Department of Educational Administration


Document Type


Date of this Version



Published in International Journal of Educational Management Vol. 36 No. 3 (2022), pp. 311-324.



Copyright © 2022 Emerald Publishing Limited. Used by permission.


Purpose Given the context of accountability-driven policy environments, research has shown that school leaders perceive bureaucratic rules and protocols in negative ways, but they also utilize organizational structures and routines to lead changes. To better understand both enabling and hindering mechanisms of bureaucracy in schools, this study explores how Korean school principals understand and perceive bureaucratic structures using a lens of ambivalence. The authors draw on Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, with a particular focus on the paradoxical aspect of bureaucracy that might be experienced by individuals within the system.

Design/methodology/approach This study analyzed qualitative data collected from 26 in-depth interviews with 10 Korean school principals between 2013 and 2015. The authors used the multiple cycles of coding to explore patterns and themes that emerged from the participants’ responses.

Findings The analysis of this study showed that the participants’ ambivalent responses toward bureaucracy were particularly salient in three areas where formal organizational structures were changing through policy initiatives: teacher evaluation, electronic approval system and school-based management promoting decentralized decision making. The study participants reflected on how such changes can enable and/or hinder schools to achieve organizational goals and collective values, from the viewpoints of multiple aspects, which led to their ambivalent responses to bureaucratic structures in school settings.

Originality/value – This study contributes to the understanding of school organizations by revisiting Weber’s theory of bureaucracy in school settings. Using the lens of ambivalence enabled us to reconcile school principals’ contradictory perceptions toward bureaucracy, which complicates analyses of tensions and paradoxical responses found in leadership practices within school systems.