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In sociological theories, bureaucracy is an organizational structure characterized by regularized procedure, division of responsibility, hierarchy, and impersonal relationships. The term can characterize either governmental or nongovernmental organizations.

A hypothetical bureaucracy would consist of many levels of management which require many signature approvals to make any decision. A second characteristic of many bureaucracies, especially government ones, is extreme difficulty in firing or laying off employees.

Max Weber has probably been the most influential user of the word in this Social Science sense. However, contrary to popular belief, "bureaucracy" was an English word before Weber; the Oxford English Dictionary cites usage in several different years between 1818 and 1860, prior to Weber's birth in 1864.

In modern usage, bureaucracy equates with inefficiency, laziness, and waste. It is oftentimes characterized in the popular imagination as existing solely for itself and only achieving results which end up in enlarging the size of the bureaucracy. It is thus generally used as a pejorative word. However, Weber originally described the concept in more positive terms, considering it to be a more rational form of organization than those that preceded it, which he characterized as charismatic and traditional.