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Authority may be based on rational grounds and anchored in impersonal rules that have been legally enacted or contractually established.


Rests on the appeal of leaders who claim allegiance because of their extraordinary virtuosity, whether ethical, heroic, or religious.

This typology of various forms of authority relations is important on several counts. Its sociological contribution rests more especially on the fact that Weber, in contrast to many political theorists, conceives of authority in all its manifestations as characteristic of the relation between leaders and followers, rather than as an attribute of the leader alone.

Weber’s analysis is very insightful. It reminds us how important position in organization is as a power resource. We can apply his points to virtually every social relationship. We eventually develop a structure that we come to accept. Acceptance of the structure is the acceptance of its INEQUALITY of positions; it is over time, the acceptance of authority or power arising from positions regarded as legitimate.

The Inevitability of Inequality in Organization

Most of us say we believe in democracy. We say that we believe that the people should somehow rule themselves. However, the concepts of “social structure” and “authorityseem to contradict the possibility of democracy, to some extent, because both concepts emphasize obedience and inequality of power.

No one makes this point better than Robert Michels (1876-1936), who developed an important sociological theory that has come to be called the iron law of oligarchy. Oligarchy means the “rule of a few,” and Michels’s law translates into the idea that wherever organization exists, there will be a few people who dominate. This is not because we are evil or weak or stupid; it is, instead, Michels argues, because organization itself releases strong tendencies for this to occur.

The very act of choosing leaders to coordinate the activities of the organization automatically leads toward inequality.

Both Michels and Weber underline the importance of positions as resources, as the basis for bringing power to certain actors in social organizations. Weber focuses on the strength of legitimacy; Michels focuses on the strength of the leadership position itself. Both emphasis the tendency for subordinates to find themselves in positions that require obedience.

Class Position and Power

Karl Marx believed that real power came from ownership: ownership of the means of production in society. If one owned the means of production (factories, large businesses, large farms, banks), then one possessed a great resource. One had great power in relation to others. He called such people “the ruling class.”

This was referred to as economic position.

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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