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Ideal-Type? Style Icons! New Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge

Read the introduction to the journal’s special issue “Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge” here.

Sebastian Felten


Christine von Oertzen

“Unnecessary foreign words, antiquated chancery expressions, and ceremonious phrases are to be avoided,” stipulated a mandate of the Prussian civil service in 1897.1 This edict was part of an effort to manage the style and volume of paperwork produced since the 1860s, during which time both the service and its output had grown explosively. In order to stem the flood, civil servants were encouraged to write fewer words but also to ensure that they were never “impertinent, or impolite.” To reconcile this conflict of ideals – simplicity vs politeness – the government granted a surprising amount of autonomy, stating that the choice of when to use polite phrasing was essentially “a question of tact.” But how did Prussian bureaucrats learn tact?

Uniform of a middling civil servant at the Prussian Railway Administration, 1890. Striking dress helped to define the persona of bureaucrats in fin-de-siècle Europe. Source: Deutsches Historisches Museum, U 61/111.

The Working Group

In three workshops and via a constant ping of emails, our working group of historians of science, diplomacy, law, and religious institutions grappled with questions such as these. What kinds of skill and knowledge did states, companies, and religious institutions employ, how did they do it, and to what ends? As the conveners of these meetings, we saw plenty of potential, specifically for the history of science, to expand its remit without losing its focus. After all, bureaucracy shares a long, entwined history with science and technology.

However, as we dived into collaborative work, our questions were turned upside down: Knowledge became our tool rather than the object of study. We realized that by analyzing bureaucratic actions as knowledge practices, we could recover actors’ ways of organizing their social and material worlds, and thus examine historical bureaucracies on their own terms. Our collective volume, published as the inaugural special issue of the new Journal for the History of Knowledge, is the first fruit of this new vision on bureaucracy.

Max Weber vs Our Approach

Max Weber and his ideas were uninvited guests at our meetings. Discussing our case studies, many of which are premodern and non-Western, we felt that Weber’s approach was ahistorical and screamingly Eurocentric – two reasons to show him the door. Yet, he was too deeply inscribed in our respective fields to pass up the opportunity of reworking his concept into something more useful for our aims.

We increasingly understood the term bureaucracy as situated, by stressing that Weber’s primary object of interest was the Prussian Civil Service. It is precisely for this reason that it fits Weber’s ideal-type like a glove. We also began to realize that Weber’s basic approach – transcultural comparison – was not a Euro-American singularity. Governments, scholars, and reformers from China and Japan to the Ottoman Empire also resorted to this method to understand armed conflicts around 1900, as these were widely seen as struggles between civilizations and their administrative systems.

Therefore, it seemed sensible to keep the term but use it creatively. Sixiang Wang, for example, explores the workings of early modern Korean diplomacy, an activity, place, and period that supposedly did not “have” bureaucracy. From 1392 to 1894, the Office of Interpreters was in charge of diplomatic relations between the Chosŏn court and the much more powerful Ming and Qing empires. Initially, interpreters used their linguistic and cultural deftness to pursue interests of their own. The court therefore used bureaucracy to formalize their training and to control their social reproduction.

Similarly, Renée Raphael uses the term bureaucracy to unpack how local authorities in sixteenth-century Potosí handled new silver refining techniques. Current accounts of “Iberian Science” portray the Spanish Crown and its administration as patrons of empirical science and technological innovation. Raphael found, though, that officials were actually more interested in demonstrating their competence following rules than in recording technology.

In short, these and the other seven case studies explore how institutions and the people interacting with them, made sense of their own administered worlds.

Bureaucracy, Prussian Style

Might this new approach perhaps even liberate the Prussian Civil Service from the iron-cage of Weberian theory? For scholars committed to comparative sociology, the 1897 language reform mentioned above might be evidence that Prussia had a highly developed bureaucracy, with fixed areas of responsibility, paper-based, rule-bound communication, and was on track for further bureaucratization.

For us, however, the mandate serves as an entry point to the world of conflicting ideals, navigated by civil servants as they honed their clerical skills. To fulfil the ideal of simplicity, the government formulated basic rules but also included concrete exemplars. These included the 1895 office rule-book of the Prussian Railway Administration; the new Civil Code; and a much-noted published lecture On Chancery Style.

Civil servants could also turn to one of the many self-help manuals that fed on their anxieties. “Style means uniting and elevating all internal mental powers,” a 1897 guide broached the topic.2 Good style embraced truthfulness, clarity, completeness, shortness but avoided scatteredness, woolliness, and exaggeration.

The guide also commended Germany’s chancellor Otto von Bismarck as the ultimate style icon, as his writing was “clear, transparent, clean, dignified, forceful, riveting, charming – just like he is himself.” Style was not only the product of grammar and writing lessons but rather “the result of a person’s entire intellectual biography [Bildung].”

Type-writers were a new office technology, here advertised with an early ASCII art portrait of Otto von Bismarck. Source: Schreibmaschinen-Zeitung 1, No. 3, 15 September 1898 (

How might this exploration of style change our view of the Prussian Civil Service? The ideal of simplified but polite language required changing everyday work practices. The attempted reform harnessed mental faculties and drew on intellectual biographies. Prussian civil servants had to have a personality, but one that was historically conditioned and institutionally formed. Concrete illustrations of virtues and vices and vivid examples of genius helped them to align inner experience and material practices. Between ideals, rules, and willful individuals, administrative life began to radiate knowledge and elicit skills, within and beyond the office. Yet making rules and setting examples also exposed bureaucrats to scrutiny and punishment. By tactful writing, Prussian bureaucrats showed that they were, both and at the same time, self-conscious individuals and cogs in a well-oiled machine.

[1] ‘Runderlaß an die sämmtlichen Ober- und Regierungspräsidenten und an den Dirigenten der Ministerial-, Militair- und Baukommission in Berlin vom 12. August 1897, betr. die Vereinfachung des Geschäftsganges und die Verminderung des Schreibwerks,’ Ministerial-Blatt für die Preussische innere Verwaltung 58 (1897): 144–48.

[2] Hermann Lorenz, Der Büreau-, Registratur- und Kanzleidienst: eine Sammlung von amtlichen Bestimmungen, Gebräuchen und praktischen Vorschlägen betreffend Geschäftsstil u. den schriftlichen Geschäftsverkehr (Berlin: Selbstverlag, 1897). Quotations on 1-8.

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