Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 8 : 11 November 2008
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Copyright © 2007
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Authority: What is It?

Noah Pashapa, Ph.D.

In this article an attempt will be made to explore the concept of authority from a formal as well as from a practical perspective. The formal investigation seeks to explore important aspects to authority such as its philology, language use, and types of authority that exist as well as different forms of legitimacy on which it rests. Such a formal investigation is a necessary starting point for any attempt to understand a concept and to explore its manifestations. The practical investigation on the other hand seeks to describe authority as it functions in different contexts. We will look at the authority-bearer and the collectivity, authority and authoritarianism as well as authority and power.


Authority is a concept that is both protean and poly-dynamic. Among humans, authority has fundamentally to do with procedures and standards that foster conformity. Standards help to classify as acceptable or unacceptable things that humans do.

In originating these standards, it becomes necessary to establish procedures which help in deciding which of these standards themselves are acceptable or not. The procedures assist in applying the standards to specific situations as well as guide processes of altering the standards when the need to do so arises.

Some people are granted by these procedures the prerogative to exercise authority by playing an initiating or determining role in the sphere of standards. People such as army commanders, referees and judges are granted by these procedures the right to make proclamations, give instructions or impose decisions. When such initiators and umpires in the sphere of standards are effectual within the provisions of relevant procedures, authority is operational.

Authority can be understood as the right to give instructions or impose decisions which are based on recognized procedures. Both the person exercising the authority and the people who are subject to it are bound by the established procedures to act in accordance with the recognized standards. It is a form of conformity. According to R.S. Peters,

... the person in authority has the legitimate position to make decisions which are binding on oneself and the collectivity as a whole ... they are bound to act in accordance...1

Importance of Speech in Authority Evolution, Exercise and Transmission

The same author has also helpfully observed that even though non-human creatures that do not have speech (as humans do) experience conformity, that of humans is qualitatively different. It is through speech that humans are able not only to construct standards, which become the basis of conformity and authority, but to pass them on from generation to generation. It is also through speech that those who conform to such authority comply with the constructed standards. R.S. Peters has written extensively on the type of authority which humans experience and express as distinct from other non-human animals. He says, again:

The kind of conformity that humans experience is qualitatively distinct from the conformity of iron filings moving towards a magnet, the pecking order in a chicken fowl run or the conformity of bees in a bee-hive.2

In this article, we are interested in the kind of authority that humans experience; therein lays the importance of R. S. Peters' work on authority for this project.

A Philological Investigation

Philology has to do with the linguistic evolution of terms and a philological study of the English term "authority" sheds light on the multifaceted concept it refers to. The English term authority is derived from the Latin auctor, which referred to the activity of originating opinion, advice or instructions. The fact that the "auctor" said so, made a standard correct, and imposed that instructions given were to be obeyed and proclamations made were affirmed. The "auctor" had to be complied with whether these instructions, proclamations or standards were indicated by speech or by symbolic gesture. This is authority affected by the "auctor".

Definition of Authority

This background to the meaning of the word authority leads one to accept a definition of it that focuses on the right to command or to decide, which right is based on recognized rules of procedures. This basic meaning of authority is reflected in other scholars who have done extensive research on this concept.

One such scholar is Erich Fromm, whose interest in the concept of authority is in the context of a psychological investigation into the process of deciding what is good or bad ethically. He has made an attempt to clarify the meaning of authority and observes that it is not

a quality one has as with property or physical qualities' and that it '... refers to an interpersonal relationship in which one person looks upon another as superior to him. 3

Steven Lukes is yet another scholar who, in the process of his work on power, has contrasted it from authority, in order to distinguish authority from power. In this way, he clearly defines power. He has described authority as:

... a set of rights in status in a collectivity, precisely in a collectivity as auctor, including especially the right to acquire and use power in that status.4

Despite their different research interests and the referent place of authority in their studies, both these scholars reflect a basic meaning of it which tallies with that derived from the term's philological background in the Latin word "auctor".

Types of Authority

Most scholars who have investigated the question of authority (such as R.S. Peters, E. Fromm and S. Lukes) highlight the importance of the categories of authority types associated with Max Weber.

S. Lukes highlights Weber's categories as he explores contrasts between power and authority. Peters, though un-attracted to Weber's elevation of the charismatic authority-bearer's unique qualities (as we shall see in what follows), nevertheless adopts a three-fold classification of authority which reflects Weber's rational-legal, charismatic and traditional types.

The three different authority set-ups derived from Weber's work have dominated recent discourse on authority and we have found it appropriate for this project. We will, in this section, affirm the strength and defensibility of the three broad categories of authority that Weber advanced and make use of them as a framework within which to analyze authority in terms of how it functions in general.

The three categories of authority - each with different rules - which give authority-bearers the right to give instructions, and make proclamations or decisions, are the legal-rational, the traditional and the charismatic.

Legal-rational Authority

Within the legal-rational category, the authority bearer's claim to exercise legitimate authority depends on a two-sided rationale. It rests, on one hand, on joint-recognition of certain normative procedures and standards by both the authority-bearer as well as the authority subjects. On the other hand, it rests on the prerogative to give instructions or make decisions to be followed, which is assumed by those recognized as wielding legitimate authority on the basis of such normative procedures and standards. This two-sided rationale serves as the ground of legitimacy for the exercise of authority within the legal-rational category.

Traditional Authority

Within the traditional authority category, the claim to exercise legitimate authority by the authority-bearer rests on a two-sided rationale. On the one hand, it rests on the established belief by authority-subjects in the sacredness of long-time standing traditions. Sacred long-time traditions usually stipulate primogeniture or religious appointment as the routes to authority. Because authority-subjects believe these traditions are sacred, they will accept the legitimacy of such authority. On the other hand, traditional authority rests on the high respect with which the office occupied by the authority -bearer is regarded.

This is often the case where, because of the high regard authority-subjects have for the office; they will ascribe legitimacy to authority-bearers who might not competently fulfill the functions expected of them. Here authority rests on:

... established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority over them...5

Charismatic Authority

The charismatic-authority category is the one most closely linked to the personality and abilities of the authority-bearer. This type of authority rides on the one hand on personal qualities exemplified by the authority-bearer such as admirable accomplishments, bravery, holiness and exemplary behavior. On the other hand, such charismatic figures claim to reveal or actually stipulate procedures and standards that become the basis on which the authority -subjects recognize and obey the authority. The charismatic figure is viewed by the authority-subjects as an exceptionally gifted individual who is credited with exceptional achievements. Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad would be good examples of this type of authority-bearer.

R. S. Peters suggests that Weber's presentation of the charismatic-type of authority exaggerates the importance of the authority-bearer's peculiarities such as vision, vocation and revelation to their claim to authority. He emphasizes the similarity between all leaders in that they exercise authority on the basis of personal claims and characteristics, whether this authority is termed legal-rational, traditional or charismatic. He says:

... (Weber's) account of charismatic authority is rather high and exaggerated ... we talk of people being an authority in the sphere of pronouncements with the authority deriving from the person's personal achievements and history in a specific sphere.6

It is my view that R. S. Peters, though correct in drawing attention to the need not to underplay the place of personal claims and achievements in this regard, nevertheless falls short by not giving due emphasis to those peculiar characteristics and exceptional achievements which make charismatic authority-bearers such as Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad attract levels of loyalty and allegiance from authority-subjects which supersede those achieved by others.

Though Erich Fromm recognizes the light that has been shed on the discussion about authority by Weber's three-fold classification of authority-categories and bases for their legitimacy, he has introduced a two-fold classification. He talks only of rational and irrational authority. This classification fits in most appropriately with his purpose to attempt a theoretical clarification of the problem of ethics and psychology where he asks the question

... when we speak of authority, do we mean rational or irrational authority?7

His context is that of the place of authority in the process of deciding what is good or bad ethically. So, he speaks of rational and irrational authority.

It is important that we look at Eric Fromm's classification of types of authority under this sub-heading where it fits and recognize that his contribution will shed a lot of light on authoritarianism in a subsequent sub-heading.

Rational Authority

For him the source of rational authority is located in the competence of persons on whom others have conferred authority. Those who confer authority on authority-bearers recognize and accept it voluntarily on the basis that the authority-bearer performs the tasks entrusted to them competently. The basis of rational authority makes it a temporary factor which is given to scrutiny and criticism from voluntary authority-subjects. This is why Fromm argues that the:

…person whose authority is respected functions competently in the task with which he is entrusted by those who conferred it upon him. He need not intimidate them or arouse their admiration by magical qualities as long as and to the extent to which he is completely helping, instead of exploiting; his authority is based on rational grounds and does not call for irrational awe.8

Irrational Authority

Irrational authority, on the other hand, has its source in domination over others. This domination is effected through physical, military, monetary, technological or mental power. Irrational authority can be active or passive. It is active where authority-bearers make the effort and use mechanisms to apply it actively: it is passive where authority-subjects comply out of a condition of anxiety and helplessness. Whereas rational authority rides on voluntary acceptance and recognition, irrational authority thrives on a form of subjugation that shuts out any form of criticism.

Erich Fromm's classification, though useful for his interest, which is ethical and psychological, fails to account for that which inspires the voluntary recognition and acceptance of an authority-bearer prior to the need for them to justify the conferred status through competence. In comparison, the three-fold classification of Weber and R. S. Peters achieves this by basing the three authority-types in the legal-rational procedures and standards, the sacred traditional beliefs and customs, and the exceptional-personal qualities. We will return to some of these aspects of Erich Fromm's description when we look at the relationship between authority and authoritarianism in seeking to further clarify the meaning of authority.


A number of similarities and dissimilarities emerge as one analyzes the various types of authority suggested in the foregoing discussion.

First, it is quite clear that all classifications or types of authority mentioned above agree in that they place the phenomenon in the context of human interaction. In the words of Erich Fromm, authority

... refers to an interpersonal relationship in which one person looks upon another as somebody superior to him. 9

In the same vein, Peters says:

...those conforming to such authority follow rules, they know what they are doing and can speak 10

Human beings and not non-human creatures have this capacity to use speech in the context of procedures and standards. Secondly, it is notable that the irrational authority of Fromm and the traditional-type of Weber share a common indifference towards criticism or evaluation by authority-subjects. In both Fromm and Weber, this factor derives from an assumed difference in value between the authority-bearer and the authority-subject, pre-supposed by the two rationales on which these types of authority ride.

Unlike in rational authority, where both the bearer and subject of authority are considered as equals who are only differentiated by their competencies, Fromm's irrational authority is characterized by dominating power on the part of the bearer and by inhibiting fear on the part of the subject. It is essentially based on a presumed inequality between the two which extends to them inequality in their value. It is interesting to note that a similar difference in value between the authority-bearer and authority-subject also exists in Weber's traditional-type of authority.

The inequality in value between the two in Weber's traditional type derives from the sacredness of the authority-bearer's status imputed by the sacredness of long-time standing tradition. It is also interesting to note that Weber's and Peters' "charismatic- type" accounts for the authority-bearer's exceptional qualities (a critical dimension to the phenomenon of authority). This critical dimension lacks in Fromm's two category accounts. All in all, however, the three categories of authority in Weber and Peters, as well as the two types in Fromm, make clear the protean and poly-dynamic nature of authority.

A Functional Investigation

In the following paragraphs, I hope to further explore the dynamic nature of authority from a functional perspective. Impulses such as power and authoritarianism are closely linked to, though distinct from, authority. Investigating their varied linkages with authority in its functional context will highlight the dissimilarities that exist between them and yet provide a contrasting backdrop against which to highlight authority's distinctiveness. This is invaluable for any attempt to understand authority both conceptually and functionally.

The Authority-bearer and the Collectivity

The relationship between the authority-bearer and authority-subjects is the most critical one of all the factors that influences conditions within which authority functions. Where authority is functioning, there always is, first, a group of persons who voluntarily acknowledge and accept authority and, second, an authority-bearer who shoulders some responsibility within that group. Every group of authority-subjects shares some common understanding of authority that is based on procedures and standards.

This shared understanding is the basis on which the collectivity judges whether or not an authority-bearer is right or wrong in the exercise of their function. The degree to which an authority-bearer is judged to be functioning in tandem with the collectivity's aspirations and expectations determines the readiness of the group to be loyal to that authority.

We observe here that authority can only be effective in relation to a specific collectivity's expectations. In addition, it is important to note that an authority-bearer who projects conviction that they are meant to be in authority is more likely to attract loyal follower-ship than one who may hold an office of authority yet lacking in this inner confidence.

These two observations about the authority-bearer/authority-subjects and about the authority-bearer's conviction explain some situational experiences that authority-bearers and authority-subjects often go through in their interaction.

There are situations when authority-bearers who function by virtue of holding office project the right kind of image, as expected by authority-subjects, who in turn acquiesce to that authority. In such situations it has sometimes turned out that proclamations and pronouncements made by the authority-bearer have been proven incorrect by subsequent events or realities.

In such cases the collectivity would have recognized such authority not on the basis that the person claiming it is fulfilling the expected function competently but simply because through oration, suggestion or some other outward attraction, such an authority/office-bearer has expressed inner certitude convincingly.

In other cases, authority-bearers have so much needed to maintain an image consistent with the group's expectations to the extent of covering up their failure using institutional and other sophisticated strategies. R.S. Peters has helpfully noted the symbiotic relational contours that characterize the interaction between the authority-bearer and the collectivity when he says:

...for it is not sufficient for a man or woman to be in fact wise or a felicitous prophet if he/she is to exercise authority. He (she) must be known to be so. A man (woman) cannot exercise authority if he (she) hides his (her) light under a bushel... and his persona must correspond roughly to the image of authority shared by the group. 11


A Study of Auxiliaries in the Old and the Middle Tamil | Content Analysis of "Disability Communication" in the Daily Newspaper DNA (Daily News Analysis) - A Short-term Study Report | Authority: What Is It? | The Trading Community in Early Tamil Society Up To 900 AD | The Use of Setswana as a Medium of Instruction, A Core Subject and A National Language: Is It Not A Negation Of Affirmative Action? A Study of Botswana Linguistic Situation | The Auxiliary Verb POO in Tamil and Telugu | A Study of Idiomatic Expressions in Lurish and Persian | A Survey of Factors Contributing to Language Change in English With Special Reference to Lexical Change | Sarojini Naidu as a Nature Poet | HOME PAGE of November 2008 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Noah Pashapa, Ph.D.
Bethany International University

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