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In politics, authority generally refers to the power to make laws and/or to enforce them (for example, "the police have the authority to arrest law-breakers"), and can also refer to those how have such powers (for example, "the German authorities" would refer to the German government and/or police). Questions of who has what authority are often central to political debates, and answers are normally grounded in practical and moral considerations, prior practices and theories of criminal justice or the just war.

In sociology, authority is a particular type of power. The dominant usage comes from functionalism and follows Weber in defining authority as power which is recognised as legitimate and justified by both the powerful and the powerless. Weber further sub-divided authority into three types:

  • Traditional authority which simply derives from long-established habits and social structures. The right of hereditary monarchs to rule furnishes an obvious example.
  • Charismatic authority. From time to time, people make extraordinary claims of heading a revolution of some kind (which is always against a well-established system of traditional or legal-rational authority). When these claims are taken seriously, this is an instance of charismatic authority: religious or political authority that does not flow from tradition or law, but instead thrives on the short-lived excitement of social change. The careers of Lenin, Martin Luther, Hitler, and Lech Walesa provide examples. Charismatic authority is always short-lived (even when successful) and it inevitably gives way to either traditional or to legal-rational authority.
  • Legal-rational authority depends for its legitimacy[?] on formal rules, which are usually written down, and often very complex. Modern societies are based on legal-rational authority.

As an example of the development of legal-rational authority, consider the history of France. In medieval times a king ruled simply because he was the king (i.e., he held traditional authority), but by the 17th century it became necessary to invent a doctrine claiming that Louis XIV ruled by "divine right" - in other words, to justify Louis' authority by a rational claim to his appointment by a legitimate superior (God). This served for another century, but was threatened by the rival claim made to legal-rational authority by the Estates General, and then eclipsed by the charismatic authority held by the leaders of the French Revolution, which was in turn replaced by the legal-rational authority of the republic.

Within conflict theory[?], "authority" is used both in the same sense as Weber's functionalist definition above, and in a rather different sense which is based on the observation that power is almost never endorsed in a moral sense by those who do not have it, and therefore defines "authority" as power which is so institutionalised[?] that it is largely unquestioned.

See also: appeal to authority, power, trust, régime, law

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