Each society is made up of smaller groups and associations that are built on social class, personal interest, or common goals.
Sociologist C. Wright Mills used the term power elite to refer to his theory that the United States is actually run by a small group representing the most wealthy, powerful, and influential people in business, government, and the military. According to Mills, their decisions dictate the policies of this country more than those of the voting public. Mills also pointed out that the influence of the power elite overlaps into many different areas. For example, a wealthy businessman may make large contributions to a particular political candidate.
A voluntary association is a group that people choose to join, in which members are united by the pursuit of a common goal. Some voluntary associations operate on the local level, such as the parent-teacher organization at a particular school. Membership in any given PTA is voluntary, and the members unite to achieve the goal of encouraging communication between parents and teachers in the hope of benefiting local education.
Some voluntary associations operate on a statewide level, such as a campaign to reelect a particular state politician. Others function on a nationwide basis, such as the Girl Scouts or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Still others are international.
Voluntary associations can be temporary or permanent.
Example: A voluntary association forms to protest a particular piece of legislation. The association dissolves once the law is repealed.
Example: Many individuals who join Alcoholics Anonymous remain active members for the rest of their lives.
A formal organization is a secondary group organized to achieve specific goals. Formal organizations tend to be larger and more impersonal than voluntary associations. There are many formal organizations in industrialized countries, but few exist in nonindustrialized societies.
Example: A corporation is usually a formal organization. Corporations tend to be large and are characterized by secondary relations among their employees. The goal of most corporations is very specific: to increase profits.
As identified by the sociologist Max Weber, a bureaucracy is a type of formal organization in which a rational approach is used to handle large tasks. Weber believed that as societies modernize, they become more rational, resulting in the creation of bureaucracies. As they industrialize, they grow larger, which means that the tasks to be accomplished become more numerous and complex.
Weber was convinced that bureaucracies would gain increasing power over modern life. Before long, almost every aspect of society would be governed by bureaucratic rules and regulations. Weber called this process the rationalization of society.
According to Weber, a bureaucracy has several characteristics that distinguish it from other formal organizations.
Weber’s original concept of a bureaucracy represented an ideal type. An ideal type is a description of how an organization should ideally be run and is often very different from how it operates in reality. In Weber’s view, if everyone did exactly as they were supposed to and no one deviated from their assigned tasks in any way, the bureaucracy would operate perfectly, and all goals would be accomplished. But in a complex bureaucracy, what exists on paper may bear little resemblance to reality.
All bureaucracies have officially stated goals, which are sometimes called missions or objectives. One of the most common goals of all bureaucracies—usually unstated—is simply self-perpetuation. No bureaucratic organization wants to face extinction. When a bureaucracy’s stated goals are met or prove to be unrealizable, the organization must come up with new goals in order to continue to exist. This is called goal displacement (sometimes called goal replacement). Goal displacement occurs when an organization displaces one goal with another in order to continue to exist.
Example: The National Foundation for the March of Dimes was organized in the 1930s with the specific goal of eradicating polio. Approximately twenty years later, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for the crippling disease, and the March of Dimes was faced with the bittersweet reality of having to admit that its mission had been accomplished. Rather than face extinction, however, the nonprofit organization displaced their original goal with a new one: the eradication of birth defects. Birth defects, in all their myriad forms, will probably never be totally eliminated, so the National Foundation for the March of Dimes will continue to exist for many years to come.
Bureaucracies and other formal organizations are often large and impersonal. Newcomers may be daunted when other members are unfamiliar, and the sheer size and complexity of the company can be disconcerting. In a vast organization, successful navigation requires the formation of networks. A network is a series of social ties that can be important sources of information, contacts, and assistance for its members.
Example: Mary joins a large corporation as an accountant. At first, she feels like an outsider because she seems to have little in common with anybody, and she is one of only two female accountants in the company. She introduces herself to that accountant and they start having lunch together once a week. Soon, other female executives join in, and the size of the group increases. Eventually, female executives from other companies join the group, and an effective network emerges. They talk about changes in accounting law, workplace problems, and job opportunities. As time goes on, new members might be added to the network, and existing members might drop out. However, the network will continue to exist as long as there is a need for the information, contacts, and assistance it can provide.
Though bureaucracies can be efficient, many problems can hinder them.
On paper, bureaucracies appear to be the most rational approach to accomplishing stated goals, but human beings are not always rational.
Sometimes the rules and regulations in a bureaucracy grow rigid to the point of inefficiency.
In some bureaucracies, so much literal and figurative distance exists between the highest and the lowest ranks that the bureaucracy is rendered ineffective.
Sociologist Robert Michels theorized that bureaucracies tend to be run by a small group of people at the top, who he believed acted primarily out of self-interest, and who carefully controlled outsiders’ access to power and resources. He called this the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The term oligarchy means the rule of many by the few.
Michels believed that top bureaucrats had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which benefited them most of all. He said that positions of power, as well as access to resources such as money, were passed among the members of the group, thereby excluding outsiders. When a U.S. president takes office, he usually awards top cabinet posts to people he knows or to those who have been loyal to him in the past. Though policies such as term limits and checks and balances are supposed to prevent an oligarchy from developing at the highest levels of government, a close examination of a sitting president’s cabinet lends partial credence to Michels’s theory. If oligarchies go too far, however, they run the risk of provoking a backlash among the very people they are trying to govern.