Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


In politics, authority generally refers to the ability to make laws, independent of the power to enforce them. People obey authority out of respect, while they obey power out of fear. For example, "the congress has the authority to pass laws" vs "the police have the power to arrest law-breakers".

Questions as to who has what authority often lie at the heart of political debates, and answers to those questions normally stem from practical and moral considerations, from prior practices and from theories of criminal justice or of the just war.

In sociology, authority comprises a particular type of power. The dominant usage comes from functionalism and follows Weber in defining authority as power which is recognised as legitimate and justified by both the powerful and the powerless. Weber further sub-divided authority into three types:

As an example of the development of legal-rational authority, consider the history of France. In medieval times a king ruled simply because he was the king (i.e., he held traditional inherited authority), but by the 17th century it became necessary to invent a doctrine claiming that Louis XIV ruled by "divine right" - in other words, to justify Louis' authority by a rational claim to his appointment by a legitimate superior (God). This served for another century, but was threatened by the rival claim made to legal-rational authority by the Estates General, and then eclipsed by the charismatic authority held by the leaderss of the French Revolution, which was in turn replaced by the legal-rational authority of the First Republic.

Within conflict theory, "authority" is used both in the same sense as Weber's functionalist definition above, and in a rather different sense which is based on the observation that power is almost never endorsed in a moral sense by those who do not have it, and therefore defines "authority" as power which is so institutionalised that it is largely unquestioned.

Obedience to authority seems thoroughly ingrained in most of the population: the Milgram experiment showed that over 60% of a sample of Americans demonstrated willingness to torture another person to death when given orders from an appropriate authority-figure. This experiment produced similar results when replicated in several other cultures.

See also: appeal to authority, power, trust, régime, law

Someone recognised as an authority on a particular subject apparently knows a great deal about that particular subject.