Power and Authority: Max Weber

power and authority

Power and Authority

Max Weber’s theory of power and authority is one of the most important contributions to sociology. This contribution of Weber was influenced by his father’s bureaucratic background. However, he tried to explain power and authority in the most systematic manner.


Weber defined power as the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against resistance by others.

Hence, According to Weber power refers to the ability to overcome resistance by others. Weber said that power is always power over others. Hence, power cannot be held in isolation. Therefore power is an aspect of life. It is an example of social action.

Weber believed that the amount of power in society is fixed or constant. Hence, if one becomes powerful it will be always at the cost of someone else losing power in the same proportion. Hence, the net amount of power in society remains the same. This is known as the constant-sum/zero-sum or conflict view of power.

Weber believed that power is rooted in force. Hence it cannot sustain itself forever. To sustain power for a longer period it should be transformed into authority.


According to Weber, legitimate power is authority. Power becomes legitimate when the people on whom it is used accept it as just and rightful. Hence authority involves minimum voluntary submission on the part of the people on whom it is used. It means that they voluntarily submit or surrender their will. Hence, a judge, a policeman, a Prime Minister even a king or the parents enjoys authority rather than power.

Based on the manner in which authority is derived Weber classified authority into three types.

1. Traditional Authority

2. Charismatic Authority

3. Rational Legal Authority

All three differ from each other with respect to obedience, structure, and functioning. Each type of authority was associated by Weber with three different types of social actions.

Traditional Authority

According to Weber, traditional authority is associated with traditional action. It is a characteristic of traditional society. The societies in which the people believe that the past is eternal and it should live forever, traditional authority can be seen.

Such authority is followed generation after generation. Here, the basis of obedience is customs. People believe that the authority that exists for a long time should continue to exist in the future.

For ex- the rule of a king, the rule of a tribal chief or even patriarchy.

The structure of traditional authority is not well defined. It does not have a well-defined hierarchy of officials who may not be recruited on the basis of merit and efficiency they may be his near or dear ones. There are no codified or written rules. The ruler uses his authority according to his will. It may be said that there is no limit to his authority.

Charismatic Authority

According to Weber, charismatic authority can emerge in traditional as well as large-scale modern industrial societies. It emerges in a society when the society is in a state of crisis. That means when charismatic authority in the society fails to satisfy the people then the people start believing that the authority is of no use. In such a situation society is said to be in a state of crisis. People start looking for a leader who may be able to sail them out of this crisis situation. That leader is considered to be above the lesser mortals. They believe that the leader is charismatic and he will be able to fulfill their needs. Leaders like Gandhi, Bose, Marx, Hitler, etc. fall under this category.

Charismatic leaders are able to sway the masses through direct emotional appeal. Hence, here the basis of obedience is emotion. Charismatic authority does not have a well-defined structure. There is no clear-cut hierarchy. Other than the leader those who have some authority either have their charisma or they derive charisma from the leader. Charismatic authority does not have any written rule; they depend upon charity or plunder to meet their financial requirements.

Instability of Charismatic Authority

According to Weber, charismatic authority is inherently unstable. This problem exists because of three important factors-

  1. If the charisma of the leader fails him for long, people realize that the leader is of no use. Hence, they start deserting the leader.
  2. Charismatic authority is a product of crisis. Hence, the moment the crisis is over, the authority remains of no use. However, this problem can be resolved. Charismatic authority can be converted into legal-rational authority or into traditional authority. It means that the charismatic authority is made a part of day-to-day life. It is termed the re-utilization of charisma. For example- During British rule, the Indian society was in crisis. Congress emerged as a movement and the leaders were charismatic. Once, Independence was achieved neither the leadership nor the movement was of any use. Hence, In order to continue the charismatic authority congress was converted into a political party.
  3. The charismatic authority suffers from the problem of succession. It becomes difficult to find a suitable successor after the death of a charismatic leader. This problem can also be resolved. The charisma of the leader can be converted into the charisma of his office. Thereafter who so ever occupied that office is considered to be equally charismatic. For example- The charisma of Jesus was converted into the charisma of the church and who so ever becomes the pope is considered to be equally charismatic.

Rational-Legal Authority

This is the third type of authority system mentioned by Weber; It is associated with Rationally Purposeful Action or Zweckrational Action. According to Weber, every traditional society is gradually moving towards rational-legal authority.

This authority is based on rationality. It means that the basis of obedience is rationality. The people on whom this authority is used they believe in its legal validity as this authority is based on rationally created rules. These rules are not rooted in emotions. The rule not only defines the responsibilities but also the limit to the authority. It has a hierarchy of officials. They are recruited on the basis of merit and efficiency.

In rational-legal authority, it is not the individual who enjoys the authority. The authority lies with the office. The individual enjoys authority only because he occupies that office of authority. The moment he renounces the office, the authority is gone. Hence, a military commander, a prime minister, a judge, a policeman, etc. enjoy rational-legal authority. According to Weber, rational-legal authority can rise to a particular type of organizational structure in order to conduct its business. This organization is termed Bureaucracy.

The change from traditional authority to rational-legal authority cannot take place overnight. It is a gradual process. During this period society remains in a phase of transition. Hence, the co-existence of traditional authority and rational-legal authority can be seen. In such societies, rational-legal authority is influenced by traditional authority.

For example-

In Indian democracy role of caste, religion, Dynastic- polities based on hereditary, etc. can be proofs of this co-existence.

Even this respect for rational-legal authority is a result of this transition.

The people occupying the office of rational-legal authority legal authority breaching their limit is also a result of this transition. Nepotism in rational-legal authority is also a result of the co-existence of rational-legal authority and traditional authority.

Read Here: Theory of Stratification by Max Weber

Read Here: Verstehen of Max Weber

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