According to prominent sociologist Max Weber, there are only three legitimate avenues to social power.
This lesson will discuss the differences between charismatic authority, traditional authority, and rational-legal authority.
Avenues to Social Power
The work of Max Weber, a prominent sociologist and political economist, greatly influenced social theory research and the discipline of sociology. In this lesson, we learn the definition of social power, according to Weber, and discuss the three types of legitimate authority: charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal.Social power is the ability to achieve goals even if other people oppose those goals. All societies are built on some form of power, and this power typically resides within the government; however, some governments in the world exercise their power through force, which is not legitimate.Leaders must have an explanation for their power and superiority, and there are only three types of legitimate (legal and accepted) authority.
Types of Authority
The three types of legitimate authority are:
- Charismatic authority
- Traditional authority
- Rational-legal authority
These types of authority are hierarchical in nature, meaning that a society progresses from one type to the other and finally reaches the state of rational-legal authority, which most resembles a modern, liberal democracy.
Just as the term charisma implies, charismatic authority is bestowed upon a person because of their personal charm or strong personality. Typically, this leader’s mission and values inspire others.The charismatic leader is not obeyed because of a statute of law but due to their unusual personal qualities and abilities to create obedience among the people.
The charismatic leader does not have any actual power, but this is irrelevant as long as the people in the society believe he or she has power. Heroism, victories, and successes for the community help to establish continued authority.It is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain long-term authority. Once the leader loses charisma or dies, authority tends to shift to traditional or legal-rational based systems.An example of charismatic authority in religious power systems is Jesus. Another example is the authority of Gandhi of India in the first half of the 1900s.
Both leaders demonstrated the unusual qualities to create obedience and develop followers among people in their societies.
In a traditional authority system, the legitimacy of authority comes from tradition or custom. The rights and power of an individual or a group are not challenged by the people because this is the way their society has traditionally been governed, and there is respect for old cultural beliefs and practices.In traditional authority systems, the authority is passed down, often through heredity, and does not change over time. Due to this type of system structure, inequalities among the people within the society are created and preserved.
A traditional authority system will persist unless it is opposed by the people in the society.An example of traditional authority in religious power systems would be the power that priests hold. Another example is the rule of a monarch system (king or queen). In both examples, the power was bestowed to individuals or groups years ago, and they have retained the power because of the cultural beliefs and practices of the society.
Rational-legal authority is a system in which an individual or governmental institution exerts power based on a system of rules. The person who has the power is appointed or elected by a process. Once that person or institution leaves office, their authority is gone.
The authority remains with the office and not the individual.These systems are the most advanced and stable. They provide routine and structure to authority.Historically, rational-legal authority systems were established in opposition to pre-existing traditional or charismatic systems of authority. A rational-legal authority system can be opposed; however, change is typically sought through political means instead of violence or force.It is important to note that while these systems have been presented separately, each authority systems may reflect some characteristics of the other. For example, an elected official in a rational-legal authority system may have charismatic traits, which helps him or her get elected by the people.
An example of rational-legal authority in religious power systems is the Roman Catholic Church. Another example of rational-legal authority is the government of the United States, which is made up of elected officials.
There are three types of legitimate authority systems.The charismatic authority system is based on a charismatic leader, and power is determined by that leader possessing a dynamic personality. Society is ruled by the leader’s extraordinary qualities and powers. Power is legitimized by victories and successes to the community. There is one ruler and followers.
The traditional authority system is ruled by a dominant personality with inherited power established by customs and traditions. Society is ruled by the person or group that has acquired or inherited power. Power is legitimized based on tradition. There are standard customs and procedures within the society.The rational-legal authority system is governed by legally established authority, and the ruler is typically elected. There are established norms, rules, and regulations.
Power is legitimized by the general belief in the formal political system. There are rules, not rulers.
Once you have completed this lesson, you might be prepared to:
- Point out the importance of Max Weber’s work
- Highlight the three types of legitimate authority
- Discuss rational-legal authority