In pre-modern and modern societies, there has been a hierarchy of command that everyone must adhere to. For this system to work, there must be someone in charge or known as an authority. According to Weber, authority is a power accepted as legitimate by those who are subject to it. Weber describes three forms of authority in modern societies: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. These forms of authority are pure ideal types who are rarely “pure” in real life.
Rational-legal authority is the belief in the legality of standard rule patterns and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue orders. Authority is in the hands of legally established impersonal orders and extends to people only by virtue of the positions they occupy. The power of government officials is determined by the positions for which they are appointed or elected based on their individual qualifications. As long as individuals hold these positions, they have a certain amount of power, but once they leave office, their rational-legal authority is lost.
There are several ways in which rational-legal authority could develop. Systems of laws and regulations are developed in many societies and there are many different principles of legality that could occur. With the development of a rational legal system, there is likely to be a political system that is similarly rationalized. Associated with political systems are constitutions, written documents and established offices, regularized modes of representation, regular elections, and political procedures. These are developed in opposition to previous systems such as monarchies or other traditional forms, where there is no well-developed set of rules.
As political systems develop rationally, authority takes on a legal form. Those who govern 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 in the right of those who have legitimate rights to exercise power. Those who have power then exercise it on the basis of this right to legitimacy.
Rational-legal authority can be challenged by those who are subordinate, but this challenge is unlikely to result in changes in the nature of the system very quickly. According to Weber, such power struggles could be based on ethnicity, nationalism, not classism, and are mostly political struggles.
Weber’s examination of legitimate authority led him to define an ideal-type bureaucracy. An ideal type is a pure type of action built rationally and systematically, which can rarely take place in reality and be used as a measurement tool to determine the similarity between real and defined social institutions. The ideal-type bureaucracy that Weber developed incorporated hierarchy, impersonality, written rules of conduct, achievement-based promotion, specialized division of labor, and efficiency. Information flows up the chain of command and directives flow down, according to Weber’s model. Impersonal rules explicitly define duties, responsibilities, operating procedures, and rules of conduct.
Individual offices are highly specialized and appointments are made on the basis of qualifications rather than attributed status. Working together, these features are designed to further the collective goals of the organization. This ideal-type bureaucracy was designed to promote economic growth and prosperity. Many of his concepts are echoed in today’s capitalist and political systems.
Traditional authority is an authority in which the legitimacy of the authority figure is based on custom. Legitimacy and the power of control are handed down from the past and this power can be exercised in quite dictatorial ways. This is the type of authority in which the traditional rights of a powerful and dominant individual or group are accepted, or at least not questioned, by subordinate individuals. They can be religious, sacred or spiritual forms, a well-established and slowly changing culture, or tribal, family or clan-like structures.
The dominant individual could be a priest, clan leader, family head, or some other patriarchal figure, or the dominant elite could rule. In many cases, traditional authority is supported by myths or connections to the sacred, social artifacts such as a cross or flag, and by structures and institutions that perpetuate this authority. Historically, traditional authority has been the most common form among governments. An example of this is the kings and queens of the English monarchical system, who must belong to certain families in order to obtain their positions.
Traditional authority often dominated pre-modern societies. It is based on the belief in the sanctity of tradition, of the “eternal yesterday.” Due to the change in human motivation, it is often difficult for modern individuals to conceive of the power that tradition had in pre-modern societies.
According to Weber, traditional authority is a means by which inequality is created and preserved. If no one challenges the authority of the traditional leader or group, the leader is likely to remain dominant. Furthermore, for him, traditional authority blocks the development of rational-legal forms of authority, a point of view to which he was particularly partial.
Charismatic authority exists when control of others is based on an individual’s personal characteristics, such as extraordinary ethical, heroic, or religious virtuosity. Charismatic leaders are obeyed because people feel a strong emotional bond with them. Hitler, Gandhi, Napoleon, and Julius Caesar were all charismatic leaders. Whether such powers really exist is irrelevant; the fact that the followers believe that such powers exist is what matters.
Weber views charisma as a driving and creative force that arises through traditional authority and established rules. The only basis of charismatic authority is the recognition or acceptance of the leader’s claims by the followers. Charismatic authority can be revolutionary in nature, challenging traditional and sometimes rational-legal authority. This type of authority could easily degenerate into a traditional authority in which power is wielded by those around the charismatic leader.
Charismatic authority is the antithesis of routine activities and represents the desire to alter and change the prevailing social order. It is a necessary part of the dialectic between the human need for structure and the equally human need for variation and innovation in society. Charismatic authority differs from rational or traditional authority in that it does not develop from established orders or traditions, but rather from the special trust that the charismatic leader induces in his followers, the peculiar powers he exhibits, and the unique qualities that has. According to Weber, it is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain their authority because followers must continue to legitimize this authority. It is necessary for the charismatic leader to consistently display leadership performance to his followers to reinforce the legitimacy of his authority.
The basis of Weber’s distinction between power and authority is that power is the ability to impose the will of one on another, independently of the wishes of the other and despite any resistance it may offer. Power is therefore relational; it requires one person to dominate and the other to submit. This assumes that one person will accept, cooperate, or consent to the dominance of the other, and this cannot be true for all relationships. The act of giving an order does not presuppose obedience. Weber argues that an individual can exercise power in three ways: through direct physical power, through reward and punishment, and through the influence of opinion. The exercise of power is more likely to be indirect and coercive: a combination of reward and punishment through the use of argument, debate, and rhetoric.
Authority, by comparison, is a quality that enhances power, rather than being a form of power itself. The word “authority” comes from the verb “authorize”; therefore, the power of an individual must be authorized by the group to be legitimate. An individual is considered an authority due to his technical expertise, combined with his ability to communicate effectively with the group. The individual in authority is the one who is foremost in the group, controlling certain aspects of what the other members of the group do and say, and perhaps even what and how they think.