What is Authority? Trace out the different types of Authority


The exercise of authority is a constant and pervasive phenomenon in the human society. Human society maintains itself because of ‘order’ – and it is the authority that serves as the foundation of social order.

It is wrong to assume that ‘authority’ is purely a political phenomenon. In fact, in all kinds of organisations, political as well as non-political, authority appears. Every association in society whether it is temporary or permanent, small or big, has its own structure of authority.

According to E.A. Shills :


“Authority is that form of power which orders or articulates the actions of other actors through commands which are effective because those who are commanded regard the commands as legitimate.”

Max Weber used the term authority to refer to legitimate power.

In simple words, it can be said that authority refers to power which is regarded as legitimate in the minds of followers.

Weber’s notion of authority does not imply that power is legitimate and that illegitimate power plays no role in society. “Weber only argued that legitimacy is a general condition for the most effective and enduring manifestations of power. Still this legitimacy may take different forms and different justifications.”


Ian Robertson has stated :

“Power based on authority is usually unquestionably accepted by those to whom it is applied for obedience to it has become a social norm. Power based on coercion, on the other hand, tends to be unstable, because people obey only out of fear and will disobey at the first opportunity.

For this reason every political system must be regarded as legitimate by its participants if it is to survive. Most people must considers it desirable, workable and better than alternatives.

If the majority of the citizens in any society no longer consider their political system legitimate, it is doomed, because power that rests only on coercion will fail in the long run. The French, Russian and the American revolutions for example, have proved it.


The authority of the respective monarchies was questioned, and their power which was based mainly on coercion rather than on loyalty inevitably crumbled. In these cases, the exercise of coercive control was in conflict with the exercise of legitimate authority.

“The legitimacy” of authority is ultimately a matter of belief concerning the rightfulness of institutional system through which authority is exercised.” It depends on “the rightfulness of the exerciser’s incumbency in the authoritative role with the institutional system’s.

It also depends on “the rightfulness of the command itself or of the made of its promulgation. Weber describes three ideal types of legitimation which correspond to three types of authority.

Types of Authority :

Max Weber distinguished three basic types of legitimate authority which also correspond to three types of dominance or leadership. Weber spoke of traditional authority, legal rational authority, and charismatic authority.


Each type of authority is legitimate because it rests on the implicit or explicit consent of the governed. One who can successfully claim any of these types of authority is regarded as having the right to compel obedience at least for some time.

(1) Traditional Authority

Of all the legitimating of authority, the appeal to tradition is certainly the most common. People obey traditional authority because “It has always been that way.”

The right of the king to rule is not open to question. People obey a ruler because they know that doing so in past generations has given their society order and continuity. Thus it is not tradition alone here that is at issue, rather the stability of the social order is being accepted for its own sake.

In a political system based on ‘traditional authority’ power is legitimised by ancient customs. The authority of the ruler is generally founded on unwritten laws and it has almost a sacred quality. Tribal leaders and monarchs have always relied on traditional authority. From the historical point of view it has been the most common source of legitimating of power.


Traditional authority tends to be more common organisation which stress upon continuity with the past and the upholding of widely shared values and beliefs. Example, established churches, the higher reaches of government, and the courts and the familiar organisations based on kinship ties.

In each one of these settings it is inconvenient for us to question the authority relationship involved We lend to follow the tradition for it has always been followed, am doing any other thing would create more problems than it would solve.

(2) Rational Legal Authority :

In this kind of authority power is legitimised by explicit rule and procedures that define the rights and obligations of the rules. Such rules and procedures are commonly found in a writer constitution, and set of laws.

Legal rational authority stress a “government of laws not of peoples, officials here can exercise power only within legally defined limits that have been formally se advance. This kind of authority is commonly found in most of e political system of modern societies.

In this kind of authority power is respected and complied not cause the followers are fools but the exercise dawned with authority qualities are the custom case. Here the legitimacy of authority is derived from the respect for the legality of power.

Weber described such authority with reference to its most common organizational content namely bureaucracy. Weber writes – “Legal authority rests in enactment its pure type is best represented by bureaucracy.

The basic idea is that laws can be enacted and changed at pleasure by formally correct procedures. The governing body is either elected appointed and constitutes as a whole and not in all of its sections rational organisations.

3. Charismatic Authority

“In a system based on charismatic authority, power is legitimised by the unusual, exceptional or even supernatural qualities that people attribute to particular political, religious, or military leaders”. Weber called this extraordinary quality ‘Charisma’. Robert Bierstedt calls this kind of authority, not authority at all, but leadership.

Human history provides classical examples of such leaders with that quality of ‘Charisma’. Example- Jesus Christ, M.K. Gandhi, Hitler, Napoleon, Mao, Castro, Julius Caesar, Alexander, the Great, Churchil and so on.

“The charismatic leader is seen as a person of destiny who is inspired by unsocial lofty principles or even by God. The charisma of these leaders is itself sufficient to make their authority seem legitimate to their followers” – Ian Robertson.

In stressing the importance and sanctity of tradition Weber never said that tradition is inviolable. He only said that tradition is the rule rather than exception. There are exception also. Weber used the term “charismatic authority” to refer to such exception (borrowing the term from the Christian theology).

Weber writes “Charismatic authority rests on effectual and personal devotion of the follower to the lord his gifts of grace (charisma). They comprise especially magical ability, revelation of heroism, power of the mind and the speech. The purest type are the rules of the prophet, the warier hero the great demagogue.

The important thing in charismatic authority is that the leader is not magical but he is believed to be so through various devices and tactics the leader creates an army of true believers to get the perpetual support of the people. Yet charismatic authority is inherently unstable.

It has no rules of traditions to guide conduct since it is based on the unique qualities of particular individual, it is undetermined if the leader fails of dies. Subsequent leaders may lack the reason and qualities. Hence systems based on charismatic authority are usually short lived.


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