Bureaucracy Is Good?


The main plaza of Monte Albán in Mexico (Credit: Charles S. Spencer, AMNH, used with permission)

Bureaucrat is a dirty word to some people in modern society, so how can a bureaucracy be a good thing? Charles S. Spencer, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, argues this week in PNAS that bureaucracy was essential to the growth and expansion of the first states that formed across the globe, from Mexico to Egypt to China.

The evolution of a society into a state, according to modern anthropological theory, starts with an egalitarian society in which there are no permanent inequalities among social units—families, villages, etc.—and individuals become leaders through achievement, not birth. The next step is the chiefdom, or rank society, which is led by an individual of elite descent. Authority is centralized and the leader's best strategy for management avoids delegation of authority. In pre-industrial times, this strategy would have limited the size of territory that could be controlled to about half a day's travel by foot from the chief's center of power, some 15 to 19 miles. The third step is a state, defined by the existence of a bureaucracy in which functions and authorities are delegated to specialists.

Anthropologists had thought that the territorial expansion of a state, sometimes called the "imperial" phase, occurs well after the state first appears. Spencer, however, argues that the two are linked and actually form a positive feedback loop:

Although the nascent state will be more expensive to sustain than the antecedent chiefdom, the new resources gained through successful territorial expansion will do much to defray the costs of the administrative transformation. The growth and proliferation of bureaucratic governance will continue as more and more resources are harnessed, leading to further delegation of authority, more territorial expansion, and still more resource extraction--a positive-feedback process that reinforces the rise of a state government qualitatively and quantitatively more complex and powerful than the chiefdom that preceded it.


If Spencer's theory is true, then the appearance of bureaucracy (the formation of the state) and signs of its expansion should occur at nearly the same time in the archaeological record.

In his paper, Spencer focuses on a site called Monte Albán in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley. Near the site, Spencer found a royal palace—evidence of a specialized ruling class—and a multi-room temple that indicated the existence of a specialized priestly class that date to the period of 300 to 100 B.C. It was at that same time that the Monte Albán began conquering peoples who lived outside the valley and more than a two-day round-trip from the state's center. Archaeological evidence indicates that more powerful rivals to the south and east were able to resist the Monte Albán during the early years of expansion, but after the Monte Albán state grew even bigger, they too were conquered.

Spencer found similar evidence timing the rise of bureaucracies and the expansion of states when examining the archaeological record of the Moche state in Peru (c. 200 to 400 A.D.), the Hierakonpolis chiefdom of Egypt (3400 to 3200 B.C.), the Uruk state of Mesopotamia (3500 B.C.), Harappa in the Indus Valley of Pakistan (2600 to 2500 B.C.) and the Erlitou state of China (1800 to 1500 B.C.). In each case Spencer found that the development of bureaucracy was necessary for the development of the empire (even on a small, preindustrial scale).

We'll have to leave the question of whether the empire is a good thing for another day.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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