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Types/sources of Authority: What Type of Authority Do You Have?

Updated on December 29, 2017
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Patrick has been working as a freelance writer for the past 3 years

Weber describes authority as chance commands that are obeyed by a specified population. However, his perspective of authority is with regards to legitimate authority, which he describes as legitimate (legal, permissible) and justified by both the ruler (s) and the ruled. Weber's concept of authority therefore involves a legitimate, or the socially use of power with one person (s) holding power another. In this case, legitimacy becomes an important component of authority, and thus distinguishing this concept of power from the more general notion of power. Whereas power may be exerted through the use of force, authority becomes dependent on a subordinate group consenting to the use of power by the superior one



Major types/sources of authority

Traditional authority

Charismatic authority

Legal/rational authority

Sources of authority

According to Weber, there are three major types of legitimate domination (authority) apart from the totality types of domination through which some people can exercise power or authority over others. The three sources from which authority can arise therefore include:

1. Traditional authority

Here, the traditional rights of the powerful individual or the dominant figure are accepted, or not challenged by the subordinate population. Authority therefore arises from the fact that the subordinate does accepts, or at least does not challenge the rights of the powerful/dominant party. This is particularly common religion, spiritual forms, well established as well as cultures that are slowly changing, family, tribes and the clan type cultures. Therefore, the authority figure/dominant party may include clan leader, a priest, and head of a family of a patriarch. For most part, traditional authority is enhanced or buttressed by such cultures as myths, symbols (flag, cross), structures as well as institutions. A given population therefore looks to these with some degree of respect and revere those who appear to stand for them. For instance, a priest has to go through a great deal of training on how to teach Christians about God. Having a deep and better understanding of this religion, he will gain some level of respect and even be accepted as a leader or figure of authority in the church. As Weber puts it, this form of authority is based on the belief in the sanctity of the day to day routines (Ira, 1996). With a claim by the leader and a belief by followers, there is virtue in the sanctity of age- old rules and powers, which accords the leader authority over the subordinates. With traditional authority, a leader may emerge naturally or even chosen based on adherence to the traditional principles of the society in question. However, the method of acceptance, or the manner in which one is accepted in the position of authority has to align with the rule of patriarch’s authority, which has to be accepted.
According to Weber however, this form of authority allows allow for the creation and preservation of inequality. This is particularly due to the fact that there is no or little challenge of the traditional leader, which would mean that the leader is likely to remain dominant.

The Queen


Traditional leaders may include:

Local elders


Spiritual leaders

Charismatic authority

This type of authority has been described one that rests on exceptional heroism or exemplary character of the individual in question as well as his or her normative pattern. Given that charisma in this case is the quality of one's personality which is considered somewhat extraordinary, one is likely to be held with high esteem, and ultimately rise to the level of authority. In this case, also, the population may be of the belief that the individual in question as having some form of exceptional powers/qualities. Whether or not this is true, what matters is what the population being led believes. According to Weber, charisma is a very important driving force that surges through both the established rules as well as traditional authority. Despite the fact that it may be perceived as irrational (because it is neither calculable or systematic), the charismatic form of authority tends to be revolutionary in that it breaks traditional rule, even to the extent of challenging legal authority.

With charismatic authority, an individual is likely to rise to the level of authority because of their unusual characteristic. Such a characteristic may include a special gift such as their manner of speaking, how they conduct themselves or act or any other unique, but desired quality.

Given that there are many people with unusual characteristics who may be considered somewhat charismatic, what is typically more relevant is why people accord a special status to a given person. Moreover, the leader in this case usually has the power to pursue their own ends to the extent that the followers accord them the status of power. In most cases, the leader gains and maintains authority simply by providing his or her strength in life, where his/her divine mission have to prove themselves to the extent that those who follow him/her must fare well, his/her charisma is more pronounced than that of others, and thus makes them stand out.

While this is true, authority in this case is also dependent on the devotion of the of the population to the exceptional characteristics of the individual as well as on the normative order sanctioned by them. Although this type of authority tends to have shortcomings as a long term source of authority, it is also very effective in the course of life of the leader.



Legal/rational authority

This type of authority is typically based on rational grounds. As such, it is founded on a belief in legality of the enacted rules as well as the rights of individuals who have been elevated to authority under such rules. Legal authority may develop in a number of ways, which include systems of convention as well as laws and regulations developing in the society. For instance, in the West, development of the law results in a legal system being developed. In this case, there tends to be a rule of law, written codes of law as well as legal rights and rules among others. It is also worth noting that with a rational legal system, there is also a strong possibility that there will be a political system that also becomes rationalized. Some of the associated areas include among others established offices, a constitution, various written documents, political procedures as well as regular elections. These are mostly in opposition to such earlier systems as authoritarian monarchs or other more traditional forms of authority that are lacking of well developed rules. With a legal system developing in such a rational manner, authority here tends to take a legal form. Individuals who lead may either have a legitimate legal right to rule or govern, which is also accepted by those who are ruled. As such, those who are ruled have to be in agreement with the legality of the leaders (those in authority) with a belief that they have a legitimate right to exercise power on their behalf.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg

Prime minister of one of the most democratic countries in the world
Prime minister of one of the most democratic countries in the world | Source

Although this form of authority may start out simple, it gradually developed with control being maintained, tendency for a more systemic as all encompassing set of laws and regulations are established. Moreover, those in authority continually take on more administrative tasks, which ultimately results in the development of an administrative structure. This also means that the leaders gradually move from simply controlling the society to more administrative roles. However, this form of authority may also face criticism and opposition by subordinates/population. Although this is true, such opposition/challenges are less likely to bring about dramatic changes to the system quickly.

Where do you fit?

Sources of authority

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