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Development of the concept

Contemporary uses

Research and problem areas


The concept of authority, like the related concepts with which it is frequently associated—power, influence, and leadership—is used in a variety of ways in political philosophy and the social sciences. In part, the diversity stems from the ubiquity of the phenomenon. Whether it be defined as (1) a property of a person or office, especially the right to issue orders; (2) a relationship between two offices, one superior and the other subordinate, such that both incumbents perceive the relationship as legitimate; (3) a quality of a communication by virtue of which it is accepted; or (4) countless variations on one or more of these logical forms of definition, the phenomenon of authority is basic to human behavior. One philosopher, Bertrand de Jouvenel, has put it more strongly: “The phenomenon called ‘authority’ is at once more ancient and more fundamental than the phenomenon called ‘state’ the natural ascendancy of some men over others is the principle of all human organisations and all human advances” ([1955] 1957, p. xiii). In any event, the problem of political authority, as distinct from the quest for a precise definition of the concept, is at least as old as government itself. Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has been a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority); small groups (informal authority or leadership); intermediate organizations, such as schools, churches, armies, industrial and governmental bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authority); and society-wide or inclusive organizations ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and international organization (political authority). To what extent these are different kinds of authority remains an open question. Definitive answers must await more research on their interrelationships: for example, how attitudes toward parental authority condition subsequent attitudes toward civic participation and how the dominant style of political rule affects the ways in which authority is exercised in primary and intermediate organizations.

Development of the concept

The implications of man’s involvement in the state, i.e., his obligations as a citizen, are given their classic statement in Plato’s famous dialogues, Apology and Crito. The trial and conviction of Socrates poses the basic problem of political authority. What is man’s relationship to the state? Is he obliged to obey an unjust law? For Socrates, the contractual relationship with his state, entered into by every citizen upon reaching adulthood, provides only limited alternatives to complete obedience, even to the point of death. On the one hand, the citizen may argue, persuade others, or attempt to change the law. On the other hand, he may abandon his citizenship and leave the country. (The existence of these two alternatives is still crucial in distinguishing between democratic and totalitarian states.) Unsuccessful in the first alternative and unwilling to adopt the second alternative, Socrates accepts the verdict of his trial as legitimate and drinks the fatal hemlock.

The justification of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority, the requirements of political obligation —these have been core questions for political philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to the present. Yet these great thinkers, their most important successors (Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), and particularly twentieth-century social scientists have not been concerned solely with questions of what ought to be. They have also addressed themselves to questions of what is—how authority and power are in fact distributed in society. To the extent that these political philosophers and social scientists have arrived at different conclusions, they have often been led to use these concepts in different ways.

Perhaps the seminal treatment of the concept of authority in the twentieth century is that of Max Weber (1922). He distinguishes between three pure types of authority—(1) legal-rational, (2) traditional, and (3) charismatic—according to the kind of claim to legitimacy typically made by each. In the last two cases the obligation is to a person, the traditional chief or the heroic or messianic leader. Legal authority is more restricted in scope; obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal network of positions ([1922] 1957, pp. 325–328). Weber’s treatment of legal-rational authority, which distinguishes between, but does not elaborate on, authority inherent in office and authority based on technical knowledge, provides the basic framework for most contemporary analyses of bureaucracy (Peabody 1962). His treatment of charismatic authority, or more precisely, charismatic leadership (Bierstedt 1954, pp. 71–72), has been followed up in studies of national political leadership (Lipset 1963; Neumann 1942; Pye 1962).

But social scientists are by no means agreed on how the concept of authority should be used. For example, Michels, in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1930, p. 319) defines authority as “the capacity, innate or acquired, for exercising ascendancy over a group.” However, Bierstedt (1954, pp. 67–81) takes issue with each of these points. Authority is not a capacity; it is a relationship. Furthermore, it is neither innate, nor a matter of exercising ascendancy. Bierstedt argues that Michels has confused authority with competence. Yet both agree as to the close relationship between authority and power. For Michels, authority “is a manifestation of power” (1930, p. 319); for Bierstedt, “authority becomes a power phenomenon….it is sanctioned power, institutionalized power” (1954, pp. 79–80).

Contemporary uses

The use of authority by contemporary political scientists is no more free from dispute. Thus, Lasswell and Kaplan, in a widely quoted definition paralleling Bierstedt’s, define authority as “formal power” (1950, p. 133). However, Friedrich (1963, chapters 9–13; p. 207, n. 15; p. 226, n. 20) explicitly rejects this definition by Lasswell and Kaplan, and defines authority as “the quality of a communication,” which is “capable of reasoned elaboration” (1958, pp. 35–36; 1963, pp. 218, 224). They are also in disagreement as to whether power or influence is the more inclusive term: Lasswell and Kaplan arguing that “power is a form of influence” (1950, p. 85); Friedrich maintaining that “influence is a kind of power, indirect and unstructured” (1963, p. 199, p. 207, n. 15). It seems of limited value to pursue a definition of authority as a special case of power or influence (the genus-anddifferentia form). Social scientists have not as yet been able to formulate a precise and widely accepted operational definition of power. These concepts, even if given operational definition, would appear to open up more difficulties than they resolve.

Several conclusions emerge from a review of these various attempts at definition and explication. First, what clearly distinguishes authority from coercion, force, and power on the one hand, and leadership, persuasion, and influence on the other hand, is legitimacy. Superiors feel that they have a right to issue commands; subordinates perceive an obligation to obey. If the character of the communication is questioned, then authority is diminished and the bond that holds the participants together is in danger of being severed. Authority is strongest when subordinates anticipate the commands of superiors even before they are voiced. Second, authority is exercised most characteristically within a network of clearly defined hierarchical roles: parent–child, teacher–pupil, employer–employee, ruler–ruled. These authority relations are institutionalized: duties and obligations are specified, behavior is reasonably predictable, and the relations continue over time. In a system of well-established authority, men of great ability are less in demand. Charisma is transformed through routinization; the entrepreneur is replaced by the bureaucrat. Finally, most social scientists agree that authority is but one of several resources available to incumbents of formal positions. The policeman may initially depend upon authority symbolized by his uniform and badge to lend legitimacy to his orders. But if his authority fails and persuasion is not successful, then he must resort to the threat or use of physical force, or even firearms, in order to bring about compliance. In cases in which one criminal is joined by others, the policeman can call upon other policemen, the governor, the national guard, and, if need be, the supreme commander and the army. In the final analysis, it is this nesting of authority, and the possibility of tapping greater and greater resources, that explains why criminals get arrested despite their failure to consent to a policeman’s authority. A head of state is dependent upon a similar nesting of authority. His legitimacy must be acknowledged not just by citizens but, more importantly, also by those who control other valued resources: his immediate staff, his cabinet, military leaders, and, in the long run, the political and administrative apparatus of the entire society.

Research and problem areas

The usefulness of authority as a general analytical concept in the social sciences would seem to be dependent on further research directed at answering the following questions:

(1) What is the impact of the dominant style of political authority in a given country on the ways in which authority is exercised in the many different primary groups and intermediate organizations making up the society? Societies may be characterized by the congruency or diffused and fragmented nature of their multiple layers of authority patterns. Little is known about the way in which the dominant style of political authority—totalitarian, autocratic, constitutional elitism, mass democratic, or some combination of these—structures the attitudes and practices in the primary and intermediate groups and organizations in society. Bendix’s pioneering study of the impact of four different cultures—Russia under the czars, Engand in the process of industrialization, America during the first four decades of the twentieth century, and East Germany after World War II—on management-worker ideologies is suggestive of the kind of research that is needed (1956). From a related orientation, Eckstein (1961, pp. 6–12) hypothesizes that the stability of a government is related to the congruency of its style of authority with the other authority patterns of society. The leadership practices of British political parties and the British cabinet structure are put forward as an example of high congruence. The experiences of the Weimar Republic, where democracy was largely confined to the level of parliamentary government, illustrate the opposite case (pp. 17–21).

Studies of totalitarian dictatorships—Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Russia under Stalin —stress the creation of a vacuum between the elite and mass and a resulting disintegration of communication affecting all traditional authority patterns. “…the bonds of confidence in social relationships are corroded by the terror and propaganda… . The confidence which ordinarily binds the manager of a plant to his subordinates, members of a university faculty to each other and to their students, lawyer to client, doctor to patient, and even parents to children as well as brothers to sisters is disrupted” (Friedrich & Brzezinski 1956, p. 166). Although the basic pattern of authority may be quite different, the totalitarian government also seeks congruency, a stability imposed from above. The objective is a system of authority in which parents are totally responsible for their children’s behavior, as is the party secretary for the cell, the chairman for the collective, and the central leadership for the whole of the Soviet Union (Mead 1951).

(2) How are attitudes and behavior shaped in infancy, childhood, and adolescence so as to affect the degree and kind of subsequent political participation and attitudes toward political authority? The second problem area, political socialization, is shaped by but also affects the first. The training of the young—character building, education, instruction in citizenship—has obvious consequences for adult political behavior. At least in the United States, the single best predictor of a child’s choice of a political party is his parents’ party preference. Much of the literature on the development of personality, authoritarianism, and voting preferences testifies to the importance of attitudes formed in the early years of life as a conditioner of later, mature civic activity (Hyman 1959). While the survey literature of the United States abounds with evidence of an adult cynicism toward politics and the low or ambivalent status of politicians, these attitudes are not apparent among young school children (Greenstein 1960). Family tradition, the extent to which a family is politicized, does, however, have a substantial impact upon an individual’s orientation toward politics and political authority, influencing the degree, kind, and direction of his political participation. Cross-national studies of political socialization are still relatively rare (Hess 1963).

(3) What are the strengths and bases of support of differing forms of political authority at the local and national level and between governmental institutions as diverse as the chief executive, the bureaucracy, the legislature, and the courts? Easton (1953) has equated the study of politics with the analysis of “the authoritative allocation of values.” Much of the community power literature has focused on how choices are made between competing values, who makes them, and once made, why citizens accept them as “authoritative.” While many of the early sociological analyses of community power stress the importance of a business elite, more recent studies by political scientists emphasize the integrative role played by public officials. Banfield (1961) found that the mayor of Chicago was able to provide a degree of informal centralization through party organization of what would otherwise be a fragmented formal authority resulting from multiple and overlapping governmental jurisdictions. Dahl (1961) and his associates traced a historical shift in political influence in New Haven, Connecticut, from oligarchy to pluralism, through the intensive analysis of three key decision areas: political nominations, public education, and urban redevelopment. What coordination and continuity exist in a system characterized by dispersed inequality of resources is largely brought about by elected officials, particularly the mayor of New Haven.

Numerous studies of the multiple centers of authority and power in modern industrial states have been undertaken—the executive, the legislature, the courts, the bureaucracy, political parties, and interest groups. However, social scientists are only beginning to understand what takes place when conflict erupts between competing centers of authority, such as that which characterized the promulgation of the United States Supreme Court decisions in the school integration cases. Neustadt’s analysis of how a president makes his extensive formal and legal powers work for him should facilitate comparisons with other national heads of state. The problem of implementing authority is common to all: “how to be on top in fact as well as name” (Neustadt 1960, p. vii).

One of the advantages that democratic forms of government have over more autocratic or totalitarian forms is that conflict and tensions are decentralized and dispersed. Successions from one administration to another or one regime to the next provide a critical test. As Friedrich and Brzezinski note in their study of totalitarian dictatorships, succession “exposes a regime’s authority to its greatest strain, since the passing away of the ruler calls not only his, but the system’s, authority into question” (1956, p. 54). This strain, while not without its frictions, is considerably reduced in a democracy.

(4) How does political authority vary from culture to culture and from traditional to modern societies in terms of each of these three problem areas? Ultimately, clarification of concepts and the development of generalizations about authority patterns must come from cross-cultural comparative analysis. Single-nation studies, for example, Benedict’s study of Japan (1946) and Mead’s analysis of Soviet attitudes toward authority (1951), have set the stage. A basic norm of Japanese culture is “taking one’s proper station,” a norm that is learned and meticulously observed in the family and later extended to the wider fields of economic life and government. Benedict outlines at some length the extensive system of hierarchical obligations and their reciprocals in Japan (1946, p. 116). Ward (1963) traces the development of democratic and pluralistic tendencies leading to the dilution and modification of the oligarchic pattern of rule in Japan.

Mead portrays a contrasting, if not always internally consistent, theory of Soviet leadership. Each party member is enjoined to be a model for those beneath him, but those below are urged not to take their cues from their immediate superiors but instead to model their behavior after the top leader, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and their successors (Mead 1951, pp. 68–69). The Soviet industrial worker “is expected to respond, not with a careful delimited measured response to the particular demands of his job, but with total devotion and spontaneity” (p. 35). After experimenting with the belief that the socialist society would assume full responsibility for the upbringing of children, the Soviet government shifted to encouragement of the growth of the close-knit family and strong parental authority.

By utilizing comparative case studies of policy making in the United States and the Soviet Union, Brzezinski and Huntington have substantially advanced our understanding of political authority and politics in the two systems (1964).

Research stimulated by the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on Comparative Politics has begun to break through the limitations of single-nation studies and to reap the benefits of systematic theory, cross-national analysis, and the use of survey research techniques applied simultaneously to a number of countries. Almond and Verba (1963) compare the political cultures of five nations, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Mexico, basing their analysis upon stratified, multistage probability samples of about one thousand respondents in each country. They distinguish three pure types of political cultures—parochial, subject, and participant—as well as various combinations of these types. Several implications of each main type in shaping attitudes toward political authority are immediately apparent. The political cultures of African tribal societies and autonomous local communities described by Coleman (Almond & Coleman 1960, pp. 254–256) are clearly parochial in orientation. Political roles are not specialized. Diffuse political, social, economic, and religious roles are combined in headmanship or chieftainship. Members of the society expect little in the way of change or progress. In the subject political culture, the citizen “is aware of specialized governmental authority; he is affectively oriented to it, perhaps taking pride in it, perhaps disliking it; and he evaluates it either as legitimate or as not” (Almond & Verba 1963, p. 19). But the relationship is essentially passive. In the third type of political culture, the participative culture, individual members are oriented to both the input and output aspects of the political system. They endorse the norm of active participation in governmental decision making, although they may vary greatly in the degree to which they themselves are involved. As Pye (1962) points out in his study of national character and political attitudes in Burma, perhaps the top priority problems in emerging nations are the quest for new collective as well as individual identities, the inculcation of a sense of national loyalty, and the development of a propensity to obey the regulations of central governmental authority.

The diverse uses of authority as a political concept have been illustrated. The ambiguity of everyday language, the mixture of fact and value implicit in the term, the omnipresence of the phenomenon in all cultures, and the multiple approaches to the study of authority by social scientists from a great range of disciplines—all these factors have contributed to the confusion often accompanying the use of the concept. Yet, precisely because relative superordination and subordination are so fundamental at the family, group, organizational, and national levels, authority remains an almost indispensable general analytical concept.

Robert L. Peabody

[See alsoLegitimacy; Political theory; Power. Other relevant material may be found underLeadership.]


Almond, Gabriel A.; and Coleman, James S. (editors) 1960 The Politics of the Developing Areas. Princeton Univ. Press.

Almond, Gabriel A.; and Verba, Sidney 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton Univ. Press.

Banfield, Edward C. 1961 Political Influence. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Bendix, Reinhard 1956 Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization. New York: Wiley. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Benedict, Ruth 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bierstedt, Robert (1954) 1964 The Problem of Authority. Pages 67–81 in Morroe Berger et al. (editors), Freedom and Control in Modern Society. New York: Octagon Books.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew; and Huntington, Samuel P. 1964 Political Power: USA/USSR. New York: Viking.

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) 1963 Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

de Grazia, Sebastian 1959 What Authority Is Not. American Political Science Review 53:321–331.

Easton, David 1953 The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science. New York: Knopf.

Eckstein, Harry 1961 A Theory of Stable Democracy. Center of International Studies Research Monograph No. 10. Princeton Univ., Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Friedrich, Carl J. (editor) 1958 Authority. American Society of Political and Legal Philosophy, Nomos, Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1963 Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Friedrich, Carl J.; and Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. (1956) 1966 Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. 2d ed. rev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. > A paperback edition was published by Praeger in 1961.

Greenstein, Fred I. 1960 The Benevolent Leader: Children’s Images of Political Authority. American Political Science Review 54:934–943.

Hess, Robert D. 1963 The Socialization of Attitudes Toward Political Authority: Some Cross-national Comparisons. International Social Science Journal 15:542–559.

Hyman, Herbert H. 1959 Political Socialization: A Study in the Psychology of Political Behavior. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de (1955) 1957 Sovereignty: An Inquiry Into the Political Good. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French as De la souveraineté: À la recherche du bien politique.

Lasswell, Harold D.; and kaplan, abraham 1950 Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. Yale Law School Studies, Vol. 2. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by the Yale University Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1963 The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: Basic Books.

Mead, Margaret 1951 Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Problems of Soviet Character. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Michels, Roberto 1930 Authority. Volume 2, pages 319–321 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Miller, Walter B. 1955 Two Concepts of Authority. American Anthropologist New Series 57:271–289.

Neumann, Franz L. (1942) 1963 Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944. 2d ed. New York: Octagon Books.

Neustadt, Richard E. 1960 Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership. New York: Wiley.

Peabody, Robert L. 1964 Organizational Authority: Superior-Subordinate Relationships in Three Public Service Organizations. New York: Atherton.

Peabody, Robert L. 1962 Perceptions of Organizational Authority: A Comparative Analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly 6:463–482.

Pye, Lucian W. 1962 Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Ward, Robert E. 1963 Political Modernization and Political Culture in Japan. World Politics 15:569–596.

Weber, Max (1922) 1957 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Edited by Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published in German as Part 1 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.

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The conceptual history of authority reveals it to be an essentially contested concept because of the many debates about its sources, purposes, and limits, as well as its proximity to the concept of power.

Since Plato's critique of Athenian democracy, physical force and rhetorical persuasion have been viewed as types of power but not authority. Hannah Arendt observes that "[i]f authority is to be defined at all, then it must be in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments" (p. 93). Indeed, it is only when authority fails that force or persuasion is used to elicit compliance. This distinction is reflected in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (17121778) discussion of what a legislator must do to form a political community guided by the general will:

Since, then, the legislator can use neither force nor argument, he must, of necessity, have recourse to authority of a different kind which can lead without violence and persuade without convincing. That is why, in all periods, the Fathers of their country have been driven to seek the intervention of Heaven, attributing to the Gods a Wisdom that was really their own. (pp. 207208)

In this passage, religious authority is so widely accepted and unquestioned by the people that, if it is appealed to, no force or persuasion is necessary.

Rousseau's legislator, however, might be engaging in deception by invoking religious authority as a proxy. To be authoritative, the legislator's statement should be accepted or rejected on its merits. As Richard Friedman states, "[i]f there is no way of telling whether an utterance is authoritative, except by evaluating its contents to see whether it deserves to be accepted in its own right, then the distinction between an authoritative utterance and advice or rational persuasion will have collapsed" (p. 132). Deference toward authority may not be automatic, as those affected by it evaluate its statements to judge whether they are, in fact, authoritative.

Given this, it may be said that if power is the ability of some individual, group, or institution to control, coerce, or regulate others, authority is the recognition of the right of that individual, group, or institution to exercise power. In short, those over whom power is exercised recognize that whoever or whatever is exercising that power is doing so legitimately. There is an element of trust, faith, and recognition on the part of those following authority that the person exercising it possesses some quality (for example, wisdom, expertise, or the fact that the person was elected by the people) that ought to be deferred to. If this is the case, then authority, rather than simple power, exists and must be followed, adhered to, and, within limits, obeyed.

The Sources of Authority

One approach to authority focuses on the question of who has a right to rule, and on what this right rests. Early notions of authority based it on the right of the strongest, the many, or the wisest to make laws. For example, while Pericles (c. 495429 b.c.e.) praises Athenian democracy as the rule of the many according to the rule of law, Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) views it as an unstable form of government that rests on the opinion and force of the majority. Instead, he prefers authority be given to those who possess reason and wisdom. Also, from antiquity to the Middle Ages, authority is often related to the divine, with rulers seen as "gods" themselves or as receiving authority from a divine power. In the European Middle Ages, the notion of civil and religious authority was clearly tied to the Catholic Church. For example, papalism asserted that the pope had final authority over both ecclesiastical and civil realms. Also, the notion of divine right monarchy, promoted by Robert Filmer (c. 15881653), asserted that the absolute authority of monarchs rests on Adam's patriarchal authority in the Garden of Eden.

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, the intellectual flourishing of the Renaissance led to the rediscovery of the notion of self-government in the form of republican city-states such as Florence, Italy. In turn, this influenced the emergence of the social-contract theory of John Locke (16321704) and Rousseau that rests legitimate government on the consent of the citizens of a political community. Locke's theory of consent and the right to revolt helped shape the Declaration of Independence and the republican character of the U.S. Constitution. However, the social-contract theory was criticized as resting on abstract notions of consent, reason, equality, and liberty. Edmund Burke (17291797), for instance, favored moderate reforms of existing institutions, and stressed that members of each generation must respect their entailed inheritance that obliged them to follow traditions established by previous generations. Furthermore, Joseph-Marie de Maistre (17531821) saw the abstract ideas that inspired the French Revolution as undermining the "throne and altar," which were the traditional authorities that held society together.

Authority and Legitimacy

Another approach to authority focuses more on the question of whether those who are ruled accept authority as legitimate regardless of its source. This approach originated with Max Weber (18641920), who distinguished three ideal types of authority: traditional authority that rests on history and tradition; charismatic authority that rests on the personality of the leader; and legal-rational authority that rests on impersonal rules and powers and is associated with the office rather than the personal characteristics of the office holder. If those affected think that power is exercised legitimately, then any of these three types of authority is legitimate, regardless of its moral justification.

Weber suggested that as societies modernize, authority transforms from traditional, to charismatic, to legal-rational. This implies that only one type of authority exists at a time, or that authority is a linear sequence from traditional to charismatic to legal-rational. Clearly, these three types of authority coexist. This is illustrated by distinguishing between the notions of "an authority" and "in authority." For example, the U.S. Congress possesses legal-rational authority, and representatives and senators have certain powers that derive from their office. Representatives and senators are "in authority" but are often influenced by individuals called to testify before committee hearings who, because of their charisma or expertise, are "an authority."

The Purposes of Authority

The purposes of political authority are as contested as its sources. For some, authority should promote a virtuous society. The desired virtues differ depending on whether one looks to Aristotle's (384322 b.c.e.) discussion of the golden mean, Niccolò Machiavelli's (14691527) discussion of republican virtue, religiously inspired notions of Christian or Islamic virtue, or the emphasis on character as evident in Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues. For some, authority should promote a just society. Similarly, the definition of justice differs depending on whether one looks to Plato's ideal republic or John Rawls's (19212002) view that justice is the fair distribution of resources and opportunities in a society. And for some, authority is needed to provide stability and order. Here too are found differences ranging from Thomas Hobbes's (15881679) emphasis on an absolutist government created by the consent of the people who simply desire protection and order, or the republican tradition that suggests that stability comes from dividing authority among different branches of government that check and balance each other.

Since authority is valued but exists in tension with other social values, there is a debate about its limits. Some, like Filmer and Jean Bodin (15301596), defend absolute authority in the hands of one person, and oppose the separation of its powers, on grounds that absolutism alone can provide stability and order. Others, such as Locke and James Madison (17511836), suggest that absolute authority in the hands of one person or group of persons inevitably leads to arbitrary and excessive power that squelches political and civil liberties. Thus, authority must be divided among separate branches that can check and balance each other, and operate within certain constitutionally prescribed limits such as the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, the authority of government can conflict with the demands of conscience or standards of justice that transcend government. Thus, civil disobedience, as Henry David Thoreau (18171862) suggests, can be justified on grounds that individuals should not be coerced into supporting an evil they otherwise oppose.

Several controversies continue to surround authority in the early 2000s. Issues such as identifying the origin of the social-contract tradition and delineating the limits of obedience continued to attract scholarly attention. Other debates are both scholarly and politically important. For example, the proper relationship between religious and secular authority remains controversial in the United States, France, and in some predominately Islamic countries debating democratic reforms. There are also ongoing concerns that all types of authority are not respected or deferred to as much as in the past. Cultural conservatives in the United States especially bemoan the loss of respect for and faith in authority, and point to a culture that promotes relativism, cynicism, and irony as the culprit. Finally, the U.S. government's reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Patriot Act have each, in different ways, sparked controversy. For example, there continues a global discussion about the appropriate use of unilateral or multilateral military force. And, within the United States, the tension between governmental authority and civil liberties remains controversial. From these examples, one can see that the historical debates regarding the sources, purposes, and limits of authority remain important in this era.

See also Civil Disobedience ; Democracy ; Liberty ; Power ; Republicanism: Republic .

Some Definitions of Autobiography

Philippe Lejeune: "A retrospective account in prose that a real person makes of his own existence stressing his individual life and especially the history of his personality" ("The Autobiographical Pact").

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson: "Our working definition of autobiographical or life narrative, rather than specifying its rules as a genre or form, understands it as a historically situated practice of self-representation. In such texts, narrators selectively engage their lived experience through personal storytelling" (Reading Autobiography ).

Leigh Gilmore: "As a genre, autobiography is characterized less by a set of formal elements than by a rhetorical setting in which a person places herself or himself within testimonial contexts as seemingly diverse as the Christian confession, the scandalous memoirs of the rogue, and the coming-out story in order to achieve as proximate a relation as possible to what constitutes truth in that discourse" (The Limits of Autobiography ).


Arendt, Hannah. "What Is Authority?" In Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Enl. ed. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Friedman, Richard. "On the Concept of Authority in Political Philosophy." In Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy, edited by Richard Flathman. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "The Social Contract." In Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, edited by Sir Ernest Barker. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Gregory W. Streich

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In the first volume of Economy and Society (1978), Max Weber defines authority as the belief in the legitimacy of individuals to exercise power, such that they are able to influence others to do their will even with resistance, and a specific group will likely follow those orders.

Weber develops a schema of legitimate authority, identifying three pure forms. Legal authority, sometimes referred to as rational authority, is based on rules and laws. Under these laws, people have the right to exercise authority through the office they occupy. It is the position itself that holds authority, with obedience being owed to the office, such as chief executive officer or the presidency. The office continues to hold authority after the officeholder vacates it. Traditional authority is based on tradition or custom. Obedience is owed to individuals such as tribal leaders or kings through tradition. When the individual vacates the position, tradition determines who will fill the position. Finally, charismatic authority is based on dedication to the extraordinary personality of an individual and the standard or norm he or she establishes. Obedience is owed to the individual charismatic leader. Weber considered charismatic authority to be a revolutionary force in that it renounces tradition and submission is guaranteed through proof or the display of a miracle.

Jürgen Habermas notes the importance of discourse, or speech, as it relates to authority. Mark Warren (1995) recounts Habermass argument that authority is created through discourse, particularly in those settings that prevent other forms of authority from intruding. Through discourse, citizens in a democracy make known the issues that concern them and are able to understand others. The result is a form of consensus by which laws are created and normative changes are instituted.

Theodor Adorno and colleagues, in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), notes that an individuals submission to the authority of a parent may be linked to submission to authority in general. In particular, he finds that opposition toward parents authority is often evidenced as resistance to authority in general. As a result of this study, Adorno identified an authoritarian personality type. As James M. Henslin (2005) summarizes, this individual is highly prejudiced against minority groups, while also being highly conformist and respectful of authority.

Ralf Dahrendorf, in Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959), identifies authority in relation to class. One class exercises authority in industry yet may also be subject to authority from others. Others are subject to authority from supervisors but do not exercise their own authority. The classless do not exercise authority and are not subject to authority, such as independent workers. Thus, class is determined by the degree of authority one holds. Since industry plays a large role in ones life, a persons authority may be influential in other spheres, including the family.

Stanley Milgram (1974) experimentally tested individual obedience to authority. Authority is contextual in nature, meaning that a person with authority in one situation will not necessarily have the same authority in another. Authority comes from a persons power in a social situation, not from personality. In certain situations, there is an expectation that an authority will exist. The authority becomes apparent through (1) self-identification of the individual with authority; (2) external objects, such as uniforms, identifying the individual as an authority; (3) the lack of a competing authority; and (4) the lack of obvious inconsistencies. In his infamous shock experiments, Milgram found that individuals, who may have protested against the shocking of individuals, were willing to continue with the experiment when an authoritative individual encouraged them on.

Organizational theory has further developed the notion of authority. Philippe Aghion and Jean Tirole (1997) note the distinctions between formal and real authority. They define formal authority as the right to decide while real authority is defined as the effective control over decisions (p. 1) with the former not necessarily granting the latter.

SEE ALSO Aggression; Alpha-male; Conformity; Experiments, Shock; Leadership; Legal Systems; Milgram, Stanley; Personality; Power; Social Dominance Orientation; Social Psychology; Weber, Max


Adorno, Theodor, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Aghion, Philippe, and Jean Tirole. 1997. Formal and Real Authority in Organizations. Journal of Political Economy 105 (1): 1-29.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. 1959. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hagan, John, John Simpson, and A. R. Gillis. 1987. Class in the Household: A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency. American Journal of Sociology 92 (4): 788-816.

Henslin, James M. 2005. Politics. In Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, 7th ed., 421-424. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Henslin, James M. 2005. The Authoritarian Personality. Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, 7th ed., 335. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Meyer, Marshall W. 1968. The Two Authority Structures of Bureaucratic Organization. Administrative Science Quarterly 13 (2): 211-228.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

Presthus, Robert V. 1960. Authority in Organizations. Public Administration Review 20 (2): 86-91.

Robinson, Robert V., and Jonathan Kelley. 1979. Class as Conceived by Marx and Dahrendorf: Effects on Income Inequality and Politics in the United States and Great Britain. American Sociological Review 44 (1): 38-58.

Warren, Mark E. 1995. The Self in Discursive Democracy. In The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, ed. Stephen K. White, 167-200. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. 2 vols. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gabriela Guazzo

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48. Authority

  1. cathedra throne indicative of religious power. [Folklore: Jobes, 307]
  2. crook staff carried as a symbol of office and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  3. crosier bishops staff signifying his ruling power. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 21]
  4. cross and ball signifies that spiritual power is above temporal. [Heraldry: Jobes, 387]
  5. crown headpiece worn as symbol of royal authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  6. double bar cross signifies archbishops, cardinals, and patriarchs. [Christian Iconog.: Jobes, 386]
  7. eagle attribute of Zeus, thus of authority. [Art: Hall, 109]
  8. fasces rods bundled about ax; emblem of magistrates, Fascists. [Rom. Hist.: Hall, 119; Ital. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 399]
  9. gavel small mallet used by judge or presiding officer to signal order. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  10. globe in Christ childs hands signifies power and dominion. [Christian Symbolism: de Bles, 25]
  11. Hoyle authoritative rules for playing cards and other games. [Misc.: Barnhart, 590]
  12. keys symbolic of St. Peters spiritual authority. [Christian Symbolism: N.T.: Matthew 16:19]
  13. Lords Anointed, the Jewish or other king by divine right. [Judaism: O.T.: I Samuel 26:9]
  14. mace ceremonial staff carried as a symbol of office and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  15. miter bishops headdress signifying his authority. [Christian Symbolism: EB VI ]
  16. nimbus cloud of light signifying might, divinely imparted. [Gk. Lit.: Iliad ]
  17. Ozymandias king of ancient Egypt, evoked by Shelley as an example of the perishability of power. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 749]
  18. pectoral cross worn by prelates on chain around neck. [Christian Iconog.: Child, 255; Jobes, 386]
  19. purple color worn by persons of high rank. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  20. rod wand or staff carried as a symbol of office and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  21. scepter symbol of regal or imperial power and authority. [Western Culture: Misc.]
  22. Stone of Scone coronation stone where kings of Scotland were crowned. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 970]
  23. throne seat of political or religious authority. [Western Folklore: Jobes, 1567]
  24. triple cross three upper arms; symbolizes authority of the pope. [Christian Iconog.: Jobes, 386]

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au·thor·i·ty / əˈ[unvoicedth]ôritē; ôˈ[unvoicedth]är-/ (abbr.: auth.) • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience: he had absolute authority over his subordinates. ∎  the right to act in a specified way, delegated from one person or organization to another: military forces have the legal authority to arrest drug traffickers. ∎  official permission; sanction: the money was spent without congressional authority. 2. (often authorities) a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere: the health authorities the Chicago Transit Authority. 3. the power to influence others, esp. because of one's commanding manner or one's recognized knowledge about something: he spoke with authority on the subject. ∎  the confidence resulting from personal expertise: he hit the ball with authority. ∎  a person with extensive or specialized knowledge about a subject; an expert: she was an authority on the stockmarket. ∎  a book or other source able to supply reliable information or evidence, typically to settle a dispute: the court cited a series of authorities supporting their decision. PHRASES: have something on good authority have ascertained something from a reliable source: I have it on good authority that there is a waiting list.

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authoritybanditti, bitty, chitty, city, committee, ditty, gritty, intercity, kitty, nitty-gritty, Pitti, pity, pretty, shitty, slitty, smriti, spitty, titty, vittae, witty •fifty, fifty-fifty, nifty, shifty, swiftie, thrifty •guilty, kiltie, silty •flinty, linty, minty, shinty •ballistae, Christie, Corpus Christi, misty, twisty, wristy •sixty •deity, gaiety (US gayety), laity, simultaneity, spontaneity •contemporaneity, corporeity, femineity, heterogeneity, homogeneity •anxiety, contrariety, dubiety, impiety, impropriety, inebriety, notoriety, piety, satiety, sobriety, ubiety, variety •moiety •acuity, ambiguity, annuity, assiduity, congruity, contiguity, continuity, exiguity, fatuity, fortuity, gratuity, ingenuity, perpetuity, perspicuity, promiscuity, suety, superfluity, tenuity, vacuity •rabbity •improbity, probity •acerbity • witchetty • crotchety •heredity •acidity, acridity, aridity, avidity, cupidity, flaccidity, fluidity, frigidity, humidity, hybridity, insipidity, intrepidity, limpidity, liquidity, lividity, lucidity, morbidity, placidity, putridity, quiddity, rabidity, rancidity, rapidity, rigidity, solidity, stolidity, stupidity, tepidity, timidity, torpidity, torridity, turgidity, validity, vapidity •commodity, oddity •immodesty, modesty •crudity, nudity •fecundity, jocundity, moribundity, profundity, rotundity, rubicundity •absurdity • difficulty • gadgety •majesty • fidgety • rackety •pernickety, rickety •biscuity •banality, duality, fatality, finality, ideality, legality, locality, modality, morality, natality, orality, reality, regality, rurality, tonality, totality, venality, vitality, vocality •fidelity •ability, agility, civility, debility, docility, edibility, facility, fertility, flexility, fragility, futility, gentility, hostility, humility, imbecility, infantility, juvenility, liability, mobility, nihility, nobility, nubility, puerility, senility, servility, stability, sterility, tactility, tranquillity (US tranquility), usability, utility, versatility, viability, virility, volatility •ringlety •equality, frivolity, jollity, polity, quality •credulity, garrulity, sedulity •nullity •amity, calamity •extremity • enmity •anonymity, dimity, equanimity, magnanimity, proximity, pseudonymity, pusillanimity, unanimity •comity •conformity, deformity, enormity, multiformity, uniformity •subcommittee • pepperminty •infirmity •Christianity, humanity, inanity, profanity, sanity, urbanity, vanity •amnesty •lenity, obscenity, serenity •indemnity, solemnity •mundanity • amenity •affinity, asininity, clandestinity, divinity, femininity, infinity, masculinity, salinity, trinity, vicinity, virginity •benignity, dignity, malignity •honesty •community, immunity, importunity, impunity, opportunity, unity •confraternity, eternity, fraternity, maternity, modernity, paternity, taciturnity •serendipity, snippety •uppity •angularity, barbarity, bipolarity, charity, circularity, clarity, complementarity, familiarity, granularity, hilarity, insularity, irregularity, jocularity, linearity, parity, particularity, peculiarity, polarity, popularity, regularity, secularity, similarity, singularity, solidarity, subsidiarity, unitarity, vernacularity, vulgarity •alacrity • sacristy •ambidexterity, asperity, austerity, celerity, dexterity, ferrety, posterity, prosperity, severity, sincerity, temerity, verity •celebrity • integrity • rarity •authority, inferiority, juniority, majority, minority, priority, seniority, sonority, sorority, superiority •mediocrity • sovereignty • salubrity •entirety •futurity, immaturity, impurity, maturity, obscurity, purity, security, surety •touristy •audacity, capacity, fugacity, loquacity, mendacity, opacity, perspicacity, pertinacity, pugnacity, rapacity, sagacity, sequacity, tenacity, veracity, vivacity, voracity •laxity •sparsity, varsity •necessity •complexity, perplexity •density, immensity, propensity, tensity •scarcity • obesity •felicity, toxicity •fixity, prolixity •benedicite, nicety •anfractuosity, animosity, atrocity, bellicosity, curiosity, fabulosity, ferocity, generosity, grandiosity, impecuniosity, impetuosity, jocosity, luminosity, monstrosity, nebulosity, pomposity, ponderosity, porosity, preciosity, precocity, reciprocity, religiosity, scrupulosity, sinuosity, sumptuosity, velocity, verbosity, virtuosity, viscosity •paucity • falsity • caducity • russety •adversity, biodiversity, diversity, perversity, university •sacrosanctity, sanctity •chastity •entity, identity •quantity • certainty •cavity, concavity, depravity, gravity •travesty • suavity •brevity, levity, longevity •velvety • naivety •activity, nativity •equity •antiquity, iniquity, obliquity, ubiquity •propinquity

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