First Encounters of the Bureaucratic Kind: Early Freshman Experiences with a Campus Bureaucracy

By Godwin, Glen J.; Markham, William T. | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

First Encounters of the Bureaucratic Kind: Early Freshman Experiences with a Campus Bureaucracy


Godwin, Glen J., Markham, William T., Journal of Higher Education


As the dominant organizational form in our society [17], bureaucracy provides the framework within which much everyday activity takes place [38], shaping and constraining the behavior of most everyone [10, 25]. Learning to operate in a bureaucracy is therefore a crucial aspect of socialization [45, 25]. Yet adapting to bureaucratic roles is not always easy, especially for "lower participants" [11] in organizations, such as clients and ordinary employees [2, 25]. Lower participants may find themselves alienated [25], disempowered [8, 37], and confused or frustrated by bureaucratic dysfunctions [27] - ranging from red tape and rigidity [29] to communications breakdowns [9]. It is therefore not surprising that oven protests by lower participants stemming partly from dissatisfaction with bureaucratic requirements appear episodically, as in the case of the student revolts of the 1960s and 70s.

Nevertheless, despite occasional protests, the organizational landscape is clearly characterized more frequently by stability and acquiescence to bureaucracy than by sharp dissent. Several explanations for the widespread acceptance of bureaucracy despite its problems have been proposed. Bureaucracy may be less aggravating than sometimes claimed [36], or coercion and managerial chicanery may overcome resistance [10]. Mechanisms for compromising the interests of leaders and lower-participants may defuse conflict [7], or clients and employees may accept bureaucracy's disadvantages in return for a steady flow of benefits [18].

But despite its importance, the question of how and why lower participants come to give assent to bureaucratic requirements remains surprisingly neglected in research [25, 42], especially research in higher education. This study broadens our knowledge in this area through an in-depth study of an especially interesting set of lower participants - traditional-age college freshmen at a large state university. Its purpose is to determine how these students' interpretations of and adaptations to the campus bureaucracy allow the bureaucracy to remain stable and continue to function with few challenges and relatively little overt conflict - despite all the problems that bureaucracy is alleged to raise for clients. Answering this question requires an examination of the properties of bureaucracy and the problems it may present for students. It requires as well in-depth investigation of how students as bureaucratic clients develop understandings of the bureaucratic milieu, how they define their situations and options, how they negotiate patterns of interaction with their peers and superordinates, and how they cope with stresses that their experience with and adaptations to the bureaucracy engender.

Although newcomers to the university have been neglected in past studies of bureaucracy, this population is theoretically and practically strategic. Traditional-age freshmen are newcomers to a large and complex campus bureaucracy. Examining their emerging views of the bureaucracy and the patterns of action they develop to cope with it provides an especially clear view of the stresses built into bureaucratic roles - stresses to which more seasoned participants in the campus bureaucracy might already have become inured. By investigating the socializing experiences of newcomers, we gain insight into how patterns of acquiescence and coping become established - as well as how the pressures of bureaucracy occasionally lead to active resistance or exit from the university.

Furthermore, for many traditional-age freshmen, encounters with the campus bureaucracy are among their first adult experiences with bureaucracy, and for those without work experience in large organizations these encounters can be their very first. Learning to fit into a bureaucratic society is, of course, one part of the "hidden curriculum" of elementary and secondary schools [15, 19], but freshmen encounter bureaucracy in a new way - as adults. …

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