Authority is often defined as legitimate power, and contrasted to pure power. In the case of legitimate authority, compliance is voluntary and based on a belief in the right of the authority to demand compliance.

Max Weber provided a famous classification of forms of legitimate authority in terms of the defining type of legitimating belief. Weber identifies four distinct ”bases” of legitimacy, three of which are directly associated with forms of authority. The fourth – value-rational faith – legitimates authority indirectly by providing a standard of justice to which particular earthly authorities might claim to correspond. The forms of authority are charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. Each of these forms can serve on its own as the core of a system of domination. Traditional authority is based on unwritten rules; rational-legal authority on written rules. Unwritten rules may be justified by the belief that they have held true since time immemorial, while written rules are more typically justified by the belief that they have been properly enacted in accordance with other laws. Charismatic authority is command which is not based on rules. What the charismatic leader says overrides and replaces any written rule.

Charismatic authority originates in the extraordinary qualities of the person holding this authority, not in another source, such as the will of the people.



  1. Lukes, S. (1991) Perspectives on authority. In: Moral Conflict and Politics. Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 141-54.
  2. Peters, R. S. (1958) Authority. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 32: 207-24.
  3. Weber, M. (1978) [1968] Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 3 vols., ed. G. Roth & C. Wittich. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.


Stephen Turner