Political Legitimacy Research Paper

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Legitimacy is a critical but often vexing concept in politics and political science. It is critical because it goes to the very heart of any normative claim made by a government, a state, or a power that it should be willingly obeyed or respected. As such, the concept of legitimacy is closely interwined with a network of other normative and empirical concepts in political science—power, authority, rights, obligation, sovereignty, consent, institution, and the state. Legitimacy is vexing because of the difficulty of disentangling the normative bases of compliance or respect from any number of other possible motivations for obedience or deference. As with most critical and vexing concepts, the definition of legitimacy has itself been the subject of extensive debate and discussion. No single and universally acceptable definition of legitimacy exists. However, it is possible and useful to provide a discussion of its various meanings and the consequences of adopting one of them.

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Perhaps the most fundamental divergence over the meaning of legitimacy is between a normative and an empirical approach to the concept. The normative approach is used by political philosophers to identify the standards by which a regime or action must be judged if it is to be regarded as legitimate. Political philosophers and the general public, for instance, might be interested in trying to answer the question: Why should the government be obeyed? And thus they might want to identify those conditions under which an authority is legitimate—the reasons why citizens ought to obey. A Lockean would argue, for instance, that consent is the central criterion that makes government authority legitimate (Simmons 1979). Without consent, there is no moral compulsion for citizens to obey.

In contrast, the empirical approach to legitimacy is not concerned with normative standards per se. Instead, it wants to explain why or when people do obey, respect, or show allegiance to a particular government, regime, state, policy, or institution. Or, conversely, why or when do they revolt, disobey, or act disloyally? Thus, the empirical approach is more concerned about whether the normative standards people hold—however defined—are met, than in debating what standards should hold. Political philosophers have sometimes criticized the social scientific approach to legitimacy as relativistic, and consequently, as potentially complicit in tyranny (Schaar 1981). The Nazi regime, so the argument might go, is deemed legitimate as long as its subjects regard it as such. As both Rodney Barker and David Beetham argue, however, the normative and the empirical approaches to legitimacy simply have different purposes and should not be regarded as antithetical (Barker 1990, Beetham 1991).

1. Max Weber’s View Of Legitimacy And Its Legacy

The German sociologist Max Weber provided social science with its most enduring empirical approach to legitimacy. Weber linked legitimacy to the willingness to comply with a system of rule (‘legitimacy orders’) or to obey commands (‘imperative control’). An administrative staff, for instance, may obey commands because of custom, affectual ties, or material incentives. He argued, however, that compliance or obedience also typically requires a belief in the legitimacy of the system of rule or command. Every ‘system of authority,’ he argued, ‘attempts to establish and to cultivate the belief in its ‘legitimacy’ (Weber 1947, p. 325). Compliance or obedience based on custom or expediency are unlikely, according to Weber, to be stable. It is worth noting here the similarity between Weber’s concept of legitimacy and Marx’s notion of ideology (Barker 1990, p. 59).

Weber identifies three types of ‘pure’ legitimate authority: rational-legal authority rests ‘on a belief in the ‘‘legality’’ of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands’; traditional authority rests ‘on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those excercising authority under them’; and charismatic authority rests ‘on devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him’ (Weber 1947, p. 328). At other points in his analysis, Weber also describes a value-rational legitimacy, which holds ‘by virtue of a rational belief in its absolute value’ (Weber 1947, p. 130). Barker argues that value rationality ought to be included as a fourth type of legitimacy (Barker 1990, p. 49).

Legitimacy is at the heart of Weber’s sociology of domination. Its centrality grows out of his fundamental claim that social scientific explanation ought to be based on the way in which individual action is subjectively and meaningfully oriented towards the actions of others. By arguing that different modes of domination depend on different patterns of authority, and that authority depends on whether people believe it to be justified (i.e., legitimacy), Weber sought to make legitimacy central to our understanding of social institutions and political order. This is readily apparent in his famous definition of the state, which Weber argued was ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (Weber 1946, p. 78). Moreover, the concept of legitimacy is central to Weber’s broader analysis of social and political change. His well-known argument about the emergence of modernity in the West claims that traditional and charismatic authority is progressively replaced by rational-legal authority.

Those following in the Weberian tradition have continued to emphasize the importance of legitimacy while refining it as an empirical tool. David Beetham has sought to reformulate Weber’s description of legitimacy while maintaining its role at the heart of social scientific inquiry. The problem with Weber’s definition of legitimacy, Beetham argues, is that Weber conflated belief and legitimacy. ‘A given power relationship,’ he writes, ‘is not legitimate because people believe in its legitimacy, but because it can be justified in terms of their beliefs’ (Beetham 1991, p. 11). Consequently, argues Beetham, we can analyze the legitimation of power in terms of three criteria. Power can be said to be legitmate to the extent that: (a) it conforms to established rules, (b) the rules can be justified by reference to beliefs shared by both dominant and subordinate actors, and (c) there is evidence of consent by the subordinate to the particular power relation. Conversely, a breach of rules leads to illegitimacy, a discrepancy between rules and supporting beliefs or the absence of shared beliefs leads to a legitimacy deficit, and a withdrawal of consent leads to delegitimation. (Beetham 1991, pp. 18–20). Beetham argues that legitimacy, by helping to promote compliance and cooperation, can enhance the order, stability and effectiveness of regimes (Beetham 1991, p. 35).

Rosemary O’Kane has challenged Beetham’s claim that legitimacy is a critical concept in explaining regimes and regime change. While she approves of Beetham’s attempt to refine Weber, she poses three general kinds of objections to his reformulation: (a) the definition of legitimacy in terms of moral beliefs is circular, (b) it is difficult in practice to disentangle acquiescence or compliance attributable to belief from that deriving from other factors, and (c) the focus on legitimacy leads to misleading assessments of the direction of causality (O’Kane 1993). She suggests that we limit criteria for judging legitimacy to ‘legal validity’ (the easiest criterion to evaluate empirically) and otherwise shift our focus from legitimacy to support. ‘Investigation directly into the nature of support,’ she argues, ‘might prove the more rewarding for an understanding of the workings of political systems’ (O’Kane 1993, p. 476). In fact, ‘support’ approximates a rational choice conception of legitimacy put forward by Ronald Rogowski, who defines a ‘rationally legitimate’ government as one that maximizes the expected utility of its citizens (Rogowski 1974, p. 43).

Beetham has replied to O’Kane that the distinction between legitimacy and support is essential if we are to grasp different logics of regime crisis and transformation (Beetham 1993). Thus, a military regime might enjoy temporary support based upon its performance, but it might have a high probability for instability in the longer term because of its lack of legitimacy. Beetham’s argument recalls Seymour Martin Lipset’s distinction between legitimacy and effectiveness. Legitimacy, according to Lipset, is ‘the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society.’ Effectiveness, in contrast, ‘means actual peformance, the extent to which the system satisfies the basic functions of government as most of the population and such powerful groups within it as big business or the armed forces see them’ (Lipset 1963, p. 64). While legitimacy is an ‘evaluative’ concept, he argues, effectiveness is an ‘instrumental’ one.

2. From Legitimacy To Legitimation

Part of the problem with the term ‘legitimacy’ is that it suggests a static property of a regime or institution. Yet, it is obvious that many regimes and institutions are constantly striving to shore up their claims to legitimacy. In this sense, the terms ‘legitimation’ and ‘delegitimation’ imply the more active processes by which legitimacy is created and maintained or eroded and lost. Focusing on the process calls attention to the two-sided nature of legitimacy. On one side, legitimacy is about beliefs in the moral rightness or goodness of a regime or institution. On the other side, regimes or institutions make claims about their moral rightness or goodness. Barker has emphasized this two-sidedness, arguing that legitimacy ‘ … is both a belief held by subjects, or by some subjects, and a claim made by rulers’ (Barker 1990, p. 59).

In their treatise on the sociology of knowledge, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann have emphasized that legitimation is a process of explaining and justifying the validity of an institutional order. They argue that four different levels of legitimation can be distinguished. The first (‘incipient’) level of legitimation is the creation of language that is implicitly legitimating. The second level of legitimation entails the articulation of a set of rudimentary claims or maxims. At a third level of legitimation, an explicit ‘theory’ based on an autonomous body of knowledge is developed. Finally, a ‘symbolic universe’ develops that integrates disparate symbolic meanings into a ‘totality’ (Berger and Luckmann 1967, p. 96). Thus, legitimacy claims can be seen as varying in terms of their explicitness and integration.

Obviously, regimes and institutions may make highly explicit and integrated claims and still be regarded as illegitimate. Yet it is also plausible that the justificatory claims of a regime will significantly influence the beliefs of the regime’s subjects, particularly if coercion or instrumental incentives are effectively used to transform these beliefs. This point brings us back to the political philosopher’s fear that power might be regarded as legitimate because it is powerful. While this research paper has only briefly explored the concept of legitimacy, the tour has hopefully been sufficient to convince the reader that legitimacy is indeed a critical but vexing concept.


  1. Barker R 1990 Political Legitimacy and the State. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  2. Beetham D 1991 The Legitimation of Power. Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ
  3. Beetham D 1993 In defence of legitimacy. Political Studies XLI: 488–91
  4. Berger P, Luckmann T 1967 The Social Construction of Reality. Anchor Books, Garden City, NY
  5. Lipset S M 1963 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Anchor Books, Garden City, NY
  6. O’Kane R H T 1993 Against legitimacy. Political Studies XLI: 471–87
  7. Rogowski R 1974 Rational Legitimacy: A Theory of Political Support. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  8. Schaar J H 1981 Legitimacy in the Modern State. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ
  9. Simmons A J 1979 Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  10. Weber M 1946 Politics as a vocation. In: Gerth H H, Mills C W (eds.) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford University Press, New York
  11. Weber M 1947 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Free Press, New York
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