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The Nature of Authority

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The classical definitions of power all include the idea of achieving results by a variety of means. Authority is a kind of power relationship in which the legitimacy (literally ‘lawfulness’) of the exercise of power is accepted by the other actors in the situation. Other power relationships may be based not on the acceptance of authority but on force, persuasion or manipulation.

In most political situations legitimacy is an appeal to an established system of law, but it may take on the meaning of ‘in accord with moral law’. Weber distinguishes between ‘traditional authority’ and ‘rational legal authority’. Both of these refer to an appeal to an established system of law. In a tribal society the customary law gives authority to chiefs, in a modern liberal democracy a rationally organized system of law gives authority to political and bureaucratic office holders. Both of these arrangements can be reinforced by moral doctrines. In stable societies, ideally, there is no conflict between moral and political obligation.

However, there may be authority conflicts, particularly in societies in transition or crisis. Thus in South Africa before its transition to full democracy, the traditional authority of the King of the Zulus conflicted with the legal authority of President Botha. Both leaders later had to accept the authority of the leader of the largest popular movement – Nelson Mandela. Weber suggests the description ‘charismatic’ for the authority of leaders, such as Mandela. Such leaders are followed because of their personal qualities not because of the legal position they hold. This terminology derives from the Greek root ‘a favour specially given by God – especially a gift or talent’ and emphasizes the exceptional qualities of those exercising such authority.

But, as Weber points out, such divine gifts are not always recognized; such authority appeals in moments of crisis when normal claims to leadership are losing their authority. Such leaders usually claim to be new sources of moral authority – God (Mohammed), the nation (Hitler) or the people (Mandela).


1 Give Ukrainian equivalents for the following words and expressions.

Variety, legitimacy, in accord with, transition, charismatic.


2 Translate words and word combinations from Ukrainian into English and use them in your own sentences.

Засіб, законність, переконання, підкріплювати.

3 Complete the sentences.

1. Such leaders ...

2. Authority is ...

3. In a tribal society ...

4. In stable societies ...

5. In most political situations ...

4 Comprehension questions.

1. How can ‘power’ be defined?

2. What is authority?

3. What types of authority do you know?

4. What kind of authority-related conflicts can take place in societies? Can you give any examples?

5. Why are leaders followed? What is the nature of leadership?

6. What examples of leaders can you give?


5 Say if the following statements are true according to the text

1. Power can be defined as achieving results by legal means.

2. Legitimacy is an appeal to an established system of law.

3. Political and bureaucratic office holders have authority in a modern liberal democracy.

4. Nelson Mandela is the example of tribal leader.

5. Charismatic leaders are followed because of their personal qualities.

6. Charismatic leaders are recognized when other types of leadership are losing authority.

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