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The word authority derives from the Latin word auctoritas meaning invention, advice, opinion, influence or commands which originate from an auctor indicating that authority originates from a master, leader or author. Essentially authority is imposed by superiors upon inferiors either by force of arms (structural authority) or by force of argument (sapiential authority). Usually authority has components of both compulsion and persuasion. For this reason, as used in Roman law authority is differentiated potestas (legal or military power) and imperium (persuasive political rank or standing).


Legitimate Authority

In government, authority is often used interchangeably with the term "power". However, their meanings differ: while "power" is defined as "the ability to influence somebody to do something that he/she could not have done", "authority" refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, for example by lynching, people who believe in the rule of law consider that only a court of law has the authority to order punishment.

Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has been a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations, such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authorities) and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).

The definition of authority in contemporary social science is a matter of debate. According to Michaels, in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, authority is the capacity, innate or acquired for exercising ascendancy over a group. Other scientists, however, argue that authority is not a capacity but a relationship. It is sanctioned power, institutionalized power.

In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority (cf. Cristi 2005), and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from Plato and Aristotle to the present. In many democractic societies, there is an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of governmental authority in general. In the United States, for instance, there is a widespread belief that the political system as it was instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly.

Weber on Authority

Max Weber, in his sociological work, identified and distinguished three types of legitimate domination (Herrschaft in German, which generally means 'domination' or 'rule'), that have sometimes been rendered in English translation as types of authority, because domination isn't seen as a political concept in the first place. Weber defined domination (authority) as the chance of commands being obeyed by a specifiable group of people. Legitimate authority is that which is recognized as legitimate and justified by both the ruler and the ruled.

Weber divided legitimate authority into three types:

  • The first type discussed by Weber is Rational-legal authority. It is that form of authority which depends for its legitimacy on formal rules and established laws of the state, which are usually written down and are often very complex. The power of the rational legal authority is mentioned in the constitution. Modern societies depend on legal-rational authority. Government officials are the best example of this form of authority, which is prevalent all over the world.
  • The second type of authority is Traditional authority, which derives from long-established customs, habits and social structures. When power passes from one generation to another, then it is known as traditional authority. The right of hereditary monarchs to rule furnishes an obvious example. The Tudor dynasty in England and the ruling families of Mewar, in Rajasthan (India) are some examples of traditional authority.
  • The third form of authority is Charismatic authority. Here, the charisma of the individual or the leader plays an important role. Charismatic authority is that authority which is derived from "the gift of grace" or when the leader claims that his authority is derived from a "higher power" (e.g. God or natural law or rights) or "inspiration", that is superior to both the validity of traditional and rational-legal authority and followers accept this and are willing to follow this higher or inspired authority, in the place of the authority that they have hitherto been following. Some of the most prominent examples of charismatic authority can be politicians or leaders, who come from a movie or entertainment background. These people become successful, because they use their grace and charm to get more votes during elections. Examples in this regard can be NT Rama Rao, a matinee idol, who went on to become one of the most powerful Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh.

History has witnessed several social movements or revolutions, against a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, which are usually started by Charismatic authorities. What distinguishes authority, from coercion, force and power on the one hand and leadership, persuasion and influence on the other hand, is legitimacy. Superiors feel that they have a right to issue commands; subordinates perceive an obligation to obey. Social scientists agree that authority is but one of several resources available, to incumbents in formal positions. For example, a Head of State is dependent upon a similar nesting of authority. His legitimacy must be acknowledged, not just by citizens, but by those who control other valued resources: his immediate staff, his cabinet, military leaders and in the long run, the administration and political apparatus of the entire society.

Authority and the State

Every state has a number of institutions which exercise authority based on longstanding practices. Apart from this, every state sets up agencies which are competent in dealing with one particular matter. All this is set up within its charter. One example would be a port authority like the Port of London. They are usually created by special legislation and are run by a board of directors. Several agencies and institutions are created along the same lines and they exercise authority in certain matters. They are usually required to be self-supporting through property taxes or other forms of collection or fees for services.

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