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Chapter 11: Economies, Politics and Government

11.5 Power and Authority

When people hear the word politics, they tend to have a narrow definition in mind, and think of politics in terms of governments, politicians or political parties. However, politics as a social institution also has a broader meaning, which this part of the chapter will explain.

Politics, Power and Authority

refers to the distribution and exercise of power within a society, and refers to the political institution through which power is distributed and exercised, such as your local school board, and city and state government. In any society, decisions must be made regarding the allocation of resources and other matters. Except perhaps in the earliest societies, where communal decision making is the norm, specific people and often specific organizations make these decisions. Depending on the society, they sometimes make these decisions solely to benefit themselves and other times make these decisions to benefit the society as a whole. Regardless of who benefits, a central point is this: some individuals and groups have more power than others. Because power is so essential to an understanding of politics, we begin our discussion of politics with a discussion of power.

refers to the ability to carry out one’s will, despite the resistance of others. Most of us have seen a striking example of raw power when we are out driving and see a police car in our rearview mirror. At that particular moment, the police officer has enormous power over us. We make sure we slow down, and strictly obey the speed limit and all other driving rules. If, alas, the police car’s lights are flashing, we stop our car, as otherwise we may be in even bigger trouble. When the officer approaches our car, we ordinarily try to be as polite as possible and hope we do not get a ticket. When you were 16 and your parents told you to be home by midnight or else, your arrival home by this curfew again illustrated the use of power, in this case parental power. If a child in middle school gives their lunch to a bully who threatens them, that again is an example of the use of power, or, in this case, the misuse of power.


Think Like a Sociologist

Consider the following two scenarios. In the first, you are robbed at gunpoint and lose the $200 you had in your wallet as a consequence. In the second, you are brought before a judge, found guilty of a misdemeanor crime and fined $200. In both scenarios, you lose $200.

What is your reaction to the loss of $200 in each scenario?

Is there a difference? If so, why?


These are all vivid examples of power, but the power that social scientists study is both grander and, often, more invisible (Wrong, 1996). Much of it occurs behind the scenes, and scholars continue to debate who is wielding it and for whose benefit they wield it. Many years ago, Max Weber (1921/1978), one of the key figures of sociology discussed in earlier chapters, distinguished authority as a special type of power. (or legitimate authority), Weber said, is power, the use of which is considered just and appropriate by those over whom the power is exercised. The example of the police car in our rearview mirrors is an example of authority. Conversely, is a form of power that is exercised over an individual but is not considered to be legitimate. The bully who threatens their classmates into giving up their lunch has used coercion.

In addition to distinguishing authority from coercion, Weber’s keen insight lay in distinguishing different types of legitimate authority that characterize different types of societies, especially as they change from simpler to more complex. The three types of authority distinguished by Weber include:  traditional authority, rational-legal authority, and charismatic authority. We turn to these now.


Think Like a Sociologist

All groups are political in that they all have power structures. List the people who have legitimate authority over you at home, work, school, and in the community.

Where does their power come from? Are you okay with this?

Do they have to use force to maintain their power over you?


Traditional Authority

As the name implies, is power that is rooted in traditional, or long-standing, beliefs and practices of a society. It exists and is assigned to particular individuals because of that society’s customs and traditions. Individuals enjoy traditional authority for at least one of two reasons. The first is inheritance, as certain individuals are granted traditional authority because they are the children or other relatives of people who already exercise traditional authority. The second reason individuals enjoy traditional authority is more religious: their societies believe they are anointed by God or the gods, depending on the society’s religious beliefs, to lead their society. Traditional authority is common in many preindustrial societies, where tradition and custom are so important, but also in more modern monarchies, where a king, queen, or prince enjoys power because they come from a royal family. In addition, traditional authority relates to the power that parents have over children and that men have over women in patriarchal societies.

image of parents with three children

Parents have power over their children by dint of traditional authority. Free for commercial use, DMCA – pxfuel

Traditional authority is granted to individuals regardless of their qualifications. They do not have to possess any special skills to receive and wield their authority, as their claim to it is based solely on their bloodline or supposed divine designation. An individual granted traditional authority can be intelligent or stupid, fair or arbitrary, and exciting or boring but receives the authority just the same because of custom and tradition. As not all individuals granted traditional authority are particularly well qualified to use it, societies governed by traditional authority sometimes find that individuals bestowed it are not always up to the job.

Rational-Legal Authority

If traditional authority derives from custom and tradition, derives from law and is based on a belief in the legitimacy of a society’s laws and rules and in the right of leaders to act under these rules to make decisions and set policy. This form of authority is a hallmark of modern democracies, where power is given to people elected by voters, and the rules for wielding that power are usually set forth in a constitution, a charter, or another written document. Whereas traditional authority resides in an individual because of inheritance or divine designation, rational-legal authority resides in the office filled by an individual, not in the individual per se. The authority of the president of the United States thus resides in the office of the presidency, not in the individual who happens to be president.  When a president leaves office, authority transfers to the next president. This transfer is usually smooth and stable, and one of the marvels of democracy is that officeholders are replaced in elections without revolutions having to be necessary. We might not have voted for the person who wins the presidency, but we accept that person’s authority as our president when he (so far it has always been a “he”) assumes office.

image showing the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, demonstrated the fragility of rational-legal authority, as it is only effective when all parties are in agreement with both the process and the outcome. Blink O’fanaye CC BY-NC 2.0 – Flickr

Rational-legal authority helps ensure an orderly transfer of power in a time of crisis. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was immediately sworn in as the next president. When Richard Nixon resigned his office in disgrace in 1974 because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford became president. Because the U.S. Constitution provided for the transfer of power when the presidency was vacant, and because U.S. leaders and members of the public accepted the authority of the Constitution on these and so many other matters, the transfer of power in 1963 and 1974 was smooth and orderly. Even when the transfer of power is not smooth, as when attempts were made to undermine the results of the 2020 Presidential election of Joe Biden, due to the laws in place because of the legal-rational system, any questions of the legitimacy of the election were addressed and then dismissed.


Think Like a Sociologist

Reflect on the first part of the chapter’s discussion of capitalism. Max Weber said that capitalism will best thrive in systems of rational-legal authority.

Why do you think he believed this? Was he correct?


Charismatic Authority

stems from an individual’s extraordinary personal qualities and from that individual’s hold over followers because of these qualities. Such charismatic individuals may exercise authority over a whole society or only a specific group within a larger society. They can exercise authority for good and for bad, as this brief list of charismatic leaders indicates: Joan of Arc, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Buddha. Each of these individuals had extraordinary personal qualities that led their followers to admire them and to follow their orders or requests for action.

image of Ghandi statue

Mohandas Gandhi led the Indian Independence Movement to break free of British colonial rule. Much of Gandhi’s appeal resulted from his fearlessness in the face of great power and practice of nonviolent resistance. naeimasgary – Pixabay

Charismatic authority can reside in a person who came to a position of leadership because of traditional or rational-legal authority. Over the centuries, several kings and queens of England and other European nations were charismatic individuals as well (while some were far from charismatic). A few U.S. presidents—Washington, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Trump—also were charismatic, and much of their popularity stemmed from various personal qualities that attracted the public and sometimes even the press. Ronald Reagan, for example, was often called “the Teflon president,” because he was so loved by much of the public that accusations of ineptitude or malfeasance did not stick to him (Lanoue, 1988). Though Hillary Clinton was the more qualified candidate for president in 2016 after years of study and service in the public sector as a Secretary of State and Senator, instead Donald Trump became president even after famously stating, “I could… shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” (Dwyer, 2016).

Weber emphasized that charismatic authority in its pure form (i.e., when authority resides in someone solely because of the person’s charisma and not because the person also has traditional or rational-legal authority) is less stable than traditional authority or rational-legal authority. The reason for this is simple: when charismatic leaders die, their authority dies as well. Although a charismatic leader’s example may continue to inspire people long after the leader dies, it is difficult for another leader to come along and command people’s devotion as intensely. After the deaths of all the charismatic leaders named in the preceding paragraph, no one came close to replacing them in the hearts and minds of their followers.

Images of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro.

Fidel Castro (pictured left) led an overthrow of Cuba, and his success was due in large part to his charismatic personality. He went on to become the country’s leader from 1959 – 2008, or an astounding 49 years, and was deeply beloved by some until the end of his life for his commitment to Cuban internationalism. Fidel Castro was succeeded by his brother, Raul, who was seen as more pragmatic, businesslike, and far less charismatic. Antônio Milena/ABr – CC BY 3.0 BR – Wikimedia Commons and Kremlin.ru – CC BY 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons

Because charismatic leaders recognize that their eventual death may well undermine the nation or cause they represent, they often designate a replacement leader, who they hope will also have charismatic qualities. This new leader may be a grown child of the charismatic leader or someone else the leader knows and trusts. The danger, of course, is that any new leaders will lack sufficient charisma to have their authority accepted by the followers of the original charismatic leader. For this reason, Weber recognized that charismatic authority ultimately becomes more stable when it evolves into traditional or rational-legal authority. Transformation into traditional authority can happen when charismatic leaders’ authority becomes accepted as residing in their bloodlines, so that their authority passes to their children and then to their grandchildren. Transformation into rational-legal authority occurs when a society ruled by a charismatic leader develops the rules and bureaucratic structures that we associate with a government. Weber used the term to refer to the transformation of charismatic authority in either of these ways.


Think Like a Sociologist

Fidel Castro, shown above, who ruled Cuba for almost 50 years, was an exception to the rule that leaders with charismatic authority tend to be short-lived because they are often seen as posing a threat to the established order.

Why do you think charismatic leaders are seen as threatening to the established order?

It should be noted that, like many people with charismatic authority, Fidel Castro’s personality was polarizing, and while he was admired by many Cubans, a sizable group of Cubans, Cuban Americans and other detractors said he was a despot who ruled tyrannically, imprisoned and tortured his critics, and impoverished his country. One group targeted by Castro’s regime were Cuban punks who listened to punk music played on Florida radio stations in the 1980’s. Tired of being harassed, arrested, imprisoned and forced to do manual labor, some punks chose to infect themselves with HIV so they would be quarantined in AIDS sanitariums and left alone. Listen to this podcast to learn more about the fascinating story of Los Frikis, the freaks: Radiolab — Los Frikis.


Test Yourself


Section 11.5 References

Dwyer, C. (2016, January 23). Donald Trump: ‘I could … Shoot Somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters’. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/23/464129029/donald-trump-i-could-shoot-somebody-and-i-wouldnt-lose-any-voters

Lanoue, D. J. (1988). From Camelot to the teflon president: Economics and presidential popularity since 1960. New York, NY: Greenwood Press. 

Los Frikis: Radiolab. (2015, March 24).  WNYC Studios. Retrieved from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/los-frikis.

Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published 1921). 

Wrong, D. H. (1996). Power: Its forms, bases, and uses. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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