The bureaucratic phenomenon

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Citation: Michael Crozier (1964) The bureaucratic phenomenon.
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The bureaucratic phenomenon
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) organization theory (RSS), bureaucracy (RSS)


Crozier's book can be seen as a response to both the rational approach to organizations and to the human relations approach. Crozier argues that organizations act as the site for conflict and politics and argues against what he argues is a simplistic Weberian account of organizations and efficient and largely rational spaces. Instead, he seems them as sites for negotiation of complex power relations. Crozier explains that:

The classic rationalists did not consider the members of an organization as human beings, but just as cogs in the machine. For them, workers were only hands. The human relations approach has shown how incomplete this rationale was. It has also made it possible to consider workers as creatures of feeling, who are moved by the impact of the so-called rational decisions taken above then, and will react to them. A human being, however, does not have only a hand a heart. He also had a head, which means that he is free to play his own game (p. 149).

The first half of his book focuses on two settings in which he has done extensive research and which he reports a long serise of detailed examples of the nature of work and management. His two examples are each located in France: "The Clerical Agency" and "The Industrial Monopoly". Crozier chose these examples not only because he was French, but also because he claims that socially and culturally France has developed in such a way that it created organizations that closely resembled the Weberian notion of an ideal bureaucracy.

His book essentially argues that bureaucracies are often dysfunctional and his analysis aims to unpack conflicts and power struggles to understand why this is.

His theory is based on the observation that in situations where almost every outcome has been decided in advance according to a set of impersonal and predefined rules and regulations, the only way in which people are able to gain some control over their lives is to exploit 'zones of uncertainty' where the outcomes are not already known.

Attacking both the rationalists and the human relations school for ignoring the role that such power struggles play in the shaping of an organization he argues that organizational relations are in fact a series of strategic games where the individuals attempt either to exploit any areas of discretion for their own ends, or to prevent others from gaining an advantage.

The result of this is that goals are subverted and the organization becomes locked into a series of inward looking power struggles. Thus, paradoxically, the result of attempting to design an efficient organization that runs on rational and impersonal lines is to create a situation where the opposite to is true.

Finally, Crozier argues that bureaucratic systems are characterized by the existence of a set of vicious circles that find their source in centralization and impersonality:

  • The development of impersonal rules: In an attempt to be rational and egalitarian, bureaucracies attempt to come up with a set of abstract impersonal rules to cover all possible events. Crozier gives the example of the concurs (competitive examinations) which mean that, one the exams are passed, promotion become simply a matter of seniority and avoiding damaging conflicts. The result, he argues, is that hierarchical relationships decline in importance or disappear completely which means that higher level in the bureaucracy have effectively lost the power to govern the lower levels.
  • The centralization of decisions: If one wishes to maintain the impersonal nature of decision making, it is necessary to ensure that decision are made at a level where those who make them are protected from the influence of those who are affected by them. The effect of this is that problems are resolved by people who have no direct knowledge of the problems they are called upon to solve, and so, priority is given to the resolution of internal political problems instead. In this case, the power to influence events over which one has direct experience is lost and it is passed to some impartial central body.
  • The isolation of strata and group pressure within strata: The suppression of the possibility of exercising discretion among superiors and the removal of opportunities for bargaining from subordinates results in an organization that consists of a series of isolated strata. The notional equality within the strata becomes the only defence for the individual against demands form other parts of the organization and allows groups some degree of control over their own domain. The result is very strong per group pressure to conform to the norms of the strata regardless of individual beliefs or the wider goals of the organization.
  • The development of parallel power relationships: It is impossible to account for every eventuality, even by the constant addition of impersonal rules and the progressive centralization of decision making; consequently, individuals or groups that control the remaining zones of uncertainty, wield a considerable amount of power. This can lead to the creation of parallel power structures that give certain groups or individuals in certain situations, disproportionate power in an otherwise regulated and egalitarian organization. Once again, this can lead to decisions being made based on factors separate from the overall goals of the organization.