Social Power Theory: Definition of Weber's Avenues to Social Power

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  • 0:01 Avenues to Social Power
  • 1:00 Types of Authority
  • 1:23 Charismatic Authority
  • 2:36 Traditional Authority
  • 3:38 Rational-Legal Authority
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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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.

According to prominent sociologist Max Weber, there are only three legitimate avenues to social power. This lesson will discuss the differences between charismatic authority, traditional authority, and rational-legal authority.

Avenues to Social Power

The work of Max Weber, a prominent sociologist and political economist, greatly influenced social theory research and the discipline of sociology. In this lesson, we learn the definition of social power, according to Weber, and discuss the three types of legitimate authority: charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal.

Social power is the ability to achieve goals even if other people oppose those goals. All societies are built on some form of power, and this power typically resides within the government; however, some governments in the world exercise their power through force, which is not legitimate.

Leaders must have an explanation for their power and superiority, and there are only three types of legitimate (legal and accepted) authority.

Types of Authority

The three types of legitimate authority are:

  1. Charismatic authority
  2. Traditional authority
  3. Rational-legal authority

These types of authority are hierarchical in nature, meaning that a society progresses from one type to the other and finally reaches the state of rational-legal authority, which most resembles a modern, liberal democracy.

Charismatic Authority

Just as the term charisma implies, charismatic authority is bestowed upon a person because of their personal charm or strong personality. Typically, this leader's mission and values inspire others.

The charismatic leader is not obeyed because of a statute of law but due to their unusual personal qualities and abilities to create obedience among the people. The charismatic leader does not have any actual power, but this is irrelevant as long as the people in the society believe he or she has power. Heroism, victories, and successes for the community help to establish continued authority.

It is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain long-term authority. Once the leader loses charisma or dies, authority tends to shift to traditional or legal-rational based systems.

An example of charismatic authority in religious power systems is Jesus. Another example is the authority of Gandhi of India in the first half of the 1900s. Both leaders demonstrated the unusual qualities to create obedience and develop followers among people in their societies.

Traditional Authority

In a traditional authority system, the legitimacy of authority comes from tradition or custom. The rights and power of an individual or a group are not challenged by the people because this is the way their society has traditionally been governed, and there is respect for old cultural beliefs and practices.

In traditional authority systems, the authority is passed down, often through heredity, and does not change over time. Due to this type of system structure, inequalities among the people within the society are created and preserved.

A traditional authority system will persist unless it is opposed by the people in the society.

An example of traditional authority in religious power systems would be the power that priests hold. Another example is the rule of a monarch system (king or queen). In both examples, the power was bestowed to individuals or groups years ago, and they have retained the power because of the cultural beliefs and practices of the society.

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