While people all over the world are blaming bureaucracy for all kinds of societal and individual embarrassments, political and social sciences have so far failed to present a clear cut and handy theory to understand bureaucratic phenomena. Their findings are hidden in lengthy prose that is incomprehensible and hence useless for the target groups concerned. Physical sciences can help to enlighten these nonphysical issues by metaphorizing them as physical notions. This metaphorization is a worthwhile educational tool to broaden disciplinary views and to enhance interdisciplinary exchange. It relates contemporary research to philosophical and cultural topics and brings with it the concise and efficient style of physics vocabulary.

As a simple example, we can transfer particle physics to administrative structures. It is likely that bureaucracy may also become more understandable, once an elementary particle is defined. Let us call such a particle “the buron.” While burons may not be detected by means of experimental tools, they are clearly traceable as metaphoric particles in administrative environments, such as governmental bodies or hierarchical organizations. Here, burons stand for all incidences, where bureaucratic phenomena are present or looming and where they threaten to weaken or paralyze the organization.

Like members of a class of elementary particles in nature, different burons have different properties. We define the following five types of burons:

  • [B1] denotes an organization, in which internal divisions suffer from blurred or inappropriate competences.

  • [B2] applies to organizations with unqualified or incompetent employees.

  • [B3] stands for regulatory constraints.

  • [B4] signals overall organizational insufficiencies.

  • [B5] indicates that the organization suffers from a lack of resources.

This set of five burons is a comprehensive classification system for labeling the infection of organizations with bureaucracy.

Take, e.g., the organization chart of an administration and mark all infected units by the appropriate types of burons, depending on the nature of the disease. In this way, all parties concerned can see at a glance, whether the agency is clean or poisoned. A B2-marker in a single chart box signifies that the employee concerned should be replaced. If the chart is covered all over by B2-markers, this suggests that the entire staff is incapable. Similarly, an array of B5-markers means that the people may be capable but run out of money to do their job.

The sum of all buron markers assigned is a measure of the total bureaucratic content of an administration. This value may be exported into big data algorithms for checking the overall public sector performance.

While this example is admittedly rather simple, perhaps even naive, physics offers numerous more sophisticated metaphoric analogies between natural and administrative structures: Organizational deficiencies remind us of lattice defects in solids, including formulae for elasticity and rigidity. The “conductivity” of an agency may be described in terms of electrical properties. We find from Ohm's law that the internal stress in an administrative body is equal to the product of management power and staff resistance. Psychologists and social scientists would need a lengthy phrase to describe the same. The Faraday cage is a metaphor for an agency that is shielded from the outside and whose works are totally self-absorbed. Order/disorder/chaos phenomena are well covered by the laws and insights of thermodynamics.1 

Clearly, metaphorization is a powerful tool for physics researchers, teachers, and students both for dealing with fundamental phenomena in nature and for visualizing analogous settings in their surroundings. It avoids disciplinary and societal isolation and toughens physics colleagues to better sustain burdens such as bureaucracy.

For important contributions to the insights of this letter, I thank all institutions at which I had an opportunity to cope with red tape.

A modified version of this letter has been submitted earlier to the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) but was rejected. The AIR Editors suggested that it be published in a recognized journal.

Editor's note: Dieter Schumacher has a Ph.D. in solid state physics and has been a productive researcher. After postdoc work in Stuttgart and Grenoble, he was active as a science advisor (Chancellor's Office) and spent several decades in the information industry. Upon retirement, he focused on writing essays on current issues, such as bureaucracy. He has always been intrigued by work of C. Northcote Parkinson and his famous laws.

This letter is an attempt to widen the applicability of physical sciences towards other disciplines and society. Like Parkinson's book,2 the letter is satiric but serious and exploratory. It is hoped that AJP includes a section, where such curiosities are considered appropriate for the readers. Needless to say, “The Buron Lab” is fictitious.

Die Käfighaltung des Menschen. Eine Philosophie der Bürokratie
Books on Demand
Northcote Parkinson
Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration
Houghton Mifflin