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Authority is the power or right to make rules or laws. It is derived from the Latin word auctoritas and as such many of its concepts originate from Roman Law. It is often used interchangeably with the term "power" yet the meanings differ. "Power" refers to the ability to achieve certain ends, "authority" refers to the legitimacy, justification and right to exercise that power. For example whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, such as through lynching, only the courts have the authority to order capital punishment.

Related to this definition it has also come to mean:

  • an organization or persons with power or control of a particular area to make decisions, most notably a public authority.
  • an expert or those with the power to influence others such as the first author of a taxon in a scientific classification.

Sociology and philosophy

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

  • Traditional authority which simply derives from long-established habits and social structures. The right of hereditary monarchs to rule furnishes an obvious example.
  • Rational-legal authority depends for its legitimacy on formal rules, usually written down, and often very complex. Modern societies depend on legal-rational authority.
  • Charismatic authority. Charismatic authority is authority derived from "the gift of grace," that is, when the leader claims that his authority derives from a "higher power" (e.g. God or natural law or rights) or "inspiration" that is superior to the validity of either traditional or rational-legal authority, and followers accept this and are willing to follow this higher or inspired authority in the place of the authority that they have hitherto been following. Charismatic authority sometimes becomes the inspiration of social movements or revolution against a system of traditional or legal-rational authority. The careers of Lenin, Martin Luther, Hitler, and Lech Wałęsa provide examples. Charismatic authority never lasts long (even when successful) and it inevitably gives way to either traditional or to legal-rational authority.

Giorgio Agamben (2005) wrote "auctoritas has nothing to do with magistrates or the people's potestas or imperium. The Senator… is not a magistrate".

Conflict theory

Within conflict theory, "authority" is used both in the same sense as Weber's functionalist definition above and in a rather different sense. The latter is based on the observation that power is almost never endorsed in a moral sense by those who do not have it, and therefore this school of thought 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 severely torture another person when given orders from an appropriate authority figure. This experiment produced similar results when replicated in several other cultures. A similar effect was found in the Stanford prison experiment.

See also