In ordinary usage, “bureaucracy” refers to a complex, specialized organization (especially a governmental organization) composed of non-elected, highly trained professional administrators and clerks hired on a full-time basis to perform administrative services and tasks. Bureaucratic organizations are broken up into specialized departments or ministries, to each of which is assigned responsibility for pursuing a limited number of the government's many official goals and policies — those falling within a single relatively narrow functional domain. The departments or ministries are subdivided into divisions that are each assigned even more specialized responsibilities for accomplishing various portions or aspects of the department's overall tasks, and these divisions are in turn composed of multiple agencies or bureaus with even more minutely specialized functions (and their own subdivisions). Bureaucratic organizations always rely heavily on the principle of hierarchy and rank, which requires a clear, unambiguous chain of command through which “higher” officials supervise the “lower” officials, who of course supervise their own subordinate administrators within the various subdivisions and sub-subdivisions of the organization.

Bureaucratic organizations are typically charcterized by great attention to the precise and stable delineation of authority or jurisdiction among the various subdivisions and among the officials who comprise them, which is done mainly by requiring the organization's employees to operate strictly according to fixed procedures and detailed rules designed to routinize nearly all decision-making. Some of the most important of these rules and procedures may be specified in laws or decrees enacted by the higher “political” authorities that are empowered to set the official goals and general policies for the organization, but upper-level (and even medium-level) bureaucrats typically are delegated considerable discretionary powers for elaborating their own detailed rules and procedures. Because the incentive structures of bureaucratic organizations largely involve rewarding strict adherence to formal rules and punishing unauthorized departures from standard operating procedures (rather than focussing on measureable individual contributions toward actually attaining the organization's politically assigned goals), such organizations tend to rely very heavily upon extensive written records and standardized forms, which serve primarily to document the fact that all decisions about individual “cases” were taken in accordance with approved guidelines and procedures rather than merely reflecting the personal preferences or subjective judgment of the individual bureaucrat involved.

The classic social scientific analysis of bureaucracy was that of the pioneer sociologist Max Weber in his 1922 book Economy and Society. Weber, like the good German he was, believed that a permanent, well-educated, conscientious, “non-partisan,” Prussian-style bureaucracy professionally committed to implementing whatever decisions the legitimate rulers of the state might arrive at was the best organizational form yet discovered for the rational and efficient pursuit of collective social goals in a modern society with a specialized and highly complex division of labor. In his writings, Weber devoted considerable attention to showing ways in which the gradual evolution of modern bureaucratic methods and values helped to remove the formidable obstacles to economic development, social advancement and political stability that had been inherent in the much less professionalized and systematized practices of government administration in feudal Europe and most other premodern societies.

While most other social scientific students of bureaucracy have recognized the historical importance of bureaucratic organizational techniques in creating the powerful, centralized nation-states (and other very large organizations such as modern business corporations and labor unions) that predominate in the industrialized world of the 20th century, it is fair to say that they have generally been considerably less one-sidedly approving of bureaucracy than Weber was. Despite their many advantages for dealing efficiently and effectively with routine, recurring problems in a fairly stable and predictable environment, bureaucratic methods also have their dark side. Hired and promoted largely on the basis of educational credentials and seniority within the organization and protected by civil service personnel practices designed to provide a high degree of job security, bureaucratic officials tend to be very well insulated from responsibility for the external consequences of their decisions and actions as long as they stay formally within prescribed procedures. Such sociologists as Robert K. Merton and Michel Crozier have shown that pressures on officials to conform to fixed rules and detailed procedures, when added to the narrow responsibilities of highly specialized agencies for pursuing only a select few of the many objectives that government has set, quite regularly leads bureaucrats to become defensive, rigid, and completely unresponsive to the urgent individual needs and concerns of the private citizens and outside organizations with which they come into professional contact. (“That's not my department. I cannot help you.”) Because the salaries and promotion prospects of officials working in large bureaucracies seldom depend upon measurable success or efficiency by the organization in achieving its larger goals (which are often especially difficult to measure in government agencies and other non-profit oriented organizations that lack a clear “bottom line”) and because any departure from established routines always requires permission from remote higher levels of the hierarchy, large bureaucratic organizations tend to be very slow and cumbersome in making important policy decisions (the “buck-passing” phenomenon) and are especially dull-witted in recognizing and responding to the consequences of major changes in economic, social and technological conditions and circumstances outside the organization itself. In other words, individual officials working under bureaucratic incentive systems frequently find it to be in their own best interests to adhere rigidly to internal rules and formalities in a ritualistic fashion, behaving as if “proper procedure” were more important than the larger goals for serving their clients or the general public that they are supposedly designed to accomplish (the “red tape” phenomenon).