Society is organized "to get its job done". It does so through formal organizations and bureaucracies. The same system that can be frustrating and impersonal is also the one on which we rely for our personal welfare and to fulfill our daily needs.
The society of today, however is not the society of yesterday, nor will it be the society of tomorrow. The rationalization of society refers to a transformation in people's thinking and behavior over the past 150 years, shifting the focus from personal relationships to efficiency and results. Karl Marx attributed this transformation to capitalism, while Max Weber, who disagreed with Marx, related it to Protestant theology.
As a result of rationality, formal organizations, secondary groups designed to achieve specific objectives, have become a central feature of contemporary society. With industrialization, secondary groups have become common. Today, their existence is taken for granted. They become a part of our lives at birth and seem to get more and more complex as we move through the life course. The larger the formal organization, the more likely it will turn into a bureaucracy.
Bureaucracies are defined as formal organizations characterized by five features that help them reach their goals, to grow, and endure. These five features are (1) clear levels, with assignments flowing downward and accountability flowing upward, (2) a division of labor, (3) written rules, (4) written communications with records, and (5) impartiality.
Although bureaucracies are the most efficient forms of social organization, they can also be dysfunctional. Dysfunctions of bureaucracies can include red tape, lack of communication between units, and alienation. Examples of these dysfunctions include an overly rigid interpretation of rules and the failure of members of the same organization to communicate among one another. According to Max Weber, the impersonality of bureaucracies tends to produce workers who feel detached from the organization and each other. According to Karl Marx, workers experience alienation when they lose control over their work and are cut off from the finished product of their labor.
To resist alienation, workers form primary groups, banding together in informal settings during the workday to offer each other support and validation. They also personalize their work space with family photographs and personal decorations. Not all workers, however, succeed in resisting alienation.
One reason bureaucracies endure and are so resilient is because they tend to take on a life of their own through a process called goal displacement. Once a bureaucracy has achieved its original goals, it adopts new goals in order to perpetuate its existence. A classic example of goal displacement involves the March of Dimes. Originally founded to fight polio, the organization was faced with being phased out after Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine. Rather than disband, it adopted a new mission, "fighting birth defects", which was recently changed to a vaguer goal of "breakthrough for babies".
In addition to bureaucracies, many people in the United States become involved with voluntary organizations, groups made up of volunteers who organize on the basis of some mutual interest. But even voluntary organizations are not immune from the affect of bureaucratization.
Although formal organizations provide numerous beneficial functions, they also tend to be dominated by a small, self-perpetuating elite, a phenomenon Robert Michel referred to as the iron law of oligarchy. Even volunteer and non-profit organizations are affected by the iron law of oligarchy.
Sociologists use the term, "corporate culture" to refer to an organization's traditions, values, and unwritten norms. Much of what goes on in corporate culture, however, is hidden. To ensure that the corporate culture reproduces itself at the top levels, people in positions of power groom other people they perceive to be "just like them" for similar positions of power. In the United States, personal achievement is central; workers are hired on the basis of what they can contribute to the organization that hires them. To counter the negative side of bureaucracies, many corporations have begun taking steps to better humanize work settings. This includes the establishment of work teams, corporate day care, employee stock ownership plans, and the quality circles.
There has been a great deal of research directed at comparing the Japanese corporate culture to the American corporate culture. The Japanese corporate model differs significantly from the American corporate model in the way it views work, workers, and work organizations. Although considered as superior to the American corporate culture, more recent inspection shows this to be more of a myth than a reality. Successful Japanese businesses have adopted many of the American methods. The real bottom line is that we live in a global marketplace of ideas as well as products, with no single set of cultural values being universally superior.