Tripartite classification of authority

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Max Weber distinguished three ideal types of legitimate political leadership, domination and authority. He wrote about these three types of domination in both his essay The Three Types of Legitimate Rule which was published in his masterwork Economy and Society (see Weber 1922/1978:215-216), and in his classic speech "Politics as a Vocation" (see Weber 1919/2015:137-138).


  1. charismatic authority (character, heroism, leadership, religious),
  2. traditional authority (patriarchs, patrimonialism, feudalism) and
  3. legal authority (modern law and state, bureaucracy).

These three types are ideal types and rarely appear in their pure form.

According to Weber, authority is power accepted as legitimate by those subjected to it. These three forms of authority are said to appear in an "hierarchical development order". States progress from charismatic authority, to traditional authority, and finally reach the state of rational-legal authority which is characteristic of a modern liberal democracy.

Charismatic domination

Charismatic authority grows out of the personal charm or the strength of an individual personality. [1] It was described by Weber in a lecture as "the authority of the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma)"; he distinguished it from the other forms of authority by stating "Men do not obey him [the charismatic ruler] by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him." [2] Thus the actual power or capabilities of the leader are irrelevant, as long as the followers believe that such power exists. Thus, according to Weber, it is particularly difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain their authority because the followers must continue to legitimize the authority of the leader.

Charismatic domination is different from legal-rational and traditional power insofar as it does not develop from established tradition but rather from the belief the followers have in the leader.

According to Weber, once the leader loses his charisma or dies, systems based on charismatic authority tend to transform into traditional or legal-rational systems.

Traditional domination

In traditional authority, the legitimacy of the authority comes from tradition or custom; Weber described it as "the authority of the eternal yesterday" and identified it as the source of authority for monarchies. [2] In this type of domination, the traditional rights of a powerful individual or group are accepted by the subordinate, or at least not challenged. The dominant individual could be a clan leader, eldest, the head of a family, a patriarchal figure or dominant elite. Historically this has been the most common type of government.

According to Weber, inequalities are created and preserved by traditional authority. Should this authority not be challenged, the dominant leader or group will stay in power. For Weber, traditional power blocked the development of rational-legal authority.

Legal authority, also known as rational-legal authority, is where an individual or institution exerts power by virtue of the legal office that they hold. It is the authority that demands obedience to the office rather than the officeholder; once they leave office, their rational-legal authority is lost. Weber identified "rationally-created rules" [2] as the central feature of this form of authority. Modern democracies contain many examples of legal-rational regimes. There are different ways in which legal authority can develop. Many societies have developed a system of laws and regulations and there exist many different principles of legality. With the development of a legal-rational system, the political system is likely to be rationalized similarly. Constitutions, written documents, established offices and regular elections are often associated with modern legal-rational political systems. These in the past have tended to develop in opposition to earlier traditional systems such as monarchies, where the set of rules are not well developed. As these systems develop in a rational manner, authority takes on a legal-rational form. Those who govern have the legitimate legal right to do so and those subordinated accept the legality of the rulers.

Albeit rational-legal authority may be challenged by those subordinated, it is unlikely to result in a quick change in the nature of the system. Such power struggles, according to Weber, are mostly political struggles and may be based on nationalism or ethnicity.

The classification of authority in the context of history

Weber also notes that legal domination is the most advanced, and that societies evolve from having mostly traditional and charismatic authorities to mostly rational and legal ones, because the instability of charismatic authority inevitably forces it to "routinize" into a more structured form of authority. Likewise he notes that in a pure type of traditional rule, sufficient resistance to a master can lead to a "traditional revolution". Thus he alludes to an inevitable move towards a rational-legal structure of authority, utilizing a bureaucratic structure. This ties to his broader concept of rationalization by suggesting the inevitability of a move in this direction. Thus this theory can be sometimes viewed as part of the social evolutionism theory.

In traditional authority, the legitimacy of the authority comes from tradition, in charismatic authority from the personality and leadership qualities of the individual (charisma), and in legal (or rational-legal) authority from powers that are bureaucratically and legally attached to certain positions. A classic example of these three types may be found in religion: priests (traditional), Jesus (charismatic), and the Roman Catholic Church (legal-rational). Weber also conceived of these three types within his three primary modes of conflict: traditional authority within status groups, charismatic authority within class, and legal-rational authority within party organizations.

In his view every historical relation between rulers and ruled contained elements that can be analyzed on the basis of the above distinction.

Comparison table

Type of rulerCharismatic leaderDominant personalityFunctional superiors or bureaucratic officials
Position determined byHaving a dynamic personalityEstablished tradition or routineLegally established authority
Ruled usingExtraordinary qualities and exceptional powersAcquired or inherited (hereditary) qualitiesVirtue of rationally established norms, decrees, and other rules and regulations
LegitimizedVictories and success to communityEstablished tradition or routineGeneral belief in the formal correctness of these rules and those who enact them are considered a legitimized authority
LoyaltyInterpersonal & personal allegiance and devotionBased on traditional allegiancesTo authority / rules
CohesionEmotionally unstable and volatileFeeling of common purposeAbiding by rules (see Merton's theory of deviance)
LeadershipRulers and followers (disciples)Established forms of social conductRules, not rulers

See also

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Traditional authority Form of leadership in which the authority of an organization or a ruling regime is largely tied to tradition or custom

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