6 types of authority

The types of authority are in relation to the power groups, and these vary according to the sociocultural context. We show you what they are and their characteristics.

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz on November 26, 2021.

Last update: November 26, 2021

Defining what authority is is not an easy task to undertake. From a practical point of view, and in a very simple way, we can say that authority is the power that has a certain social approval of one group with respect to another. The matter becomes much more complicated when we try to address the types of authority.

The best known definition is the one that Max Weber gave in his essay Politics as a vocation (1919). In this work the German author distinguished three types of authority. However, there are hundreds of contributions that we find with respect to these ideas, most of them from political theory, economic theory and from sociology. Today we synthesize 6 types among the most important.

How many types of authority are there?

Authority can only be understood from a dialectical point of view. That is, as the confrontation of power groups (one major or active and one minor or submissive). It is always associated with power, although experts warn about differentiating power, authority and legitimacy.

The authority must have an asocial approval in order to exist (even if this is done through imposition, violence or force). It manifests itself in almost all aspects of social life: in the family, in the power of the state, religions, companies and so on. Let’s look at 6 types of authority that can serve as a guide when reflecting on this idea.

1. Traditional

Traditional authority is one of Weber’s types of authority distinguished in the work cited. It is characterized because authority (that is, legitimacy, leadership, power, and other associated concepts) is founded on traditional values ​​or customs.

It arises through the customs of hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Following Weber’s ideas, it exists because It has always been like this. An example of traditional authority is the monarchy. The monarch who exercises authority does so based on traditions, customs and values ​​that precede him. His power is not in doubt because It has always been like this.

Other examples we can cite are patriarchy (in its historical sense), military authority, tribal chiefs, and so on. Traditional authority is often based on sex or gender.

2. Charismatic

People with charismatic authority tend to build their network of influence from scratch, based on their social skills.

The second division that Weber proposes is that of charismatic authority. Contrary to the previous case, the legitimacy of said authority is not based on traditions, but on the charisma of the leader who assumes the role of power. The term charisma historically it has been associated with a divine, supernatural or exceptional gift. This is why charismatics are raised as leaders.

Charismatic authority tends to clash dialectically with both traditional and rational-legal authority, so that it has certain revolutionary gifts (in the sense of being defiant). In times of crisis or conflict, leaders of this type often emerge, who can also embody radical or innovative ideas.

An example of authority is found in the new religious movements and in the appearance of so-called prophets who manage to gather around themselves a community of followers. Of course, this type of authority can lead to the cult of personality or totalitarianism. Democracy, or rather its representatives, are another good example.

The last division that Weber suggests is that of rational-legal authority. It is also known as bureaucratic, and it is one that is founded on the basis of a legal norm (the traditional and the charismatic do not meet this criterion). The best way to understand this type of authority is through modern states.

A State is a political entity organized around laws. The monopoly of force that it exercises in dialectical relationship with other political entities does so thanks to its power. In turn, this manifests itself through the different systems of political organization (democracy, monarchy and others).

The legitimacy of the person exercising power in this case is based on a legal apparatus. The members of that society, to follow the example of modern states, have legitimized such authority when in one way or another they approve of its power.

4. From the elite

Leaving aside Max Weber’s classification of authority types, we find the authority of the elite. It is one that is exercised by a privileged group of society due to its wealth, its influences or in some cases its knowledge.

The authority of the elite is something that we experience firsthand today. Leaders of big tech companies, social media, international organizations, and more exemplify the authority of the elite. Its legitimacy is not based on law, charisma, or tradition; it does so in the status they have achieved as a privileged group.

5. Based on strength

One who takes power abruptly and does not take into account the well-being of the people over whom he exerts influence, can fit the profile of authority by force.

Force-based authority is also known as illegitimate authority, or at least it is in relation to those on whom it is imposed. This may be legitimized from the legal point of view (the use of force for its dissidents may be endorsed, as in dictatorships), but it is illegitimate if we consider the degree of pressure and coercion against those who are imposed.

Of course, this type of authority can also be considered as traditional in certain societies or at certain historical moments. However, it is not a manifestation of the past; since dozens of modern states base their authority through the use of force, repression, fear and the superiority of power.

6. Religious

Finally, we cannot allude to types of authority without mentioning religious authority. It is true that we can consider it a subtype of the traditional one, but it is so well defined that by itself it can be grouped autonomously.

The authority of the group in power is made through acts of faith or spiritual beliefs. All belief organization systems have this type of authority, which is legitimized by all the believers who gather around it. The level of authority increases as we approach the highest positions, as it does with other types.

As you can see, when we talk about authority it is very important to define what kind of authority we are referring to. Each one has its own characteristics, as well as specific coordinates that allow it to be better understood.

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