Forms of Government: Monarchy, Democracy, Oligarchy & More

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  • 0:05 Power Defined
  • 1:17 Monarchy
  • 2:21 Democracy
  • 3:06 Oligarchy
  • 4:06 Authoritarianism
  • 4:45 Totalitarianism
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

The governance of nations differs significantly based on who has power. This lesson will differentiate five forms of government: monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism.

Power Defined

Sociology is the study of human social behavior, human development, organizations, and institutions. In order to better understand those institutions and how humans are organized, it is important to understand how societies are governed.

This lesson will discuss and differentiate between the five main forms of power, or government, utilized in past and present societies: monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism.

Boy: Whoa, what's going on in that country?

Girl: It looks like they aren't happy with their government.

Boy: Why wouldn't they be happy? Can't they elect their leaders and play a role in their government?

Girl: No! There are many forms of government in which people have no say in any matters, private or public. All societies are established under some form of power or government. The well-known sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability to achieve goals even if some people in the society hold differing opinions and goals. Power takes on different forms in different societies. Let me tell you about the five basic forms of government.


Let's begin with monarchy. Monarchy was the most common form of government until the 19th century. Monarchy is a form of government in which a single family rules from generation to generation. The power, or sovereignty, is personified in a single individual.

There are two main types of monarchy that differ based on the level of power held by the individual or family currently in power. Absolute monarchy exists when the monarch has no or few legal limitations in political matters. Constitutional monarchies, which are more common, exist when the monarch retains a distinctive legal and ceremonial role but exercises limited or no political power.

The most familiar example of a monarchy is the constitutional monarchy that exists in the United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of the U.K. as well as monarch of fifteen other independent countries. She and the royal family have ceremonial roles but do not make up the laws that govern the people.


Another form of government is a democracy. Democracy is defined as a form of government in which power belongs to the people. There are two forms of democracy. One is direct democracy, in which all eligible citizens have direct participation in the decision making of the government. The second and more common form of democracy is representative democracy, in which citizens exercise their power through elected representatives. The elected representatives propose, develop, and create laws for the citizens to abide by.

The most familiar example of democracy is the representative democracy that exists in the United States of America. Americans elect a president and representatives of Congress.


The next form of government is oligarchy. Oligarchy is a form of government in which all power resides with a few people or in a dominant class or group within the society. These groups of people may be distinguished by royalty, wealth, education, or military control. Sometimes oligarchy governments are controlled by a few families who pass their power from one generation to the next.

Unlike monarchs, however, oligarchs do not have to be connected by bloodlines in order to inherit power. For example, one family may have power for several years, and then the power may be shifted to another group of people or another family based on their military ties or wealth. These decisions are not influenced by the people. They are influenced solely within the small group of people with whom the power is held.

The most well-known example is the former Soviet Union. Other examples of oligarchy governments are found in the countries of China, North Korea, and Venezuela.

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