Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Man Who Knew Too Little About Bureaucracies

I don't remember precisely when it happened, probably in the 1960s and after, but bureaucracy has become, like cult, a dirty word for many in the United States. I am not sure those who use bureaucracy as a dirty word really know what a bureaucracy is, however. According to one introductory textbook on sociology “[b]ureaucracy is a type of organisation marked by a clear hierarchy of authority and the existence of written rules or procedures and staffed by full-time salaries officials.” Another introductory sociology text defines bureaucracy similarly as a “formal organisation in which power is allocated through a hierarchy of offices and goal statues. In a bureaucracy people engage in specialised tasks, there is a division of labour, and abide by rules and expectations that are clearly defined”.

Let’s apply these similar definitions to a case study, a case study of the Honest Weight Food "Coop". Does Honest Weight have a clear hierarchy? Yes, there is the Board of Directors, Honest Weight’s ruling legislative and executive body. Below them is the Leadership Team. Below these managers are a host of workers with specialised tasks such as benefits, payroll, and advertising. Below these mid level managers are the heads of departments including grocery, the deli, and the front end. Then there are the staff. As one goes up the hierarchy pay increases just as in any other bureaucracy. As one goes up the hierarchical pyramid does power and authority increase? It does just as it does in the American government and in the American military. Does Honest Weight have written rules? It does. Honest Weight has a book full of ever increasing by-laws and it has an employees manual full of ever increasing rules that employees are supposed to abide by. Needless, to say other bureaucracies from IBM to the federal government have similar written rules. Do Honest Weight’s employees engage in specialised tasks? They do. Honest Weight has cashiers, deli personnel, mid management personnel, and upper management personnel to name just a few. Management personnel, as is the case in GE, are subdivided by specialised tasks. Is Honest Weight a bureaucracy in the way that term has been defined for one hundred years or so? The answer to that question is a resounding well duh, yes it is.

Despite all of this, despite, in other words, of the clear fact that Honest Weight is a bureaucracy, there are still those who deny the obvious, namely, that Honest Weight is a bureaucracy. One can only wonder why an intelligent and thinking person fails to recognise that Honest Weight, given the weight of the evidence, is a typical bureaucracy. Is he or she unfamiliar with the scientific literature on bureaucracies? Does he or she not know that comparative history shows that as societies were transformed from hunter-gatherer societies to small scale agricultural societies to large agricultural societies and to modern industrial societies, populations grew and bureaucracies grew to deal with increasing numbers of people, the increasingly complex tasks that demographic growth and civilisational complexity brought, and to maximise economic and political efficiency? Does he or she not want to believe that Honest Weight is a bureaucracy because he or she can't face the truth? Is he or she trapped in an ideological iron cage and unable to admit the obvious because that would mean giving up a cherished ideological fiction? You do the ideological math.

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