Sociology 250

October 7 and 12, 1999

Power, Domination, Legitimation, and Authority

1. Introduction

Classes, status groups, parties are considered by Weber to be associated with power, attempting to achieve one’s will, even in the face of opposition from others. Weber argues that status honour is a more important source of group social action than is class or relation to markets. Status groups can do this in various ways. First, status may be a means of maintaining the position of a group that does have privilege. The status group may be closed, with privileges available only to those in the group, and denied to those outside the group. Further, a status group may lead to the development of parties to further some specific interests of the status group. Thus, status groups may become the means by which power or authority is exercised (e.g. old boy networks, professional status groups and organizations, religious or ethnic groups). Social honour may be accorded those who behave in the manner considered desirable by the status group. In this way, the ends of a status group may be furthered. Social approval is a means of achieving the ends of the group while social disapproval may be used as a means of disciplining those who do not behave in the approved manner.

Second, people who have limited power to begin with may form a status group in an attempt to gain greater control over economic and social resources. That is, if resources are scarce, forming a group which is able to exercise some control over the distribution of these resources may be a means of increasing the power of that group in society. The professionalization of the medical profession in the twentieth century could be an example of this and, in general, the professionalization of any occupational grouping is a means of achieving these ends. The restrictions placed on entry may be partially economic, but they are also partially social in nature, having to do with status honour and prestige. For example, some professions which have been male dominated have excluded women. It would appear that this is not so much for economic reasons as an attempt to perpetuate status distinctions constructed on particular views of what are appropriate gender relations. Parties may be formed to rationalize some of these procedures, and pursue goals of the group.

2. Power and Domination

Weber defined power as the chance that an individual in a social relationship can achieve his or her own will even against the resistance of others. This is a very broad definition and includes a very wide range of types of power. In order to make this definition more useful in the study of history and society, Weber suggests domination as an alternative, or more carefully defined concept. Weber defines domination "as the probability that certain specific commands (or all commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons" (Weber, p. 212). Features associated with domination are obedience, interest, belief, and regularity. Weber notes that "every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience" (Weber, p. 212). Examples of dominance could include parent-child relationships, employer-employee relationships, teacher-student, domination within the family, political rule that is generally accepted and obeyed, or the relation between a priest and church member.

That is, a power relation which is one of dominance involves the following

When dominance continues for a considerable period of time, it becomes a structured phenomenon, and the forms of dominance become the social structures of society. Temporary or transient types of power are not usually considered to be dominance. This definition of domination also eliminates those types of power that are based on sheer force, because force may not lead to acceptance of the dominant group or voluntary compliance with its orders. Situations of overt conflict and force are also relatively unusual. For example, Weber considers overt forms of class conflict and class struggle to be uncommon. While Weber’s definition of domination may be narrow, it is a useful way of examining relationships that do become structured. While employer-employee or other types of relationships characterized by domination and subordination often involve conflict, the use of force is not always, or is not normally, an aspect of these and subordinates do obey and implicitly accept this subordination.

Giddens (pp. 154 ff.) discusses various levels of legitimacy, and how these might become established over a period of time. Where people develop uniform types of conduct, Weber refers to this as usage. Long established usages become customs. These can emerge within a group or society on the basis of continued interaction, and require little or no enforcement by any specific group. A stronger degree of conformity is convention, where the compliance is not just voluntary or customary, but where some sort of sanctions may exist for those who do not comply with convention. These may be informal sanctions, leading to mild disapproval, or they may be strong sanctions associated with discipline or ostracism. For example, various forms of dress associated with the workplace can become convention, or even be enforced as rules. Usage and custom often become the basis of rules, and violation of these may ultimately have some sanctions applied.

Where convention is adopted by an individual or a group that has the legitimate capacity and duty to impose sanctions, the convention can become law. This can begin to create a legal order where a group assumes the task of applying sanctions to punish transgressions, for example, a clan, priesthood, or elders. Where this can be applied over a territorial unit, with order safeguarded by threat of physical force, then this can create a political order, the threat and application of physical force by an administrative staff with legal, administrative, military, or police functions.

3. Types of Authority

Weber defines authority as legitimate forms of domination, that is, forms of domination which followers or subordinates consider to be legitimate. Legitimate does not necessarily imply any sense of rationality, right, or natural justice. Rather, domination is legitimate when the subordinate accept, obey, and consider domination to be desirable, or at least bearable and not worth challenging. It is not so much the actions of the dominant that create this, but rather the willingness of those who subordinate to believe in the legitimacy of the claims of the dominant.

Weber outline three major types of legitimate domination: traditional, charismatic, and legal or rational. These three forms do not constitute the totality of types of domination but they show how it is possible for some people to exercise power over others. Authority extends and maintains power and shows a study of its origins can show how people come to accept this domination as a regular and structured phenomenon. Also note that these are ideal types, with any actual use of power being likely to have aspects of more than one type of authority, and perhaps even other forms of power such as the use of force or coercion.

Much of the sections that follow are based on Ritzer, "Structures of Authority," pages 128-136 of Sociological Theory, third edition.

a. Traditional Authority. This is the type of authority where the traditional rights of a powerful and dominant individual or group are accepted, or at least not challenged, by subordinate individuals. These could be (i) religious, sacred, or spiritual forms, (ii) well established and slowly changing culture, or (iii) tribal, family, or clan type structures. The dominant individual could be a priest, clan leader, family head, or some other patriarch, or a dominant elite might govern. In many cases, traditional authority is buttressed by culture such as myths or connection to the sacred, symbols such as a cross or flag, and by structures and institutions which perpetuate this traditional authority. In Weber's words, this traditionalist domination "rests upon a belief in the sanctity of everyday routines." (Gerth and Mills, p. 297). Ritzer notes that "traditional authority is based on a claim by the leaders, and a belief on the part of the followers, that there is virtue in the sanctity of age-old rules and powers" (p. 132).

Traditional forms of authority existed in many societies throughout much of history, and Weber analyzed why this form of authority was maintained, and what were the barriers to the development of more rational or legal forms of authority characteristic of western societies. In particular, Weber was concerned with how these traditional forms of authority hindered the development of capitalism in non-western societies.

Different types of traditional authority might be (i) gerontocracy or rule by elders, (ii) patriarchalism where positions are inherited.

Patriarchalism is by far the most important type of domination the legitimacy of which rests upon tradition. Patriarchalism means the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the house, the sib elder over the members of the household and sib; the rule of the master and patron over bondsmen, serfs, freed men; of the lord over the domestic servants and household officials' of the prince over house- and court-officials, nobles of office, clients, vassals; of the patrimonial lord and sovereign prince over the 'subjects.' (Gerth and Mills, p. 296).

Such authority could govern a family, household, clan, or a whole society. The leader may emerge naturally (on the basis of age), or is selected on the basis of adherence to traditional principles. As long as this method of selection is accepted by others in the grouping, the rule of the patriarch's authority must be accepted. Sydie notes that "the power of the patriarch is a personal prerogative. He is able to exercise power without restraint, 'unencumbered by rules,' at least to the extent that he is not 'limited by tradition of by competing powers.'" (Sydie, pp. 56-57). This type of authority may have few limits to the exercise of domination, and to those in modern societies the means by which people are selected for positions or the practices carried out may appear irrational.

Weber considers a more modern form to be patrimonialism, or rule by an administration or military force that are purely personal instruments of the master. Patrimony means "from father or ancestors." At the level of the household or family, patriarchy may continue, but within a clan, gang or larger grouping, it may be necessary for the patriarch to rely on some form of administration. While the patriarch still holds power, and can often exercise this power with no limits, at other times the power of the patriarch may be limited by the administrative apparatus, by the need to rely on others to carry out orders, etc. Examples of this could include the rule of monarchs in Europe, or the rule of military leaders.

A fourth type of authority is feudalism, one that was important historically. This is a more routinized form of rule, with "contractual relationships between leader and subordinate." (Ritzer, p. 133).

For Weber, traditional authority is a means by which inequality is created and preserved. Where no challenge to the authority of the traditional leader or group is made, then the leader is likely to remain dominant. Marx might argue that there are economic reasons for such dominance, but Weber would be more likely to claim that commonly accepted customs or religion constitute the underlying source of such authority. Status honour is accorded to those with traditional forms of power and this status helps maintain dominance. Weber notes that traditional authority blocks the development of rational or legal forms of authority. This model of traditional and patriarchal authority could be applied to male-female relationships. See Sydie.

b. Charismatic Authority. Weber defines charismatic authority as "resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him" (Weber, p. 215). That is, charisma is a quality of an individual personality that is considered extraordinary, and followers may consider this quality to be endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or exceptional powers or qualities. Whether such powers actually exist or not is irrelevant – the fact that followers believe that such powers exist is what is important.

Weber considers charisma to be a driving and creative force which surges through traditional authority and established rules. The sole basis of charismatic authority is the recognition or acceptance of the claims of the leader by the followers. While it is irrational, in that it is not calculable or systematic, it can be revolutionary, breaking traditional rule and can even challenge legal authority. (Giddens, pp. 160-161).

A particular leader may have unusual characteristics that make him or her a leader. This may relate to a special gift of a leader, a particular style of speaking and acting, or extraordinary qualities. Ritzer notes "Although Weber did not deny that a charismatic leader may have outstanding characteristics, his sense of charisma was more dependent on the group of disciples and the way that they define the charismatic leader. To put Weber's position bluntly, if the disciples define a leader as charismatic, then he or she is likely to be a charismatic leader irrespective of whether he or she actually possesses any outstanding traits" (Ritzer, p. 134). Examples of charismatic leaders in recent Canadian history include Diefenbaker, Trudeau and Levesque. Cult leaders such as David Koresh or Jim Jones are examples on a smaller scale.

While we ordinarily consider the charismatic leader as the one that is unusual, there are many people with unusual characteristics. What is more relevant is why people in accord special status or honour to one person or type of person. To the extent that followers are willing to accord the leader such status, the leader has power to pursue his or her own ends.

The charismatic leader gains and maintains authority solely by proving his strength in life. If he wants to be a prophet, he must perform miracles; if he wants to be a war lord, he must perform heroic deeds. Above all, however, his divine mission must 'prove' itself in that those who faithfully surrender to him must fare well. If they do not fare well, he is obviously not the master sent by the gods.

The subjects may extend a more active or passive 'recognition; to the personal mission of the charismatic master. His power rests upon this purely factual recognition and springs from faithful devotion. It is devotion to the extraordinary and unheard-of, to what is strange to all rule and tradition and which therefore is viewed as divine. It is a devotion born of distress and enthusiasm.

Genuine charismatic domination therefore knows of no abstract legal codes and statutes and of no 'formal' way of adjudication. Its 'objective' law emanates concretely from the highly personal experience of heavenly grace and from the god-like strength of the hero. Charismatic domination means a rejection of all ties to any external order in favor of the exclusive genuine mentality of the prophet and hero. Hence, its attitude is revolutionary and transvalues everything; it makes a sovereign break with all traditional or rational norms: 'It is written, but I say unto you.'"

Gerth and Mills pp. 249-250.

The last paragraph of this quote shows how the charismatic form of domination may be revolutionary in nature, challenging traditional authority and perhaps legal authority and rationality as well. Charismatic authority can easily degenerate into traditional authority, or personal or patrimonial rule, whereby the power is exercised by those who surround the charismatic leader, but purely in an interest to maintain that power. But if a charismatic leader originally claims that traditional forms of authority are to be disregarded, this is a revolutionary claim.

Ritzer comments that "authority legitimized by charisma rests on the devotion of followers to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of leaders as well as on the normative order sanctioned by them. All of these modes of legitimizing authority clearly imply individual actors, thought processes (beliefs), and actions." (Ritzer, p. 115, 2nd edition). While these forms of authority may seem much less solidly based than economic power, rationality or legality, or the use of physical force or coercion, they are no less real as a source of power.

Charisma has shortcomings as a long term source of authority, but it can be quite effective during the lifetime of the charismatic leader. If it is to be continued, it has to be transformed into a traditional or legal form of authority. In addition, it may be exercised in an irrational manner, preventing the development of more rational forms, especially those leading to capitalism. There is also a possibility that administration of charismatic authority leads to the development of legal and rational authority.

c. Legal or Rational Authority. This is authority or legitimate domination resting on "rational grounds – resting on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issues commands" (Weber, p. 215).

There are various ways that legal authority could develop. Systems of convention, laws and regulation develop in many societies, and there are many different principles of legality that occur. The development of law in the West leads to estblishment of a legal system, such that there is a rule of law, written legal codes, legal rights and rules, and the "professionalized administration of justice by persons who have received their legal training formally and systematically." (Ritzer, p. 129). In the West, Weber connects these forms to the development of rationality and bureaucracy. Other legal forms in societies in other parts of the world could develop in quite a different direction, perhaps blocking the development of rationality.

With the development of a rational legal system, there is likely to be a political system which becomes rationalized in a similar way. Associated with this are constitutions, written documents, established offices, regularized modes of representation, regular elections and political procedures. These are developed in opposition to earlier systems such as monarchies or other traditional forms, where there are no well developed set of rules.

As a political or legal system develops in this rational manner, authority takes on a legal form. Those who govern or rule either have, or appear to have, a legitimate legal right to do so. Those who are subordinate within this system accept the legality of the rulers, believing they have the legitimate right to exercise power. Those with power then exercise power based on this right of legitimacy.

Grabb (p. 65) points out how this can happen. In early societies, a group may exercise power by using economic and physical force to dominate a territory. This may lead to establishing rules or legal order, fairly few in number and not elaborate in the beginning. As control is maintained, there is a tendency for a more systematic and all encompassing set of laws and regulations to be established. In addition, the ruling group may take on more administrative tasks, leading to the development of an administrative structure. This may initially be quite limited, but as it is developed, the administration may move from protecting and controlling the territory to administering a wide range of problems within this territory. The system could develops established means of setting out goals, making decisions, and dealing with a large number of needs of the population, so that a bureaucratic state emerges.

This rational-legal form of authority may be challenged by those who are subordinate. This challenge is generally unlikely to result in dramatic changes in the nature of the system very quickly. For Weber, such struggles need not be class based though, but could be based on ethnic struggles, nationalism, etc. and these are mainly political struggles. The extent to which this is true would have to be tested in each particular situation. Some of the current political struggles would appear to be class based, other concerned with status or other concerns. The farmers wish to have their market situation improved, and this could be interpreted as a Weberian class based struggle. The struggle by Quebec to achieve greater independence is related to an attempt to gain more freedom for Quebec. In Saskatchewan, the division between city and rural areas might be seen as an attempt to preserve different forms of status, styles of life and community.

Weber viewed the future as one where rational-legal types of authority would become more dominant. While a charismatic leader or movement might emerge, the dominant tendency was for organizations to become more routinized, rational and bureaucratic. It is in this sense that legal authority can be interpreted. In modern societies, authority is in large part exercised on the basis of bureaucracies.


Ashley, David and David Michael Orenstein, Sociological Theory: Classical Statements, third edition, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Cohen, Ira J., "Theories of Action and Praxis," in Bryan S. Turner, editor, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Oxford, Blackwell, 1996.

Gerth, Hans Heinrich and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958. H33 W3613 1958

Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990.

Hadden, Richard W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1997.

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill.

Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, New York, Bedminster Press, 1968.


Last edited on October 7, 1999.

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