Representation of bureaucracy and Total Institutions in Terms of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens


Bureaucratic organizations are characterized by specialization, division of labour, hierarchy, rules, impersonality, technical competence and the separation of private and public matters. Whereas the element of specialization is based on the structuring of fixed administrative activities along the competences and responsibilities of individuals, the element of division of labour involves the breaking down of administrative tasks that are complex into smaller units. The element of hierarchy involves the establishment distinct vertical command chains through which superiority is determined and the accountability of the subordinates to the superiors. As for the element of rules, the bureaucracy is founded upon systemized and abstract regulations applicable to cases that are specific in nature and which as designed to serve as follows: (1) provide clear definition of the authoritative limits across the organizational hierarchy; (2) procedural order for task performance; and (3) controlling and achieving discipline in the conduct of organizational officials. The element of impersonality introduces the aspect of formalized approach in the performance of duties with respect to emotions or preference. The element of technical competence imposes the requirement of basing organizational appointments on the technical know-how and expertise of individuals. To this end, skills play a crucial role in the selection of employees who are compensated and promoted according to seniority and are expected to pursue their careers on a full-time basis. The separation of private and public activities serves as a reminder to public officials that they cannot use public facilities for private purposes.

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The bureaucratic management system as advanced by Max Weber, is designed on the assumptions that “bureaucracies are the most logical and rational structures for large institutions” (Mullins, 2002, p. 54). Max Weber places emphasis on the fact that bureaucracies are founded on legal or rational authority which is based on law, procedures and rules. As such, institutional management practices based on bureaucratic structures are bound to succeed since bureaucracy clearly stipulates the powers and responsibilities of bosses over their subordinates. The theoretical background for bureaucracy and total institutions are traceable in classical theories. The classical management theory encompasses the bureaucratic management theory that was suggested by Max Webber. Mullins (2002) pointed out that the bureaucratic management theory is primarily concerned with the management structures and activities of formal organizations. According to the theory, aspects such as the division of work, the establishment of hierarchy and authority and the span of control are seen to be of the utmost importance in the achievement of effective institutional and organizational management. The bureaucratic management approach does not take at all take to account the human factor at work. Therefore, bureaucratic and total institutions do not concentrate on issues which affect employees such as motivation, interpersonal communication and leadership styles. This essay explores the representations of bureaucracy and total institutions in terms of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.


The initial chapters of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens dwell on the birth of Oliver Twist and tragedy that befell him immediately after, the death of his mother. The mother had been met by an overseer by the roadside with no signs of where she was coming from or where she was heading to. It was therefore difficult to tell her place of origin and the parish authorities immediately decided to accord Oliver Twist the status of an orphan. One of the notable aspects in the first chapter of the book is the fact that Oliver Twist’s mother gave birth from workhouse run by parish authorities under the watch of the parish surgeon and nurse. It is here that the first two representations of bureaucracy and total institutions emerge in the form of the workhouse authority and the parish Authority as institutions on the one hand and the experienced nurses and doctors symbolizing of specialization on the other.

Ironically, Charles Dickens (2003) perceives the birth of Oliver Twist in the workhouse under the watch of a contracted parish surgeon and drunken nurse as having been a fortunate thing for the child because of the expertise that he was accorded in inducing his respiratory functions into action. According to Dickens, the alternative would have been the services of experienced nurses and doctors or at home where the family members both of which the author dismisses as lacking the effectiveness required in assisting Oliver Twist overcome the initial breathing challenges immediately after birth. According to Weber the bureaucratic system surpassed the social forms of authority and the traditional authority consisting of families and feudal monarchs lacking clear cut administrative structures. However, Dickens seems to have a preference over the informal nature of services offered by a surgeon who works on contract and an old drunkard woman serving as a nurse offered in a parish-run workhouse as opposed to midwifery services offered at home or the services offered by experienced doctors and nurses. Considering that total institutions known to be extreme and specific versions of bureaucracy, it is prudent to perceive the workhouse – which served as the prison for the parish law breakers – as a symbol of total institutions.

The most disturbing social aspect that emerges from the first chapter is the old drunkard nurse offer of the alcoholic drink she was partaking to Oliver Twist’s mother at her point of death. When Oliver Twist’s mother requested to be given the child so that she could hold him before she died, the old drunkard nurse instead offered her the drink with suggestions that she not think of dying but rather nourish herself after birth (Dickens, 2003, p. 2). The symbolism that emerges out of the old woman’s utterances is the poor attitude that is characteristic of the officials serving total institutions such as hospitals. Whereas the society expects the individuals employed in such institutions to be companionate, loving and caring, the officials demonstrate very little care and remorse in their actions and some even go to the extent of misleading the people under their care. This view is further reinforced by the statement that Oliver Twist was wrapped in ‘old calico robes’ (Dickens, 2003, p.3) with fainting colours as a result of having been utilised for a long time under the same service.

In fact, the description of a candid workhouse has further been captured by the statement ‘orphan of the workhouse – the half starved, humble drudge’ (Dickens, 2003, p. 3) where buffeting and cuffing with despise and no mercy is the order of the day. Traditional assumptions made by institutional managers about motivation have largely reflected a ‘carrot and stick’ approach (Mullins, 2002). According to Mullins (2002), such assumptions are reflected in the ideas of F.W. Taylor, a 20th century practicing manager and his followers of the Scientific Management School. Taylor and his followers are of the view that workers are motivated mainly by material incentives. In Taylor’s model, time and motion studies were used to maximize efficiency and productivity through payment for results, with little regard being given to the potential influence or significance of human factors upon work performance. However, Mullins (2002) warned that “such assumptions inevitably have fundamental effect upon organizational management styles and environment as well as the working arrangements and methods of institutional entities.

The latter chapters of Dickens’ book narrates the ordeals of Oliver Twist’s early life and what emerges clearly from the fast paragraph of the chapter is the communication between the workhouse authorities and parish authorities. The workhouse authorities were concerned with Oliver Twist’s fast deteriorating health due to hunger and when they communicated their concerns, and it is only after the Parish Authorities sanctioned the transfer of the child to a branch farmhouse that the another step towards saving Oliver Twist’s life was taken. This communication interchange demonstrates an organizational hierarchy where the authorities of the workhouse were subordinates of the parish authorities. The statement that ‘the workhouse authority responded with humility’ to the parish authorities inquiry if there was any breastfeeding woman held in the workhouse. Such localized administrative cultures provide key problematic areas as can be seen in present administrative systems in the UK. Good examples can be drawn from the bureaucratic administrative culture that is widely practiced in the UK. The bureaucratic traditions, both structurally and ideologically, recognize a sense of authority formed by the dominant power, formed in the immense hierarchy between bosses and their subordinates. The structure of authority and power that creates an elitist culture is founded on social ethos. Therefore, by seeking to create and develop standardized institutional management practices would simply be seen as an attempt to disregard such deeply rooted societal cultural values that have been practiced for many years.

The branch workhouse was no better because it was equally occupied by underfed women prisoners who were under the watch of an elderly female superintendent and who, according to Dickens (Dickens, 2003, p. 10), committed the funds channelled to run the facility to her personal use. Much as the administrative tendencies of the branch workhouse is against the public and private principle of bureaucracy articulated by Webber which cautions against use public facilities for private purposes, it demonstrates a common feature of what transpires in total institutions where public funds and facilities are channelled to private use of individuals. The management models and patterns of the developed Western society that are based on the formation of democratic and stable institutions are not necessarily applicable to the entire societal spectrum in the process of running institutions. Therefore, standardized institutional management practices may not hold the key in providing the ultimate solutions to the inherent bureaucracies in public institutions. Standardization of management systems is a concept that is heavily influenced by liberalism and yet, the complications introduced by the multiplicity of bureaucratic values can never be ignored.

The second chapter of the book particularly brings into focus Mrs. Mann, the individual who acted more or less as foster parents and who were to play crucial responsibilities in Oliver Twist’s life as a child. Contrary to the reservations held against the superintendent of the branch workhouse were to be proved false by the affectionate relationship that emerged between the Oliver Twist and Mrs. Mann. The close affection that emerged between the two was evidenced by the reaction of Mrs. Mann’s to Mr. Bumble’s – the administrator of the main workhouse – news that he had gone to pick Oliver and return him to the main workhouse because he had become of age (Dickens, 2003). Mrs. Mann could not believe that Oliver was being taken away and Oliver too shed tears on the news that he was being separated from Mrs. Mann. The bureaucratic characteristics that emerge from whatever transpired in Oliver Twist’s transfer back to the parish’s main workhouse is the fact that the subordinates in organizations are always tied up to the decisions of their superiors, despite how hurting or ineffective such decisions could be.

The transfer of Oliver Twist back to the parish workhouse was to introduce him to life as a labourer after facing a ruthless board of the parish that made it clear to the boy that he was an orphan without showing any signs of compassion. This was another clear manifestation of the negative impact of bureaucracy and total institutions in the society where the administrators display too much ego instead of practising impersonality in a professional manner. Standardized institutional management practices are based on models and pattern of the developed western societies which advocate for the formation of democratic and stable institutions in the process of institutional management. The existence of social contract for protecting individual rights is considered to be central in the liberal administrative systems.  Evidently, there is increasing need for institutions to adopt strategic and pragmatic measures in order to remain relevant. Indeed, the strength of any organization is largely reflected through its goals and objectives and the ability to create conducive atmosphere for achieving the set goals and objectives (Mullins, 2002). The management structure and principles of the organization constitute very important determinants for achieving the set objectives.

Standardized institutional management practices encourage greater distribution and sharing of power among employees because delegation is a good practice for individual growth and boosts staff morale by way of enriching individuals and humanizing working processes in organizations (Cole, 2004). In some cases, organizations find the need to delegate forced on them by prevailing circumstances, especially the pressure on managers to concentrate on environmental issues rather than internal problems. Standardization of institutional management processes therefore empowers institutional employees through a process that permits team members to exercise greater decision-making on day-to day matters of their responsibilities. According to Cole (2004) the process ranges from empowerment being treated as cultural exercise in which people are encouraged to take personal responsibility in improving the way they do their work through delegating responsibility for decision making as far down the line as possible, to the “controlled transfer of power from management to employees in the long-term interest of the business as a whole” (pp. 203-204). As demonstrated by professional bureaucracy or adhocracy, the professional culture of the knowledge workers in the operating core portends high impact on daily activities of organizations.

In the third Chapter of the book Oliver Twist had already fallen victim of the parish board’s insensitive judgements and had been turned from an orphan in refuge into both a physical and psychological prisoner. The boy was taken through rigorous processes, as defined the parish authority’s board to convert the orphaned boys under their care into virtuous responsible people. The decision of the parish board to hand over (or rather selling him for a few coins) Oliver Twist to Mr. Gamfield, a man who was dreaded for torturing young boys to death in the name of training them to be become apprentices in chimney-sweeping was an obvious sacrifice of Oliver to fate (Dickens, 2003). Oliver was reluctant to leave the workhouse and even the attempts by the magistrates to address his fate did not bear fruits and in fact, the parish made a public offer of five pounds for anyone who was willing to take him away. The determination of the parish authorities as evidenced by Mr. Bumble’s conversation with the magistrates demonstrates how officialdom is a recipe for misinformation and unfair practices in total institutions.

Oliver Twist finally gets a feel of the public life in chapter four of Charles Dickens book, although there was a ill motive behind the parish board’s decision to allow him join sea voyages. The move was just but one of the many ways through which the parish authority was attempting to get rid of the boy on the account that he had gained so much weight at the expense of the parish, with hopes that someone out there would by accident or intent end the boy’s life over the seas (Dickens, 2003, p.43). This just demonstrates the desperateness with which the parish authorities, under the express efforts of Mr. Bumble, were determined to get rid of the boy.

The horrifying conversation between Mr Bumble and Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker of the parish further reveals the under dealings that take place within the parish authorities to the detriment of the prisoners held at the workhouse. In the conversation, Mr. Bumble promises Mr. Sowerberry more business of coffins by way of more dead bodies from the workhouse (Dickens, 2003, p. 43). Mr. Bumble sarcastically informs the undertaker about reduced food rations in the workhouse, a situation that leaves the prisoners much more thinner thus requiring less timber for their coffins when they die. Although Mr. Sowerberry complains of the coffin prices offered by the board as being inadequate compared to the costs of the timber and metal materials sourced from Birmingham, Mr. Bumble consoles him by promising more business (Dickens, 2003). The workhouse being a total institution, the conversation of Mr. Bumble and Mr. Sowerberry demonstrate just how much official in such institutions can be willing to inflict pain and sacrifice lives for the sake of profiteering. Mr. Bumble treats death so casually that one is left wondering if he has any morals left in him, yet he has been entrusted by the society to reform the law breakers. The workhouse had instead been converted into a place of suffering and death and where trivial issues like a little orphaned boy gaining weight did not pass the notice of the officials.

Later, it emerges that Mr. Bumble’s flattery with Mr. Sowerberry had all to do with Bumble’s search for a person to act as a channel for getting rid of Oliver Twist from the parish’s care. Mr. Sowerberry found the idea of having Oliver Twist as an apprentice in his business a welcoming one and even made a brief appearance before the parish board to confirm his commitment (Dickens, 2003). However, much as Oliver Twist was gradually hardening and psychologically adjusting the unfolding events, the ruthlessness of the society did not pass his notice and he expressed his concerns by tearfully admitting to Mr. Bumble, while being transferred to Mr. Sowerberry’s home of how he felt lonely and unwanted.

The events that unfolded at Mr. Sowerberry’s home upon the presentation of Oliver Twist to the Sowerberries by Mr. Bumble, reveals an equally cruel poverty stricken society which welcomed the little boy with stale food that were not fit even for the dogs (Dickens, 2003). Notably though, Mrs. Sowerberry was astonished by the small size of Oliver Twist wondering just how the parish authorities would be at so much pains to get rid of the poor little ten-year old kid, much as she was concerned about the extra burden of feeding the extra mouth in the family.

Dickens book describes Oliver Twist’s early morning experience with Claypole, the charity boy (Dickens, 2003), after spending a terrified night under the counter of his new master’s coffin shop. Here, we also see a society obsessed with bureaucratic tendencies, with the alter boy’s assertion to Oliver Twist that he was the boss and Twist would have to take orders from him symbolizing the expression of hierarchy and the desire for power. The fifth chapter and the other chapters that follow bring to the fore the existence of the different classes in society as revealed by Oliver Twist’s new experiences as exposed to him in the undertaking business where some of the families were extremely poor while others were very rich. But a new element of bureaucracy emerges from within Sowerberry’s undertaking business whereby Oliver Twist was promoted to a higher position at the expense of Claypole who would have expected to be accorded more preference by virtue of having served Mr, Sowerberry for a longer spell.

Notably, Oliver Twist conscience and confidence became bolder and bolder and he even took physically on Claypole when he kept on abusing him. The worrying occurrence however, was the manner in which Mrs. Sowberry, Charlotte and Claybole combined to mete violence on Oliver Twist. Much more disturbing was the manner in which the parish officials, including Mr. Bumble demonstrated gullibility when they were lied to by Claypole that the little Oliver Twist had run berserk and was out to murder Mrs. Sowberry, Charlotte and him. Worse was Mr. Bumble’s suggestion that Oliver Twist’s new found boldness was a result of being overfed on meat and that he should be locked and starved in a cellar for a day before being fed on strictly gruel for the rest of his apprenticeship. Mr. Bumble’s assertions demonstrated just how cruel, selfish and insensitive officers serving total institutions can be.

Tired of the cruel treatment at the Sowerberry’s, Oliver Twist sneaked and took off to the city (Dickens, 2003) where he found himself serving a Jewish thug without his knowledge and his first trip to the streets in the service of the Jew landed him in trouble and was eventually arrested and locked up after a pick pocketing ordeal. The institutional weaknesses of the institutions come to the fore at this point as demonstrated by the manner in which charges are pressed against Oliver Twist, even after the complainant had expressed doubts about the likelihood of Oliver Twist having been the actual pick pocket. The magistrate, Mr. Fang and the police forced the complainant, Mr. Brownlow, to testify against Oliver Twist, amidst series of insults and endless interruptions (Dickens, 2003, p. 140). As Mullins (2002) contended with the assertion of the human relations theorists that social relationships and individual behaviours at work are of the utmost importance in determining the management practices in any organization.


Clearly, Dickens’ book demonstrates hierarchy and specialization by way of clear distinctions of responsibilities right from the parish board, the workhouse superintendents, the police, the magistrates, surgeon, nurse, and the undertaker of the parish. Different administrative cultures and traditions seem to have influenced the formation of different administrative systems. Indeed, different management cultures derive their authenticities from traditions and entail part of those traditions, which have contributed to the formation of their current religions, languages, institutions, sense of value and political ideologies (Mullins 2002). The capitalist systems can be analyzed in terms of institutional culture inherent in particular administrative units. Mullins (2002) pointed out that competition has been a basic characteristic of the social system in the individualistic states, while compulsion, conformity and simplicity have been some of the basic characteristics of social life in collectivist states. The management of public institutions should not only take to account the customs, courtesies and protocols of the people but also strive to understand their national character, management conceptions and mindsets. Although traditions make up culture, the attributes of all traditions do not necessarily form the character of the institutional management cultures and partial traditions can be broken or maintained. Public institutions must therefore master the intersection of management systems which result in mutual inter-penetrations, thus engendering responses of appropriation, adaptation and hybridity, rather than just forceful imposition and mere assimilation.


Cole, G. (2002). Management theory and practice. London: Thomson Learning


Coser, L. A. (2002). Sociology through literature and practice. London: Thomson Learning.

Dickens, C. (2003). Oliver Twist. Penguin Classics.

Mullins, L. J. (2002). Management and organizational behaviour, (6th ed.). Edinburgh

     Gate: Pearson Education Ltd.


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