Authority is often defined as legitimate power, and contrasted to pure power. In the case of legitimate authority, compliance is voluntary and based on a belief in the right of the authority to demand compliance. In the case of pure power, compliance to the demands of the powerful is based on fear of consequences or self-interest. But beyond this, there is considerable disagreement and variation of usage.
Because legitimacy is a concept from monarchic rule, deriving from the right of the legitimately born heir to rule as monarch, authors as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt have argued that it is not applicable to modern politics. But it is nevertheless commonly applied, even in ordinary political discussion, to many situations, such as voluntary compliance to taxation, that go far beyond the original meaning.
Both ‘‘legitimate’’ and ‘‘authority’’ are terms which appear in sociology as a neutralized or value free form of a concept that is normative or valuative in ordinary usage and in political theory. In its normative form, it distinguishes mere power from authority that is genuinely justified. One approach to sociologizing the term builds on these theories.
Normally these are theories of representation, in which a person holding authority merely does so as a representative or delegate of the originating power. The relations of representation that figure in governing ideologies have, historically, been very diverse. In the western political tradition, for example, kings were held to have ‘‘two bodies,’’ one being their body as representative of the nation, which legitimately exercised authority, the other their personal body, which did not (Kantorowicz 1957). In modern western political thought, parliaments and presidents are supposed to represent the will of the people. In Islamic political thought, God is the final basis of political authority, and the people are his caliphs or representatives, themselves subservient to Divine Law. Some sociological approaches to legitimacy, such as Habermas’s (1975), are attempts to consider the social conditions of genuine deliberative democracy, and treat these as representing genuine legitimacy and their absence as explanations for ‘‘crises’’ of legitimacy.
The most influential approach to the trans formation of legitimacy into a sociological, descriptive concept was performed by Max Weber, who provided a famous classification of forms of legitimate authority in terms of the defining type of legitimating belief. Weber (1978: 36–8) identifies four distinct ‘‘bases’’ of legitimacy, three of which are directly associated with forms of authority. The fourth – value rational faith – legitimates authority indirectly by providing a standard of justice to which particular earthly authorities might claim to correspond. The forms of authority are charismatic, traditional, and rational legal. Each of these forms can serve on its own as the core of a system of domination. Traditional authority is based on unwritten rules; rational legal authority on written rules. Unwritten rules may be justified by the belief that they have held true since time immemorial, while written rules are more typically justified by the belief that they have been properly enacted in accordance with other laws. Charismatic authority is command which is not based on rules. The charismatic leader says ‘‘it is written, but I say unto you,’’ as Jesus said. What the charismatic leader says overrides and replaces any written rule. Charismatic authority originates in the extraordinary qualities of the person holding this authority, not in another source, such as the will of the people (pp. 212–54).
Weber also points to a variety of practical motives for adherence to a legal order that are not ‘‘legitimating’’ but which may make a powerful causal contribution to the acceptance of the order. These may include the pragmatic value of adherence and the fear of punishment. The element of legitimating belief necessary to sustain a legal order, consequently, may in many circumstances not need to be particularly large, as long as the regime assures compliance or acceptance in other ways. Weber largely ignored, and has been criticized for ignoring (Beetham 1974: 264–9), the idea of democratic legitimacy, because he considered democracy in its pure form to be possible only in small communities, and suggested that modern democracies typically involved a complex mixture of beliefs in which procedural rationality or ‘‘rational legal’’ authority was central, but which also involved charismatic authority, for example in the context of elections and leadership.
The concept of legitimate authority has many extended uses. Legitimacy is often viewed in modern political sociology as similar to trust, as a resource that regimes have and can employ to gain acceptance of policies. One can distinguish ‘‘input’’ or procedural sources of legitimacy from output sources, such as effectiveness, for example, and see both as alternative sources of trust (Scharpf 1999). In the case of expertise, for example, cognitive authority might be said to derive from the procedural fact of peer review or from the successful application of expertise.
- Beetham, (1974) Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics. George Allen & Unwin, London.
- Beetham, D. (1991) The Legitimation of Power. Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands,
- Easton, (1975) A Reassessment of the Concept of Political Support. British Journal of Political Science 5: 435 57.
- Habermas, J. (1975) Legitimation Beacon Press, Boston.
- Kantorowicz, (1957) The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Lukes, S. (1991) Perspectives on Authority. In: Moral Conflict and Politics. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 141 54.
- Peters, R. S. (1958) Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 32: 207 24.
- Scharpf, W. (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Weber, (1978 ) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 3 vols. Ed. G. Roth & C. Wittich. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Zelditch, & Walker, H. (1998) Legitimacy and the Stability of Authority. In: Berger, J. & Zelditch, M., Jr. (Eds.), Status, Power and Legitimacy: Strategies and Theories. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, pp. 315 38.
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