The terms authority, authoritarianism, and authoritative, both in scientific and common-use conversations, have three distinct meanings. Authority is usually defined as a legal and legitimate form of political power. Authoritarianism is a political system that is often seen as both illegal (because it doesn't follow the rule of law) and illegitimate (because the leadership is not chosen democratically). A person or institution is authoritative when other people trust it and are likely to respect and obey what that person or institution says or advises. In this article, we will focus on authority as a legal and legitimate form of power and on authoritative relations. The subject of authoritarianism is covered in the article Dictatorship.

                                    Politics and Authority

Max Weber studied the normative order of society and the types of government that exist in different societies. The basic types of normative order are law and moral conventions (ethics). The law achieves the maintenance of the moral order by creating a special group of people who must enforce laws and sanction those who violate them. Moral conventions, on the other hand, are enforced diffusely because the whole society acts in such a way as to sanction those who violate moral rules. Individuals may view the moral order as legitimate or illegitimate. There are also relations of power and authority in society. Weber defines political power as "the probability that one actor within social relationship will be in position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rest" (Weber, 1922a). Weber defines Authority as: “probability that certain commands (or all commands) from a given source will be obeyed by a given group of persons”  (Weber, 1922a). While power relations can be a product of circumstances, authority relations are never a product of chance because authority represents institutionalized relations of superiority and subordination, so they are always part of the established moral order.

There are only three legitimate forms of authority: legal-rational, traditional, and charismatic. The difference between these three types of authority is in how authority is justified, but also according to how the administrative apparatus of society is organized. Legal-rational authority is historically a product of Western culture. It is characterized by the application of impersonal laws through official state bodies. The administrative apparatus is hierarchically and bureaucratically organized. All persons are subject to the same laws, including those performing the most important functions. In addition, there is a separation of official duty from the private life of those in administrative positions, as well as the separation of public property from personal property. Apart from the level of the modern state, rational authority also appears in several different types of organizations and institutions.

                             Social Structures and Authority

Anthony Giddens sees social structures as having rules, which can be more or less formal, explicit, and strict, but always serve as practical knowledge that governs behavior. Structures also serve as  “resources” that allow actors to manage other people. Giddens divides rules and resources into four main types: 1) performative rules - instructions for performing routine behavior; 2) normative rules - rules that regulate correct behaviors, i.e. routines, in specific situations; 3) authoritative resources - properties and manner of using the capacity to control other actors; 4) allocative resources - allocation of material resources among activities and people. Giddens singles out three types of structures: 1) structures of domination and power, 2) structures of signification and knowledge, and 3) structures of legitimation. The difference between these three types of structure is only analytical because all three types of structure work in every practical activity.

Theorist of anarchism Emma Goldman saw anarchism as a system that defends the individuality of individuals, so she claimed that only liberated individuals could achieve a free society. She was skeptical of the masses and emphasized their tendency to become dependent on leaders and their authority. It was the masses who allowed the freedom to be suppressed through authority and coercion. However, she believed that all human beings are capable of rejecting relationships of authority and achieving freedom. The way to realize that freedom is "communal individuality" (based on personal autonomy and voluntary cooperation), which will ensure the sovereignty of the individual, but also social harmony.

                             Cultural Norms and Authority

American sociologist William Graham Sumner stated that when a particular pattern of behavior becomes seen as correct through use over time, then it acquires the authority of fact (truth), in a particular society, and becomes part of "mores". Mores are coercive and constraining social norms that include philosophical and ethical teachings, beliefs, codes, and standards of the good life. Social norms (mores) formulate rules and boundaries of behavior. Every individual is subject to the "legitimacy" of social conventions from birth. Mores regulate the social, political, and religious behaviors of people. Social conventions usually contain "taboos", forbidden behaviors that have been proven to be harmful by historical experience. Social norms coerce individuals, so a person who does not respect them is expelled from society. In this way, mores perform the function of social selection.

                             Organizations and Authority

Ralf Dahrendorf, in the book Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959, in German 1957), argues that in modern society the main sources of conflicts are relationships of power and authority. Every society always has both a static and a dynamic component and what unites both components are the forces of integration and conflict. Both forces are equally important for every society. A dynamic component can have its source inside or outside the social system. The key assumption is that the relations of power and authority have a decisive influence on social dynamics and changes, as well as on social conflicts. Authority, for Dahrendorf, is one of the key concepts of sociology. Authority is associated with legitimate Authority, primarily with the formal position in the hierarchy itself, while power is the relationship of a particular person who occupies a position of authority with those who are subordinate to him.

Positions of authority are those that are expected and that are obliged to carry out forced subordination. Such positions are located within various institutions: the state, schools, companies, churches, etc. Positions of authority serve to achieve integration because they ensure compliance with and respect for social norms. However, the same positions of authority that should ensure integration can be the starting point for conflict. There are different interests within organizations, and if those in positions of authority work in the interest of their own partial interests, then conflicts can arise. When different interests are manifested, an interest group can be created, and when an interest group starts fighting for its interests, then it becomes a conflict group.

Erik Olin Wright, in his analysis of the relation of exploitation in capitalist companies, introduces "organization" as the fourth type of productive asset. The organization, as coordinated cooperation between producers in a complex division of labor, represents a production resource in itself. In current capitalism, this resource is controlled by managers and capitalists. According to Wright, for bureaucracy (including political and economic leaders), authority is not a resource in itself, but the organization is a resource controlled by a hierarchy of authority. Organizational resources are the basis for exploitation because ordinary workers would be in a better position if the management of companies would be democratized.

According to the form of motivation of individuals to accept organizational authority, Amitai Etzioni singled out three types of organizations: utilitarian (in which the motive is personal gain), normative (motive is morals and values), and coercive organizations (motive is avoidance of punishment).

                                    Schools and Authority

Ivan Illich is best known for his critique of education, and he best expressed his views in the book Deschooling Society (1970). In this book, he explains how the traditional school system has made all students helpless before the capitalist organization of society. Schools are becoming repressive institutions that stifle imagination and creativity and impose conformism. Schools are ineffective in teaching students skills, and they also prevent students from developing their talents and abilities. Students who obey the rules acquire credentials from schools, as proof that they can join the capitalist system and the established order. The school system emphasizes grades, qualifications, and diplomas, which in no way reflect skills, knowledge, and abilities. The final product of education is a person who will be an obedient worker, a large consumer of goods and services sold on the market, and a person who obeys the authority of experts, doctors, and state laws and institutions. 

British sociologist and theorist of culture Paul Willis, in the book Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs  (1977), studies how cultural values ​​shape pupils' attitudes toward education and work. He spent a long time with a group of white boys from working-class families. He concluded that they understood very well the system of authority that exists in the school, but that they actively fought against it, and one of the ways of fighting was constant conflicts with teachers. They saw school as a hostile system that they could manipulate. The hostile attitude they had towards the authoritarian system at school, with constant attempts to provoke and manipulate, they kept latter on because they had the same attitude towards work. They were happy to have a paid job, but did not expect to get any pleasure or sense of accomplishment from the work, nor did they have the desire to pursue a career. Remaining in the class of parents, for these children, was a product of cultural reproduction because the subcultural pattern, which was accepted during childhood, continued to operate when entering the labor market.

                                  Religion and Authority

French philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir In her most famous book, The Second Sex (2021, in French 1949), advocated for the rejection of imposed gender roles and for a change in the way the sexes treat each other - overcoming the roles of domination and subordination. Roles that are imposed on the sexes always contain the aspect of acting and performance in themselves. Religion also serves men to subdue women. Men control and shape religious beliefs, in order to use divine authority to justify their dominance. On the other hand, religion gives women compensation for their subordinate position. In modern society, religion serves as a means of deception, to make women believe that they are equal to men. Women were once portrayed in religion as closer to God, but for religions, their role as mothers is paramount. Women should be passive and thus closer to God. Religion also offers women a reward in the next life, for all the suffering they go through in this life. Religion is hostile to any attempt to emancipate women, while, on the other hand, women play a key role to play in maintaining religion, as they are mostly responsible for educating children in a religious spirit.

                                      Family and Authority

In the book Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913) Sigmund Freud explores the myth (that he invented) about the killing and eating of the violent father in the primal horde. Freud starts with Darwin's theory that says that in early primitive human societies, a single alpha male possessed a harem of females, with all other males prohibited to form relations with those females. Freud makes an assumption that in a single event in a distant human past the band of brothers that was expelled from the group by their alpha-male father, returned and kill and eat him. Brothers both feared and respected the father. After the act of murdering and eating the father, the sons are in a state of remorse and guilt, and they give up having sexual relations with the women belonging to the deceased father, and in that way, they create new symbolic order, and that is the order of the law. The respect and remorse that the brothers felt toward their father, to Freud, is the symbolic origin of the Oedipus complex, and totemism. Even more, this hypothetical singular event represents the true origins of human society, and of all religions, as an effect of collective guilt and ambivalence regarding the killing of the father figure (the true original sin). Oedipus complex for Freud is universal and it explains why young boys see their fathers as a source of authority. 

in the book Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927) Bronislaw Malinowski argued that in the matrilineal Trobriands society, contrary to what Freud believed, the mother’s brother, and not the father, is the primary familial authority figure; while the boy’s incestuous desire was focused on the sister, and not on the mother.  

In the book, Authority and the Family (published in German in 1936), Max Horkheimer deals with the way society reproduces itself. He explores how the relationship between authority and cultural values ​​leads to subordinate strata of society accepting their own subordinate position. The main role in reproducing these values ​​and maintaining the status quo is not physical force, but social institutions such as the family, church, and school. These institutions, which work together, strengthening each other, are accepted by the people, and then they shape the character traits of the people, the most important of which is submission to authority. Authority is the one that plays a key role in the process in which people passively accept their destiny as a given. Horkheimer believes that the family is the basic unit of society, not the class. The authority that family and marriage have continues to enable a man to dominate a woman and demand her obedience. In culture, too, there are relations of authority. In the field of politics, the relations of authority and domination are much more influential than the ideas of freedom and equality. The Machiavellian approach has become dominant in European politics. Calvinism shifted the idea of ​​utopia to "the other world" while propagating discipline and control in this world. 

In the article "Authority and Autonomy in Marriage" (1912b), Marianne Weber argues that marital relationships, in which there is a subordination of women, are harmful to both women and men. In the study on Japan's national character The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) anthropologist Ruth Benedict found that the most important values in Japanese society are concepts of hierarchy and indebtedness, which are in stark contrast to the most important American values of equality and freedom. Japanese people see family and social relationships as grounded in indebtedness and hierarchy, and the greatest imperative for any Japanese individual is to fulfill their familial and social duties, as a form of repayment of debt to the supreme authority, whether in the family or the society. A sense of self-respect is tied to the execution of these duties and subjugation to authority. 


Adorno. The Authoritarian Personality (1950);

Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951);

     -     Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963);

Beauvoir. The Other Sex (1949);

Coleman. Individual Interests and Collective Action (1986);

     -     Foundations of Social Theory (1990b).

Connell. Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (1987);

Dahrendorf. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959);

Davis, A. Women, Race, & Class (1983);

Etzioni. A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations: On Power, Involvement, and Their Correlates (1975);

Fromm. Escape from Freedom (1941);

Giddens. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (1984); 

Goldman. Anarchism and Other Essays (1910, ); 

Hall. On Ideology (1978);

Homans. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961);

Horkheimer and Marcuse. Studien über Autorität und Familie (1936);

Illich. Deschooling Society (1970);

Kropotkin. The State: Its Historic Role (1897);

Mann. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (1986);

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974);

Mills. White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951);

     -     The Power Elite (1956);

Moore. Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966);

Weber, Max. Economy and Society (1978, in German 1922);

Willis. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs  (1977);

Wittfogel. Oriental Despotism (1957).


Still Have Questions?

Our user care team is here for you!

Contact Us