A reading list to understand bureaucracy

About a year ago, I stumbled upon this Reddit thread:

I’ve been reading Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ in which he details a ‘genealogy’ of the prison, punitive, and judicial systems and it made me start wondering if anybody has done a similar work relating to the origins and evolution of bureaucracy? It seems to me that bureaucracy could be examined and deconstructed through a similar lens of power and knowledge.

I haven’t read many of these, so they aren’t endorsement, but here are some suggested readings from the respodants on the thread:

  • The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber; Amazon link
  • The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm; Amazon Link
  • Bourdieu’s article “From the King’s House to the Reason of State: A Model of the Genesis of the Bureaucratic Field” could be of interest to you. Here’s Bourdieu introducing the article: “The aim of this project is to inquire into the genesis of the state in order to try and identify the specific characteristics of the reason of state (raison d’Etat), which the self-evidence associated with the agreement between minds shaped by the state – minds of state – and the structures of the state tends to mask. The task at hand is less to probe the factors involved in the emergence of the state than to pinpoint the logic of the historical process which governed the crystallization of this historical reality that is the state, first in its dynastic and then in its bureaucratic form; not so much to describe, in a kind of genealogical narrative, the process of autonomization of a bureaucratic field, obeying a bureaucratic logic, than to construct a model of this process – more precisely, a model of the transition from the dynastic state to the bureaucratic state, from the state reduced to the household of the king to the state constituted as a field of forces and a field of struggles oriented towards the monopoly of the legitimate manipulation of public goods.”
  • Another text on this subject by Bourdieu is his lecture series called ‘On the State’, which has been described by Loïc Wacquant as a work where Bourdieu ‘offers an analytic dissection of state theories (something he did for no other topic), a bold reinterpretation of the historical transition from “the house of the king” to the “reason of state,” and a novel model of the state as organizing power anchored by the concept of bureaucratic field and the notion of the “monopolization of legitimate symbolic violence.” And he cor- relates the forging of the modern Leviathan, based on the bureaucratic mode of reproduction, with the coining of the public, the simultaneous advance and private appropriation of the universal, and the rise of cultural capital. This is an enquiry of classical scope, depth, and reach.’
  • The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government by Giorgio Agamben; Stanford University Press
  • The Demon of Writing by Ben Kafka; Princeton Press
  • Political Power beyond the State” by Rose and Miller
  • Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India by Akhil Gupta; Duke University Press
  • The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham;
  • The Stupidity Paradox by Alvesson and Spicer; Amazon link
  • Weber: Sintering the Iron Cage Translation, Domination, and Rationality” by Clegg, S. R., & Lounsbury, M. (2009); Abstract: “This article emphasizes how Weber’s approach to bureaucracy was first and foremost a cultural theory. In addition, it shows how the very notion of rationality for Weber was multiplex and culturally embedded. Conceptualizing organizational environments as comprised of multiple modes of rationality and forms of domination can lead to an understanding of the ‘iron cage’ as more porous than is traditionally thought, thus opening up new lines of multilevel analysis. This article therefore aims to sinter the iron cage. Sintering is a method to make metal porous, and the porosity allows lubricants to flow through the medium of the metal. The article briefly highlights some of Weber’s key works and reviews scholarly developments in organizational theory that have stemmed from his scholarship. It then discusses how some lines of inquiry have been eschewed in favor of others, and how a reengagement with some core foundational ideas can spur new lines of theoretical development.”
  • Bureaucratic Structure and Personality” by Robert Merton, according to one poster “opened up the study of ‘dysfunctions of bureaucracy,’ which had been ‘almost wholly neglected’ by those pursuing Weber’s ‘classical analysis of bureaucracy’: ‘Weber is almost exclusively concerned with what the bureaucratic structure attains: precision, reliability, efficiency. This same structure may be examined from another perspective…What are the limitations of the organizations designed to attain these goals?'”
  • FWIW, Foucault began a project on governmentality, but never finished it.

From a Twitter thread on this topic:

  • “The intellectual crisis of American public administration” by Vincent Ostrom
  • “Democratic Legitimacy: Impartiality, Reflexivity, Proximity” by Rosanvallon (2011)
  • Bureaucratization of The World by Bruno Rizzi; full text
  • Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, and also his In Defense of Marxism which is a rejoinder to Burnham on bureaucracy and the Soviet Union, which is part of the Burnham/Rizzi debate
  • When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency by Bernardo Zacka; Harvard University Press
  • Democracy Administered by Antony Michael Bertelli; Cambridge University Press
  • The Machinery of Government by Joe Heath; Oxford University Press
  • The Bureaucratic Phenomenon by Michel Crozier; Amazon
  • Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Bowker and Star; MIT Press
  • “The Seductions of Clarity” by C. Thi Nguyen; full text
  • Reasoned Administration and Democratic Legitimacy How Administrative Law Supports Democratic Government by Jerry L. Mashaw; Cambridge University Press
  • “Political Theory Rediscovers Public Administration” by Bernardo Zacka; full text
  • Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning about the Ends of Policy by Henry Richardson; Amazon link
  • “Bureaucratic Passions” by Shalini Satkunanandan; full text
  • The Public’s Law: Origins and Architecture of Progressive Democracy by Blake Emerson; Amazon link; “The Public’s Law is a theory and history of democracy in the American administrative state. The book describes how American Progressive thinkers—such as John Dewey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Woodrow Wilson—developed a democratic understanding of the state from their study of Hegelian political thought. G.W.F. Hegel understood the state as an institution that regulated society in the interest of freedom.
  • “All the Sovereign’s Agents: The Constitutional Credentials of Administration” by Katharine Jackson; SSRN
  • The Privatized State by Chiara Cordelli; Princeton Press


First published Sep 7, 2022