Sociology Index


Authority is the capacity of an individual or institution to secure compliance from others based on the possession of a recognized right to legitimately claim obedience. Authority is obeyed because the individual or institution issuing commands is believed to have the right to do so. Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by the authority of the state in a republic or union. Legally authority is based on a belief in the ‘legality’ of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority infer such rules to issue commands. Under the control of legal authority, obedience is attributed to the legally established impersonal order. It extends to the persons exercising the authority of office under it only by virtue of the formal legality of their commands and only within the scope of authority of the office.

Max Weber (1864-1920) defined three ideal types of authority:

Traditional Authority, which rests on history, myth and ritual;

Charismatic Authority, founded on a belief in a leader's exceptional qualities and inspirational mission; and

Rational-legal Authority, founded on democratic principles and a framework of law to which all individuals and institutions are subject.


The end of civil war in Mozambique has been accompanied by democratization of political processes, as exemplified by the 1994 multi-party presidential and parliamentary elections. Under the rubric of democratization, the issue of state decentralization has also been raised.

Current political debates focus on what role ‘traditional authority’ might play in local governance. Advocates argue that ‘traditional authority’ constitutes a genuinely African form of local governance, while detractors suggest that these institutions were irrevocably corrupted by their involvement with the colonial administration.

Challenging traditional authority - The role of the state, the divine and the RSS - Peggy Froerer.
This article is an examination of the relationship between traditional authority and the state, using a leadership dispute in a rural adivasi village as the ethnographic backdrop. The primary objective of the article is to examine how traditional authority continues to be reproduced in the context of local notions of political and cosmological legitimacy. It shows how the state can simultaneously buttress and transform traditional authority. The article sheds light on one way in which Hindu nationalism is making inroads into this particular adivasi community, and addresses the implications of how the RSS, acting as an extra–state power, is used to enforce accountability at a lower level.

Charismatic Authority in the Rational Organization - Lowell K. Scott.
A rationale for the antithesis of Weber's theory of the routinization of charisma is presented. The hypothesis that charismatic authority is a function of the superintendent's tenure in office was tested using a random sample of Kentucky school superintendents, stratified by tenure in office. Superintendents' charismatic authority was evaluated by their administrative staffs using the Charismatic Authority Scale. Superintendents in the high tenure group were perceived as possessing greater charismatic authority than superintendents in the low and medium tenure groups. District size and superintendent's age were not significantly related to charismatic authority.

Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer? - Charisma and Complex Organization - Charles Thorpe, Steven Shapin.

Charismatic authority flourishes in places where some social scientists evidently do not expect to find it - in late modernity and in highly complex and instrumentally orientated technoscientific organizations. We treat charisma as an interactional accomplishment, and examine its role in technoscientific organizations. Los Alamos was a hybrid place, positioned at the intersection of military, industrial and academic forms. Structures of authority, communication and the division of labour were contested and unclear.

The interactional constitution of Oppenheimer as charismatic enabled him to articulate, vouch for and, finally, come to embody a conception of legitimate organizational order as collegial, egalitarian and communicatively open. We offer concluding speculations about the continuing importance of charismatic authority in contemporary technoscientific organizations. Just as normative uncertainty is endemic in late modernity, so too, we argue, is charisma.