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What is Authority?

Differentiating Authority, Power, and Legitimacy


The term “authority” refers to an abstract concept with both sociological and psychological components. As a child born of a myriad of different social situations which have some rough similarities, no easy definition exists. Of particular concern throughout the literature on the topic is the entanglement of the concepts of authority, power, and legitimacy. This is a concern not only in the abstract (by which I mean that scholars discuss and disagree on how the three are entangled), but also in the concrete because scholars themselves are often guilty of entangling them. One is defined as a function of the other and vice-versa until the reader doesn’t know where to turn anymore for help.


Power and Legitimacy

Power is the ability, whether personal or social, to get things done — either to enforce one’s own will or to enforce the collective will of some group over others. Legitimacy is a socially constructed and psychologically accepted right to exercise power. A person can have legitimacy but no actual power (the legitimate king might reside in exile, destitute and forgotten). A person can have actual power but not legitimacy (the usurper who exiled the king and appropriates the symbols of office).

Here, now, we begin to approach an understanding of what authority is because in all social situations a person is treated as an authority only when they have both power and legitimacy. We might consider, for example, the phrase uttered so often when someone intrudes into our business in order to give commands: “You have no authority here.”

What does that mean? It might mean that the person has no legitimate claim to be heard or heeded. It might mean that the person has no social power — he has not the ability to enforce his will over the objections of others. Or, it might be both. In any event, both must be present for authority to exist (socially) and be acknowledged (psychologically).


Psychology of Authority

This is still not quite enough, however, because it defines authority a bit too closely to the concepts of legitimacy and power. When a person has authority over others, it means something a bit more than simply that they have a right to exercise existing power. The missing ingredient is psychological — the previously mentioned but not explicated issue of acknowledgment. Both power and legitimacy are social in that they exist in the interplay between two or more humans. Yet what goes on in the mind of person when he acknowledges the authority of another?

It isn’t simply that he accepts the factual existence of power or legitimacy; rather, it’s also that he accepts that an authority figure is justified in making a decision without also explaining the reason for that decision and persuading others to accept that the decision was reached properly. The importance of this is not too difficult to see.


Exercising Authority

If I have authority over you, I can expect that when I make a decision you will go along with that decision, even if I don’t take the time to explain it to you and persuade you that it is indeed right. In turn, your acceptance of me as an authority implies that you have already agreed to be persuaded, implicitly, and won’t demand explicit explanations and reasons.

Once I begin to explain my reasoning process and get you to agree that my conclusion was the proper one, then you have reached your own decision. When you act, it won’t be because of me enforcing my will over you, nor will it have anything to do with the legitimacy of my power. Instead, it will simply be you exercising your will for your own reasons.

Consider the appropriate example of a priest as a religious authority over a congregation. This priest has the legitimate social power to see that his will and that of and his superiors is enforced over the membership of the congregation. More than this, however, we must understand that those members have implicitly accepted that the priest does not need to patiently reason with each one of them in turn in order to get them to independently agree to the decisions in question.

Why doesn’t the priest explain everything? There can be many reasons — perhaps members of the congregation lack the sophisticated training necessary in order to understand them, or maybe there just isn’t enough time. What’s important is that the priest could explain things, but doesn’t — authority means not having to explain everything but being able to wield legitimate power anyway.

Only in a community of infinitely rational individuals with an infinite amount of time would it be possible for everything to be fully explained all of the time. In the real world, however, we must rely upon authority figures to make decisions for us. As a part of this, we invest them with the power and legitimacy necessary to cause those decisions to be meaningful and relevant.

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