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Does Bureaucracy
stiffle Moral Agency?

Adeyinka Adewale

Centre for Social and Organisational Studies
Henley Business School, University of Reading
United Kingdom

Bureaucracy has been around since the earliest human societies. History documents its adoption by the earliest empires as a tool of administration and power in the form of institutions for organising resources towards achieving pre-determined ends, often the development of infrastructure and inventions (Farazmand, 2009). Beyond these empires, into modern times, bureaucracy continues to thrive in almost every sphere of life (Gajduschek, 2003). Its dominance as the rational way of efficiently organising resources as well as its many perceived contributions to our societies is keenly debated in many circles. Arguments range along the continuum of those in praise of its many abilities, especially its administrative capacities (Hunter, 1994; du Gay, 2000; Thompson and Alvesson, 2005; Reed, 2005) to those who claim it is undemocratic, unresponsive to people and normalises corruption and amorality in our economic life (Hummell, 2007, Jackal, 1980, Drucker, 1988), to the extent that its demise is often predicted in favour of newer organisational forms able to meet the needs of our changing world (Dopson and Stewart, 1990). But, bureaucracy has long been seen as a cornerstone of advanced industrial society that typifies the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Harris, Clegg, Hopfl, 2010). Campbell, (2013) opined that large bureaucratic organizations have become a key fact of life in modern polities. And as Farazmand, (2001) & Gajduschek, (2003) further argue, bureaucracy has never had a true alternative; therefore, no organisation will ever totally replace it. Its survival through the ages, they claim, is an indication of its resilience and relevance (Farazmand, 2007).

This has driven the corresponding ‘expansion of bureaucracy into scopes or domains hard to define’ (Farazmand, 2004) such that these large organisations continue to grow and dominate more spheres of life (Innocent and Jeffry, 2012). With this also comes many ramifications, and of particular interest in this study are the likely moral complications arising from constant interactions with bureaucratic systems and values. Various academics have both theoretically (Merton, 1940; Gronow, 1988; Hummel, 1997) and empirically (Jackal, 1980), advanced from earlier studies that bureaucratic organisations promote unethical business practices by limiting the moral agency/capacity of individuals working in them. For this empirical evidence is still lacking. And with the continual rise in the numbers of top profile corporate scandals, the possible moral consequences of bureaucracy in business organisations merits further investigation, hence this chapter is a part of the broader objective of investigating how bureaucracy contributes to moral lapses.

Amidst a huge existing body of literature on bureaucracy, this paper will focus on the different streams of literature offering rich insights into the workings of bureaucracy in modern business organisations. First, a historical review of bureaucracies in society and organisations especially from the industrial revolution era through the first and second world wars to our modern capitalist society is presented. This will offer insights into the evolution of the concept through different contexts in history with a view to establishing the reasons for its continual dominance, purpose, and likely moral implications. Second, variations in the conceptualization of bureaucracy will be critically reviewed, with a clear focus on Weber’s ideal type being the most dominant type in the literature streams under review. Arguments surrounding its rationality and efficiency will be critically examined and finally, emerging moral issues from its practical adoption in organizations will be highlighted, focusing on specific attributes of bureaucracy and their impacts on employee morality.