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Social Phenomena Theories: Bureaucratic and Classical Theories


Theories are very important sources of scientific enlightenment. In many cases, a theory in a research study often appears in the form of discourses and time-tested ideologies. Scientific theories are used to explain certain social phenomena (Creswell, 2009). Therefore, the scope of this essay will be limited to two theories: bureaucratic and classical theories.

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The Bureaucratic Theory

The bureaucratic theory is one of the theories that have influenced the development of public administration since 1843 (Andreski, 2013). Even though Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill played significant roles in the formulation of the concept of bureaucracy, Max Weber is the one who has been credited with the establishment of the bureaucratic theory. The theory primarily focuses on the sectioning of organizations into different hierarchies (Provenzo & Provenzo, 2009). Weber’s analysis of social and historical contexts of public administration and, more specifically, bureaucracy is considered as a part of his distinctive contributions to literature publications on public administration (Merz, 2011).

According to Max Weber’s bureaucratic theory, an organization is divided into hierarchies (Ringer, 2010; Khan, 2008). In this case, Weber proposed that an organization should establish inclusive and standard operating practices for all tasks within the organization (Miner, 2007). The theory implies that bureaucracy is a specific type of administrative structure that has been developed through rational-legal authorities (Sapru, 2008).

It is important to note that there are tenets of the bureaucratic theory; there are some social and economic preconditions that are necessary for the modern bureaucratic administration to be sustainable (Manning, 2013). One of the preconditions is that there must be a developed money economy to provide for the remuneration of public officials, which, in modern society, is universally made in the form of money. However, the contemporary proponents of the bureaucratic theory contend that the existence of such an economy is not necessary for the existence of a bureaucracy within an organization (Manning, 2013).

There is also job specialization as a principle (Manning, 2013). This means that jobs are sectioned into simple, routine, and fixed groups that are based on the competence and functional specialization of every officer (Manning, 2013).

Even though the bureaucratic theory is one of the most influential theories of public administration, it has been criticized on various grounds. It is argued that the theory does not take into account the informal relationships among individuals who work within an organization (Andreski, 2013). Again, scholars contend that the theory does not have sufficient means of resolving conflicts that arise among functional groups (Andreski, 2013).

In conclusion, it is important to remember that Max Weber, through the development of his bureaucratic theory, was one of the prominent theorists whose ideas have continued to influence the concept of public administration in the 21st Century (Andreski, 2013).

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The Classical Theory

The classical theory was first proposed by Urwick and Gulick; Urwick was born in Britain, while Gulick was born in Japan (Sapru, 2013). The ideas of the two authors were significantly influenced by the writings of Taylor and Fayol, who were among the founders of the classical theory (Sapru, 2013; Khan, 2008).

The classical administration theory is specifically about an organization’s division of labor. In this regard, the classical approach to public administration describes modernity as the process that entails an enhanced specialization of labor (Sahni & Vayunandan, 2009). This implies that a central form of bureaucracy must be in place to ensure that the functions of specialized labor are coordinated through interpersonal chains of commands. Thus, apart from the specialization of labor, this theoretical approach is further concerned with the decentralization of tasks, and the centralization of administrative commands to ensure that the operations of an institution’s functions are kept together (Sahni & Vayunandan, 2009).

Besides, unity is a crucial tenet of classical theory. Consequently, the theory emphasizes the centrality of commands in which structures of an organization must establish ascending levels of chains of controls (Witzel & Warner, 2013). The implication here is that each level receives commands from the level above it and issues the same to the one below it. The proponents of the classical theory argue that public administration is a system in which there are distinct levels or hierarchies, commands, and prudence (Witzel & Warner, 2013). Moreover, the classical theory emphasizes the concept of efficiency within an organization (Stringham, 2012). Concerning this, the idea of efficiency in communication systems is considered to be the most crucial among individuals working together (Stringham, 2012). Therefore, without the foregoing basics, organizations cannot operate effectively.

The Relationship between Bureaucratic and Classical Theories

Both the bureaucratic and classical theories have some relationships between them. Based on this claim, it is important to note that both theories describe an administrative system as an entity in which different levels of hierarchies exist. Thus, both theories propose that an organization should be divided into different categories (Sapru, 2013). More importantly, the two theories place significant emphasis on the division of labor, which is a factor that also determines the levels of authorities within organizational hierarchies (Sapru, 2013). The division of labor requires that there are special sets of commands, which the proponents of the two theories advocate for (Sapru, 2013).

Interestingly, the bureaucratic and classical theories coincidentally emphasize the centrality of commands within different levels of an organization. This is to state that commands flow from the upper to the lower levels of an organization. This is a clear indication that the structures of an organization are categorized into different bureaucratic levels (Stringham, 2012).

The relationship between the two theories is further based on the need for individuals occupying specific levels of hierarchies to have specific qualifications. Since the tasks at every level are different, both theories highlight the need and importance of task specialization as requirements (Stringham, 2012).

Considering the foregoing facts, it is clear that the bureaucratic and classical theories have greatly influenced contemporary public administration. Even though the theories are different in various ways, they both deal with issues of bureaucracy within a public organization.

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The Importance of the Theories to Public Administration and Research

There are many stakeholders when it comes to issues of public administration (Matei, 2011). Hence, the bureaucratic and classical theories are important in the sense that they help researchers to comprehend the process of public administration (Stringham, 2012). Consequently, the theories provide the basis on which different research studies can be grounded (Creswell, 2009).

Five Classic Theories in the Field of Public Administration

There are other five important theories on public administration. The dichotomy theory emphasizes the separation of politics and administration (Denhardt, 2010); organizational theory involves the sociological study of organizations and bureaucracies (Denhardt, 2010); political theory mainly focuses on structures of public services (Denhardt, 2010); social theory deals with social phenomena (Denhardt, 2010); systems theory enables the study of different systems of organizations (Denhardt, 2010).


Both classical and bureaucratic theories have continued to influence the constitution of public administrative structures many years after they had been proposed by various social scientists. The classical theory was first developed by Urwick and Gulick (Sapru, 2013). Nonetheless, the bureaucratic theory was proposed by Max Weber (Sapru, 2008). The relationship between the two theories is concerning issues of bureaucracy and hierarchies within an organization (Stringham, 2012; Sapru, 2013).


Andreski, S. (2013). Max Weber on Capitalism, Bureaucracy and Religion. New York, NY: Routledge.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Denhardt, R. B. (2010). Theories of Public Administration. London, UK: Cengage Learning.

Khan, H. A. (2008). An Introduction to Public Administration. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Manning, K. (2013). Organizational Theory in Higher Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Matei, L. (2011). Public Administration in the Balkans from Weberian Bureaucracy to New Public Management. Ann Arbor, MI: Matei Lucica.

Merz, F. (2011). Max Weber ́s Theory of Bureaucracy and Its Negative Consequences. Munich, Germany: GRIN Verlag.

Miner, J. B. (2007). Organizational Behavior Four: From Theory to Practice. New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Provenzo, E., & Provenzo, A. (2009). Bureaucracy. Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education, 1(1), 99-101. doi: 10.4135/9781412963992.n47.

Ringer, F. (2010). Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago, L: University of Chicago Press.

Sahni, P., & Vayunandan, E. (2009). Administrative Theory. New Delhi, India: PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.

Sapru, K. (2013). Administrative Theories And Management Thought. New Delhi, India: PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.

Sapru, R. (2008). Administrative Theories And Management Thought. New Delhi, India: PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.

Stringham, S. (2012). Strategic Leadership and Strategic Management: Leading and Managing Change on the Edge of Chaos. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

Witzel, M., & Warner, M. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Management Theorists. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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