Origins of Bureaucratic Organization: A Comparative Study of Political Careers and Elite Reproduction

Research question/goal: 

Where does bureaucratic organization come from? Bureaucracies surround us in all walks of life. Their logic of governance shapes public administration, the behaviour of firms in the economy, political parties, and even religious life. In short, bureaucracy remains the dominant mode of formal organization in modern societies. Despite their dominant role, bureaucratic organizations rarely emerge fully formed, and neither does the rationalized system of rules and roles that forms their essence. What makes bureaucracies work are those who pursue their professional careers within them. If such careers are indeed the “lifeblood” of formal organization, then understanding the nature and development of careers is essential for the understanding of the origins of bureaucratic organization.

The proposed project uses the careers of elected representatives and office holders as a case in point to examine the link between individual action and organizational forms. Typically, parties and politicians shape legislative processes through the offices they hold. Historically, offices often came with personal loyalty, where informal patronage networks dictated both the selection of clients into positions and their political future. As political systems mature into formal organizations, they challenge precisely such informal selection, seeking to substitute it with professional careers detached from personal loyalties. This project identifies the mechanisms that enable, constrain or even revert the development from informal networks to professionalization in the careers of politicians. It does so by drawing on three empirical cases in which political systems had to be created or rebuilt following a significant institutional rupture: the rebuilding of representative assemblies in (West-)Germany after 1949, the French Fifth Republic after 1958 (both until today), and the American state of Vermont—the first to join the Union without being the successor to a former colony.

Current stage: 

In preparation for the forthcoming submission of an application for third-party funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG), this project was further developed in two steps within the last year. As a first step, a sample of politicians from different parties and legislatures was drawn, and data on the career steps of these politicians were collected. The results of this sample show significant variation in career paths, which will be further explored as the project progresses. In the second step, we prepared a data set on draft laws and their individual development steps in the legislative process. Legislative projects constitute a central instrument for the pursuit of successful parliamentary careers. Given the documentation of the legislative process, we developed and standardized two strategies for the preparation of the data set. On this basis, the submission of an application for third-party funding support is planned at the DFG.

Fact sheet

2017 to 2020
in preparation
Data Sources: 
Longitudinal career data from administrative and archival sources
Geographic Space: 
Europe (France, Germany); North America (United States)