Wikipedia: open, self-organising and bureaucratic

Making a knowledge product in a democratic way without any hierarchical or bureaucratic structures: to many people Wikipedia is the shining example of an open and self-organising community. Sociologist dr Emiel Rijshouwer shows that self-organisation and bureaucratisation are connected rather than opposed to each other as organisation models. He successfully defended his dissertation at Erasmus University Rotterdam on Friday, 11 January 2019.

Wikipedia has existed for over eighteen years now. Many consider the Internet encyclopaedia the ultimate example of how contributions from volunteers can be organised effectively, democratically and without any hierarchical or bureaucratic structures. How exactly does this system work?

Evolution of Wikipedia

For his dissertation Organizing Democracy Rijshouwer studied the development of the financial organisation, the editing structure, and the culture of Wikipedia as well as the role of the coordinating Wikimedia Foundation in this context. He carried out an extensive literature study, conducted interviews, and attended meetings of Wikimedia Netherlands and the international Wikimedia Foundation, gaining insight into major events, developments and actors in the evolution of Wikipedia.

Processes to prevent failure

From the information he gathered he infers that the organisational evolution of Wikipedia has been characterised in the past seventeen years by increasing bureaucratisation, which is remarkable for an anti-hierarchical and anti-bureaucratic environment.

‘Wikimedians’ (from the Foundation and local chapters) and Wikipedians (the editors) develop and cultivate formal policy, formal positions and procedures, for instance a financial accountability structure to account for their expenditure and to call their peers to account. Wikipedians and Wikimedians use techno-bureaucratic means to keep vandals out and help newcomers get acclimatised. Due to the complexity and sensitivity (Wikipedia cannot afford to fail), software development takes place by strict processes and with selected editors.

Self-organising bureaucratisation

The bureaucratisation of the Wikipedia organisation appears to be the result of the efforts of everybody involved in the democratic organisation of Wikipedia ‒ professionals as well as volunteers. One of the causes is the need to organise the growing and increasingly complex amount of work. Additionally, there is the wish to organise a legitimate form authority in as democratic a way as possible. Those involved, in formal and informal positions, and volunteers aim at ‘minimising dominance’ and ‘equality for the parties involved’. To this end, they use formal and rational structures.

Rijshouwer calls this ‘self-organising bureaucratisation’. He argues that this concept provides an analytic framework to understand the evolution of (other) open and self-organising communities. Rijshouwer’s research shows how self-organisation and bureaucratisation are connected rather than opposed to each other as organisation models.

 The ambition to realise and keep up an organisation that is as democratic and leaderless as possible leads to practices of continuous disciplining and self-disciplining: bureaucratisation is used as a means to counter the concentration of power and to organize work in the increasingly large and complex organization as democratically as possible.

About Emiel Rijshouwer

Dr. Emiel Rijshouwer studied Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology and then worked as a designer at Philips (among other jobs). In 2012, he obtained a master degree in sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In the year that followed, he started to work on his PhD programme.

Rijshouwer opted for studying sociology because he feels innovation is mostly approached from a technological perspective. However, he had always been fascinated by the question of which the social circumstances are under which new products and services come to be and what social impact these may have.

PhD student

Emiel Rijshouwer

More information

Marjolein Kooistra, mediarelations ESSB, T 010 408 2135 of E


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