Power, Authority & Influence in Political Organizations

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  • 0:08 Political Organization
  • 1:23 Power
  • 2:35 Authority
  • 4:06 Influence
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the differences between power, authority, and influence within a political organization. In doing so, it will highlight terms like charisma, rational authority, traditional authority, and personal power.

Political Organization

Today's lesson will differentiate between power, authority, and influence within political organizations. Leaning on examples spanning from TV movies to the non-industrialized world, we'll work to hammer out the differences between these three terms. However, before we dive into power, authority, and influence, we should probably figure out what is meant by a political organization.

Not meaning whether you vote Democrat, Libertarian, or Republican, the term political organization simply denotes the way in which a society maintains order. In other words, it's how people groups, whether living in skyscrapers or thatched huts, keep their society ticking along. In this process, political organization serves to set up public policy, manage the distribution of resources, and prevent or solve conflict. Again, this can be anything from the eldest male in a clan using his influence to determine where the group will hunt to an elected president using his authority to veto a bill.

With this definition sort of nailed down, let's move onto the difference between power, influence, and authority within a political organization. However, as we get into this, please don't assume that just because we deal with these terms separately that they exist in a vacuum. Many times they tend to sort of overlap.


With this in mind, let's get going with power. Speaking politically, power is the ability to assert one's will over others, forcing them to act in accordance with it despite their own desires. Plain and simple, it's the ability to make people do what you want them to do whether they like it or not. When speaking of power, social scientists often assert that power is seldom obtained in a systematic way. It's also not usually obtained through a legitimate process of voting. Instead, they usually add to the meaning by using the term personal power, in which the source of power centers around the person and not the position he holds. Due to this, power often carries a negative connotation.

A great example of this is portrayed in Hollywood's version of a prison in which one muscular, brute of an inmate rules the cellblock. No, the other inmates didn't vote him in nor did they give him a title, but he sure does wield a bunch of personal power that he uses to get his way. Stepping out of the movie land and into the real world, personal power is seen as vicious warlords devastate and destroy parts of the Eastern world. No one has voted them in nor do they have legitimate authority; however, they still have unquestionable personal power.


Leaving power, we now come to authority. Unlike power, authority denotes the legitimate, socially approved use of power within institutions. Very familiar to those of us in the West, our elected officials hold the authority to govern our lands. This is referred to as rational authority, in which leaders are elevated by a system of law. No, we may not like all of them, but they are the legitimate lawmakers and law enforcers of a political organization.

However, and a bit out of our paradigm, a council of elders within a non-industrialized tribe also holds authority. No, their people never stepped into a voting booth and punched a hole next to their name, but they are recognized as leaders all the same. This is usually referred to as traditional authority. As the name implies, traditional authority is authority based on tradition or deep moral code. In other words, it's the way things have always been done and, therefore, it is considered legitimate.

Just like my son had better obey a police officer who tells him to drive at 65 mph or less, a young tribesman had better obey a councilman who tells him he is no longer allowed to gallop through the village hub. If they choose not to, sanctions of some sort or another will legitimately be imposed on both. Now, as I said before, power and authority can also overlap. For instance, using the tragic example of Nazi Germany, Hitler was given legitimate authority within the German political system. However, this authority very quickly led to personal power that devastated and destroyed.

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