Renowned sociologist Max Weber established an important distinction between authority and legitimacy in politics.

Weber (1922) highlighted legitimacy as a relationship between the rulers and the ruled   (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:10). He proposed three systems in which governments held authority and were thus given legitimacy.

Traditional Authority exists because, as Haywood put it, “[it] always existed” (Haywood 2007:220). Monarchs and nobles use this form of authority. Power is handed down hereditary lines, giving families or social entities like families the right to rule by virtue of their ancestors or divine right (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:17). People are loyal to the rulers because of culture and a belief that they are ‘pre-ordained’ or that they are dependent on the ruler for access to resources or land as in feudalism (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:17).

Charismatic authority is based on the personality of the leader. Charismatic leaders often appear in times of turmoil. They rule through inspiring the people through rhetoric or displays of heroism (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:17). Men like Castro, Hitler and Gandhi are examples of charismatic leaders as they came to power through their own personalities. Charismatic leadership is transient unless the rule transforms into either traditional or legal-rational rule (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:18).

Legal-Rationalism is built upon obedience to the law rather than an individual (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:18). People follow a set of principles rather than a leader. This system often utilises a large bureaucracy which functions under the law. Legal-Rationalism is good at limiting the powers of government through a constitution (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:18). Locke (1997) advocated a system of legal-rationalism with the social contract (Spragens 1997:34).

Boulder (1989) proposed differentiating between the forms of power. These were in the form of coercion, exchange and promoting loyalty, none of which are mutually exclusive (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:17). Obligation is formed when the people feel they must obey. People obey coercion under threat of repercussions. They are loyal to charismatic leaders. They honour exchanges due to self-benefit as in legal-rationalism. In modern society, people obey the laws of the state as they have faith that the laws will maintain order and are necessary for a reasonable society (Hague, Harrop & Bresslin 1992:18).


Hague, R., Harrop, M. & Bresslin, S. 1992. Political Science: A Comparative Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 3-21.

Haywood, A. 2007. Politics. 3rd ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 205-229.

Spragens, T. A. 1997. Understanding Political Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 20-45.