity’ and ‘opaqueness’ can be explored.

Bureaucrats’ practices display a subtle interplay between individual and disinterested agency, whose final balance has to be perceived as attaining to the latter if one is to avoid accusations of wrongdoing (Hull 2003). Documents, central bureaucratic artefacts, materialize institutions by fixing meanings and practices; their movement in and out of organizations establish organizational boundaries and interrelationships (Hull 2012). And, against self-descriptions of neutrality, researchers have shown how the bureaucratic machine functions as perpetuator of the State’s structural violence and inequality (Gupta 2012, Farias 2014).

Processes of digitalization have not dimmed the power of bureaucracies (Muñoz 2018), even though they move to change their configuration. Indeed, electronic databases, e-government and other non-analogical practices of inscription and service transform not only the way in which citizens encounter institutions and officials, but also the social realities that are being managed by the bureaucratic apparatus. Studying bureaucracies in the digital age remains relevant not only for the novel social and infrastructure formations they make possible, but also for the way in which information technology adds complexity to the power dynamics of contemporary society (Eubanks 2018).

Author: Priscila Santos da Costa


Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating inequality: How high-tech tools profile, police, and punish the poor. St. Martin’s Press.

Farias, J. (2014). Governo de mortes: uma etnografia da gestão de populações de favelas no Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ.

Gupta, A. (2012). Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in India. Duke University Press.

Hoag, C. (2011). Assembling partial perspectives: thoughts on the anthropology of bureaucracy. PoLAR, 34, 81.

Hull, M. S. (2003). The file: agency, authority, and autography in an Islamabad bureaucracy. Language & Communication, 23(3-4), 287-314.

Hull, M. S. (2012). Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. University of California Press.

Muñoz, J. M. (2018). Doing Business in Cameroon: An Anatomy of Economic Governance (Vol. 56). Cambridge University Press.

Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. University of California Press.

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