Charisma And Charismatic Research Paper

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‘Charisma’ or ‘gift of grace’ is a theological notion that has been widely used in the social and religious sciences to describe either the hierarchical organization of religious roles or explain the growth and development of social movements based on religious inspiration or the basis of authority and leadership in society generally. In its strictly religious context, it means a divinely conferred power, being derived from the Greek kharisma (kharis favor or grace). Charismatic power is associated with the idea of the sacred as a force in human affairs. A person in possession of charisma is thought to have a talent, for example, in terms of healing or prophecy. In anthropological research, there has been considerable interest in ‘shamanism’ as a form of charismatic authority that depends on a capacity to have visions and to perform healing (see M. Eliade 1964). In sociology, it is conceptually part of an analytical framework that is concerned with understanding large-scale changes in religious institutions and the foundations of authority.

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1. The Sociology Of Charisma

In the sociology of religion, the study of charisma has been closely associated with Max Weber (1864–1920) who adopted the idea from the historical and theological research of Rudolf Sohm and Karl Holl who in turn had developed the concept in their analysis of Canon Law. Weber wrote that ‘the concept of charisma’ (gift of grace) is taken from the vocabulary of early Christianity. For the Christian hierocracy Rudolf Sohm, in his Kirchenrecht, was the first to clarify the substance of the concept, even though he did not use the same terminology. Others (for instance, Holl in Enthusiasmus und Bussgewalt) have clarified certain important consequences of it. It is thus nothing new (Weber 1978, pp. 1, 216). Despite Weber’s modesty about the adoption of the idea, it became a fundamental dimension of his analysis of power and had far-reaching consequences for the development of the sociology of religious institutions. Weber generalized the idea and grasped its radical implications for the study of political change in human societies.

In the rise of religion certain individuals are recognized as having a capacity to experience ecstatic states that are regarded as the precondition for healing, telepathy, and divination. It is primarily through ‘these extraordinary powers that have been designated by such special terms as ‘mana,’ ‘orenda,’ and the Iranian ‘Maga’ (the term from which our word ‘magic’ is derived). We shall henceforth employ the term ‘charisma’ for such extraordinary powers’ (Weber 1963, p. 2). Such charismatic power is either inherited as a natural endowment or it is acquired by extraordinary means. The religious talent in both cases is a substance that may remain dormant in a person until it is aroused by asceticism or trance.

Weber did not dwell specifically on these features of charisma in folk religion because he wanted to employ the term to understand the secular dynamic of authority and leadership in social institutions. His main intention was to compare and contrast three types of authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational. As we have seen, charismatic authority rests on the ability of a leader to inspire disciples in the belief of the authenticity of a calling. In practical terms, an authentic claim is validated by a talent such as healing, but this alone cannot be the basis of authority. In the case of genuine charisma, a follower has a duty to accept the authority of a leader. In Economy and Society (Weber 1978, pp. 1, 241), the term charisma is applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. Traditional authority involves the acceptance of a rule that expresses a custom, namely an established pattern of belief or practice. Finally, legal-rational authority is typical of bureaucracies in which formal rules of conduct are underpinned by procedural norms. These forms of authority are in turn forms of compliance. Tradition depends on compliance through empathy; legal-rational authority rests on rational argument; and charismatic authority and leadership require inspiration. Weber provided many diverse illustrations of charismatic leaders including Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Napoleon, Stefan George, and the Chinese Emperor. Although the cases were heterogeneous, he argued that charismatic authority is confronted by a common problem of succession with the death of the leader. Charismatic authority is thus unstable. With the demise of the charismatic leader, the disciples typically disband, but occasionally a solution for continuity will be developed. In the case of the Christian Church , Weber argued that the charismatic authority of Christ was invested in the Church itself (as the body of Christ) and thus in the bishops who control the ‘keys of grace’ enjoy a vicarious authority. This ‘institutionalization of charisma’ becomes over time increasingly formal, bureaucratic, and impersonal. As the charismatic power of Christ becomes transformed into a set of formal procedures and bureaucratic rules, Weber spoke of the ‘routinization of charisma.’

2. Forms Of Religious Association

Weber’s account of charisma was also an important component of his sociology of religion within which he attempted to identify different religious roles and patterns of organization. For example, he distinguished between the prophet who, as a charismatic figure, has a personal call, and the priest has authority by virtue of his service in a sacred tradition. The prophets, who often emerge from the ranks of the priesthood, are unremunerated, and depend on gifts from followers. Weber also distinguished two forms of prophecy as represented on the one hand by Buddha and on the other by Zoroaster and Muhammad. The latter are involved in ‘ethical prophecy’ and are conceived as instruments of God. These prophets receive a commission from God to preach a revelation and demand obedience from their disciples as an ethical duty. By contrast exemplary prophets demonstrate to their followers a salvational path through the example provided by their own lives. Exemplary prophecy was, according to Weber, characteristic of Asia; ethical prophecy, of the Abrahamic religions of the Middle East. Weber’s analysis of charisma with respect to ethical prophecy in the Old Testament has been subject to considerable criticism (see Zeitlin 1984), but his conceptual framework continues to influence both sociology (see Lindholm 1990) and anthropology (see Werbner and Basu 1998).

This discussion of charisma with respect to different social roles should be seen as part of a larger sociological debate about the forms of association that characterize the social organization of religious belief and practice. Weber wanted to argue that any group that is subject to charismatic authority forms a charismatic community (Gemeinde) and that such a community is inherently unstable. With the death of the leader, the group either dissolves or charisma undergoes a process of routinization. The disciples have no career, no formal hierarchy, no offices, and no qualifications. The Church that provides the organizational context of the priesthood is very different. Ecclesiastical organizations require a hierarchical administration of the ‘charisma of office’ in which there are definite stages in clerical and administrative careers. It is clearly the case that Weber’s sociology of charisma should be understood as an application of Ernest Troeltsch’s ‘church-sect typology’ in which there is an historical oscillation between the evangelical sects and the bureaucratic churches (see Troeltsch 1931).

3. Charismatic Movements

Because Weber believed that in modern societies legal rational authority would become dominant, tradition and charisma were regarded as ‘prerationalistic’ and thus as characteristic of premodern societies. The notion that charismatic authority was not a resilient aspect of modern society was in turn a function of Weber’s pessimistic understanding of social change in terms of secular rationalism and the erosion of religious meaning. Against Weber’s assessment, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been profoundly influenced by charismatic movements. Charismatic renewal has been a common theme of diverse religious movements in ‘primal societies’ and in the industrial societies of Europe and North America. The collapse of aboriginal or tribal societies under colonial settlement saw the spread of charismatic movements against the supremacy of Whitesettler societies such as the Ghost Dance among the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes of the American Plains. A Paiute prophet called Wovoka had received a vision in which through ritual dance the dead would return to restore the pristine culture of native societies. This anti-White charismatic movement subsided after the murder of Sitting Bull and the subsequent massacre of his followers at Wounded Knee in 1890. Charismatic leadership has also played a significant role in those new religious movements that have been a response to the social and economic disruptions associated with the decolonization of the Third World (see P. Worsley The Trumpet Shall Sound 1970).

In contexts of rapid social change, charismatic leadership is an important component of so-called ‘revitalization movements’ that function to create an effective transition from tribal to urban society. However, charisma is also associated with religious forms that are a response to personal alienation, isolation, and meaninglessness in the developed, industrial world. One illustration is the Family who were disciples of Charles Manson and operated in southern California in the late 1960s. Manson, who was a social dropout with a criminal record, provided a message of personal liberation based on mind-expanding drugs and found a receptive set of disciples in the cultic milieux of the American counterculture. The Manson Family offered disoriented disciples the experience of an absolute community that depended on a powerful ideology and indoctrination (see Schreck 1988). Another American illustration would be Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (see Weightman 1983). These manifestations of charisma in modern society are closely associated with the dislocations of youth culture, the anomie of the modern city, and the spread of personal alienation.

4. Conclusion; Charisma In The Information Age

Weber’s analysis of charisma has produced a rich legacy of sociological research, but there are serious conceptual problems associated with its application in contemporary society. The concept of charismatic movement is used to describe a variety of revivalist, nativist, messianic, and healing movements. There is considerable debate in sociology and religious studies about whether charisma in modern society is degraded and inauthentic (see Wilson 1975). The term is frequently employed to describe the fleeting popularity of political leaders whose social appeal is constructed by campaigns in the electronic media. Whereas charisma in traditional societies arises spontaneously in the collective enthusiasm for divinely inspired leaders, in modern politics it is inevitably the product of deliberate orchestration of the media. The notoriety of the Manson Family and the People’s Temple was a conscious product of media attention. However, this argument indicates a persistent issue in charismatic movements, namely how to distinguish between genuine and false claims to religious authority. Biblical warnings against ‘false prophets’ recognized the fact that disciples could be misguided. While the term has been implausibly stretched to describe a diverse and heterogeneous range of leaders in the twentieth century from Adolf Hitler to J. F. Kennedy, it remains a basic concept in sociology and religious studies.


  1. Eliade M 1964 Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Ballingen Foundation, New York
  2. Lindholm C 1990 Charisma. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  3. Schreck N (ed.) 1988 The Manson File. Amok Press, New York
  4. Troeltsch E 1931 The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Allen and Unwin, London, 2 Vols.
  5. Werbner P, Basu H (eds.) 1998 Embodying Charisma Modernity Locality and the Performance of Emotion in Sufi Cults. Routledge, London and New York
  6. Weber M 1963 The Sociology of Religion. Methuen, London
  7. Weber M 1978 Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2 Vols.
  8. Weightman J M 1983 Making Sense of the Jonestown Suicides. A Sociological History of the People’s Temple. Mellen Press, New York
  9. Wilson B R 1975 The Noble Sa ages. The Primitive Origins of Charisma and its Contemporary Sur i al. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  10. Zeitlin I M 1984 Ancient Judaism Biblical Criticism from Max Weber to the Present. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK
Social Aspects Of Charisma Research Paper


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