Types of Authority

Weber's discussion ofauthority relations--why men claim authority, and feel they have alegitimate right to expect willing obedience to theircommand--illustrates his use of the ideal type as an analytical tool andhis classification of types of social action.

Weber distinguishedthree main modes of claiming legitimacy. Authority may be based onrational grounds and anchored in impersonal rules that have been legallyenacted or contractually established. This type is rational-legalauthority, which has increasingly come to characterize hierarchicalrelations in modern society. Traditional authority, on theother hand, which predominates in pre-modern societies, is based onbelief in the sanctity of tradition, of "the eternal yesterday." It isnot codified in impersonal rules but inheres in particular persons whomay either inherit it or be invested with it by a higher authority. Charismaticauthority, finally, rests on the appeal of leaders who claimallegiance because of their extraordinary virtuosity, whether ethical,heroic, or religious.

It should be kept in mind that here, aselsewhere in his work, Weber was describing pure types; he was awarethat in empirical reality mixtures will be found in the legitimation ofauthority. Although Hitler's domination was based to a considerableextent on his charisma, elements of rational-legal authority remained inthe structure of German law, and references to Germanic Volk traditionformed a major element in the appeals of National Socialism.

Thistypology of various forms of authority relations is important on severalcounts. Its sociological contribution rests more especially on the factthat Weber, in contrast to many political theorists, conceives ofauthority in all its manifestations as characteristic of the relationbetween leaders and followers, rather than as an attribute of the leaderalone. Although his notion of charisma may lack rigorous definition,its importance lies in Weber's development of the idea that the leaderderives his role from the belief his followers have about his mission.

From Coser, 1977:226-227.


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