Social Aspects Of Charisma Research Paper

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The concept of charisma indicates the presence of a quality which is considered to be extraordinary and exceptional. The subject holds this quality personally, freely, and independently of his or her own will. Once this quality is socially recognized, it lends those who possess it a specific power inside the community they are part of. The explanations given for the possession of charisma—very often imputed to the arbitrary will of divinity—are crucial for the distinction between the different forms of power deriving from its possession, ranging from the authoritativeness of the prophet to the ruling of the leader, and from the magic powers of the shaman to the pure might of the fierce warrior. From the point of view of its social aspects, the concept of charisma refers to the manifestation of a specific modality of power inside the society, as well as to the specific form of community that forms itself around the carrier of personal charisma.

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1. The Origin Of Charisma As A Problematic Concept

Originally, the concept of charisma appears in the New Testament literature, and almost exclusively in the epistles of the apostle Paul, where it is used with different meanings. It can in fact be: (a) a free gift from God, (b) the specific gift of a vocation, (c) a series of godly gifts following the investiture of a priest, (d) the extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit that underline the evangelizing potentiality of the first Christians. Paul distinguishes between extraordinary gifts— those that do not correspond to any determined function—and exceptional spirituality, which fills the performance of ordinary functions with grace. In the spiritual life of the first communities, the charisma that resulted in the production of miraculous effects were fulfilling a function of legitimization of the acts of preaching. Moreover, they were also facilitating and increasing the efficacy of preaching. In these cases, the relation between charisma and conduct of life becomes apparent (Ducros 1937). A difference emerges, therefore, between the gift given to spread the Word, and that given to allow the subject to begin moving toward perfection. In this tradition of studies, the possession of charisma is the foundation and legitimization of the relations of the subject with the divinity that grants it, but also with the institution that guarantees the transmission of the various faith truths and of the appropriate forms of worship. Moreover, having the charisma also legitimizes its possessors in their relations with those for whom they fulfill a function of spiritual leader.

Being the leader of a community of believers for the salvation of its members is the decisive and fundamental function of the carrier of personal charisma. Having recognized the charismatic power of the leading function exercised by the ‘holy people’ means grasping the ideal-typical status in which every leader is a guide leading toward definitive and certain salvation, against every possible opposition. Therefore, the carrier of personal charisma ends up coinciding, in the New Testament literature, with the man of God, who intervenes in moments of crisis to show the way of perfection: the only one that truly counts for individual or collective salvation.

The considerations regarding the use of charisma in the communities of believers can be transposed also to civil communities. A long historic tradition from Plutarch to Hegel through Machiavelli, Kant, Carlyle, and the whole German Romanticism movement prepared the basic elements of the image of the charismatic leader (Cavalli 1981) that Weber would later translate into an ideal-typical figure.

2. The Concept Of Charisma In Contemporary Sociology

Max Weber (1864–1920) is the author who derives the best results from this dual tradition on the social aspects of charisma. While accepting Rudolf Sohm’s work on the origin of the Christian Church, Max Weber underlined different aspects of it: the idea of the supernatural gift offered for the work of a specific mission; the concepts of call, of predestination, and of election. From other works on the history of Christianity, Weber derives further developments of his theory of charisma. This is the case with Karl Holl and his studies on monasticism. For Holl, as for Rudolf Sohm, the possession of charisma is the foundation of the authority inside religious institution. Whatever its concrete manifestations—from the proof guaranteed by exceptional interventions, to the exemplary manifestation of a permanently sanctified life—the objective of charisma is to lead the community of believers after having been recognized by it.

2.1 Meanings Of Charisma In Weber

In his work, Weber defines charisma many times. First of all, it is part of the sociological categories and more precisely, it is one of the ideal types of power. In the definition of ‘charismatic power’ the ‘charisma’ is

a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional power or qualities. These, as such, are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. In primitive circumstances this peculiar kind of deference is paid to prophets, to people with a reputation for therapeutic or legal wisdom, to leaders in the hunt, and heroes in war (Weber 1956 1968, p. 48)

The analysis of the term ‘charisma’ occurs also when Weber is discussing types of religious communities. Weber defines it here—not without connections to the analyses of the Durkheimian school, and in particular, with Marcel Mauss’s studies—as the collection of extraordinary powers that populate the field of magically or religiously motivated action. In this field charisma, understood as an ideal-typical form, is ‘a gift that inheres in an object or person simply by virtue of natural endowment,’ and it ‘may be produced artificially in an object or person through some extraordinary means.’ This latter definition is apparently secondary, since ‘it is assumed that charismatic powers can be developed only in people or objects in which the germ already existed but would have remained dormant unless evoked by some ascetic or other regimen’ (Weber 1956 1965, p. 2).

The two parts, of course, complement each other. In the analysis of charisma as a sociological category of social action, the accent is on the recognition of the exceptional quality, whatever this might be. We must also stress, however, that in the section concerning religious communities, charisma is underlined in its substantiality: It has, in other words, a specific content and expresses itself in a doctrine.

2.2 Analysis Of Charisma As To Types Of Religious Communities

The quality of charisma becomes more precise in its primary form as the capacity of the subject that carries it to awaken and govern the hidden powers that inhabit the natural world. This capacity can be consubstantial with the actors or activated as a consequence of an exceptional state of being, namely ecstasy. What for lay people cannot be other than an occasional experience, is for magicians a dimension characterizing the existence to which they have permanent access: ‘The magician is the person who is permanently endowed with charisma.’

The success of charisma, understood in this sense, is directly connected to the capacity to force the invisible powers to yield to one’s own will through the use of adequate stratagems. On the other hand, it disappears when supernatural powers assert themselves, powers that are indifferent to any kind of constraint but sensitive to veneration and worship acts. The magician is substituted by the priest or minister who is a functionary taking care of a ‘regularly organized and permanent enterprise concerned with influencing the gods, in contrast with the individual and occasional efforts of magicians’ (Weber 1956 1965, p. 28). The regularity of the functions and rites rendered priests as functionaries who often inherit their position and whose power seems to be separated from personal charisma.

Yet another distinguishing quality of the priest, it is asserted, in his professional equipment of special knowledge, fixed doctrine and vocational qualifications, which brings him into contrast with sorcerers, prophets, and other types of religious functionaries who exert their influence by virtue of personal gifts (charisma) made manifest in miracle and revelation (Weber 1956 1965, p. 29).

The prophet is, in this analysis, ‘a purely individual bearer of charisma, who by virtue of his mission proclaims a religious doctrine or divine commandment’ (Weber 1956 1965, p. 46). It is, therefore, not so important if a new community emerges around prophets or if their followers refer more to their person than to their doctrine. What is decisive is the ‘purely personal charisma’ distinguishing prophets from priests or ministers, while the content of their preaching and the specificity of their actions, consisting in doctrines and ethical imperatives instead of magic, distinguish them from magicians.

2.3 Sociology Of Power

Max Weber defines once more the concept of charisma when passing from the analysis of religious communities to that of political communities and, through these, to the sociology of power. It is during this third phase of his work that the social aspects of charisma are underlined. What is important to highlight is his further clarification of the emotional aspect of charisma, which is also, to a certain extent, metaeveryday, alien to the paths of rationalization that are needed for its social reproduction, but still necessary for the foundation of a new epoch. Weber arrives at the point of saying that every foundation moment is, in fact, charismatic. This connects the use of charisma not only to its social recognition but also to the processes of innovation and social transformation. He contrasts the permanent character of the traditional and the bureaucratic structures, to the foundational character of the charismatic action.

Die Deckung allen uber die Anforderungen des okonomischen Alltags hinaus gehenden Bedarfs dagegen ist, je mehr wir historisch zurucksehen, desto mehr, prinzipiell ganzlich heterogen und zwar: charismatisch, fundiert gewesen. Das bedeutet: die ‘naturlichen’ Leiter in psychischer, physischer, okonomischer, ethischer, religioser, politischer Not waren weder angestellte Amtspersonen, noch Inhaber eines als Fachwissen erlernten und gegen Entgelt geubten ‘Berufs’ im heutigen Sinn dieses Wortes, sondern Trager spezifischer, als ubernaturlich (im Sinne von: nicht jedermann zuganglich) gedachter Gaben des Korpers und Geistes (Weber 1956, p. 662).

Summarized in one sentence, this important quotation says that the answer to human needs, going beyond mere economic needs, is not given by experts or people holding public office but by bearers of qualities of the body and mind perceived as supernatural.

In Weber’s methodology such distinctions have of course an ideal-typical character. It is therefore impossible to trace the ‘pure forms’ of each of them as well as to draw specific boundaries between one category and the other. This means, for example, that it is possible to find some elements of prophetic charisma in the behavior of a political leader, of a priest, or of a military leader. Likewise, magical elements can be found in religious action: This happens, for instance, when prophets use magic acts to demonstrate their own charisma.

At least three aspects of the Weberian analysis of charisma need to be recalled here: the nature of social recognition, the implicitly protesting character of charismatic power, the transformation of the exercise of charisma into everyday practice, or in other words, its ‘routinization,’ and, inside the everyday practice, the distinction between personal and official charisma.

2.4 Social Recognitions

The possession of charismatic qualities is connected to the social context in two ways. On the one hand it is in the social context that the recognition takes place and those possessing charisma need to be socially recognized as such by their followers. On the other hand, social recognition does not constitute the foundation of charisma. It is, on the contrary, a duty for those that are expected to recognize it. ‘This recognition, psychologically born of enthusiasm or adversity and hope, involves complete personal devotion’ (Weber 1956 1994, p. 33). The recognition refers, therefore, to a previous confident expectation. The nature of this expectation is that of a positive event such as a reconquest of political freedom or of supernatural salvation or, again, of a redemption capable of restoring to the entire people its place among the nations. A specific relation emerges between recognition of charisma, the diffused and extended expectation of the carrier of charismatic qualities, and the reunification around that person of a completely renewed community of followers, which aims at originating a process of renewal for the whole society. Since the entire Weberian discourse is based on ideal-typical configurations, it also has numerous variants: The social recognition of prophetic charisma has a completely different relation with ‘proof’ compared to magical charisma or to that of the political leader. Prophets proclaiming a ‘religious doctrine or a divine imperative’ need only occasionally to ‘prove’ the validity of their message through magical acts revealing their possession of prophetic charisma. Things look different for the magician and the leader. For them proof is the concrete result of their enterprise. Therefore, while magicians are constantly tied to the success of their own art, leaders are continually challenged to prove their charisma through (military or political) victory. As a consequence, while prophets can expect to be believed by virtue of their own testimony and are not under an obligation of certifying their own charisma through magical acts, magicians and charismatic leaders connect their credibility to the ongoing success of their extraordinary qualities.

Naturally, in cases like this, where it is not possible to find such ideal-types in their pure status in historic reality, there are many steps between one type and the other. Prophets, seen as an ideal-typical representation of charismatic power, are not just those who proclaim the ‘new commandment.’ They are also those who, ‘as a prophetic blow and a blustering flame,’ evoke ‘the indefinable that pervades and reinforces big communities’ (Weber 1985: p. 612, my translation). This reconnects the prophet to the charismatic leader, while the position toward the divinity (of which the prophet explicitly wants to be interpreter), as well as the social function exercised, keep the two types distinguished from each other. The prophet’s function is in fact limited to the announcement of the divine message in the first case, while leaders are forced to maintain their position until victory is achieved.

2.5 Protesting Character Of Charismatic Powers

The above helps us to understand the connection that Weber draws between charismatic power and situations of social crisis: The recognition of charisma, following an expectation, emerges only when a situation of social crisis looks for a solution in exceptional individuals, of whom it is possible to be devotees. From this point of view, the possession of charisma being a direct and personal gift from God, it ends up representing a kind of power implicitly in conflict with and often alternative to traditional or bureaucraticlegal power. The crisis in which the carrier of personal charisma operates is, in fact, also and mainly a crisis of leadership. In the articulation of the ideal-typical image of the ‘prophet’ defined as an ideal-typical case of personal charismatic power, Weber observes that the prophet almost never comes from the clergy: ‘… the personal call is the decisive element distinguishing the prophet from the priest. The latter lays claim to authority by virtue of his service in a sacred tradition, while the prophet’s claim is based on personal revelation and charisma’ (Weber 1956 1965, p. 46). This is true also in the political sector. Charismatic leaders often operate in the passage between property power and legal power and what characterizes them is not so much the content of their message as the style they use to spread it. They act driven by a duty, by virtue of which they do not present a value, but state a truth. Their message is therefore a mission they are imposing on themselves. The charisma is therefore no longer just a quality or a gift, but a ‘highly asymmetric power-relationship between an inspired guide and a cohort of followers who see in him and his message the promise and anticipated achievements of a new order, to which all adhere with greater or lesser conviction’ (Boudon and Bourricaud 1989, pp. 70–1). Therefore, charismatic power is based not only on the exceptional endowments of its carriers but also on the exceptional character of the social situation inside which they establish themselves, and on the promise they pro- claim. Thus the analysis of the connection between charismatic power and utopia is introduced, where utopia is understood as the realization of a new social order. Often, though not always, Weber suggests, the mission of the carrier of charisma is of revolutionary character, since it reverses every hierarchy of values and clashes against usage, law, and tradition.

In the case of the prophet, as well as in that of the charismatic leader, charismatic power is tied to moments of crisis and transition and it is a temporary power. As such it is based on an uncertain and risky economic ground (a real ‘charismatic economy’), often constituted by free offerings, gifts, or war booty. Carriers of personal charisma do not create any kind of systematic and permanent production of resources through a stable and lasting economy, nor do their followers. Charismatic power is therefore characteristic of the moments of transition in statu nascenti and is bound to disappear when social life goes back to normal.

2.6 Transmission Of Charisma

From Weber’s point of view, getting back to everyday life is, also in this case, the result of the social action of concrete social actors. In fact, the ‘adherents’ of the emotional community that formed itself around the carrier of charisma, as well as the ‘administrative machinery’ (whether constituted by followers or trustworthy people), tend to bring it about that the relation‘ends up resting, ideally and materially on a lasting fundament of unitary character.’ This becomes especially evident when the problem of succession poses itself, after the demise of the carrier of charisma. The problem can be solved in different ways. Charismatic leaders can themselves, while still alive, look for a new carrier of charisma or designate a successor; the administrative machinery ‘charismatically qualified’ can designate a successor, or the charisma can be identified as a quality of the blood and therefore parental inheritance can affirm itself as a mechanism of succession.

Clearly, personal charisma is not always abandoned as such but it certainly tends to be subordinated to an administrative, charismatically qualified apparatus, capable of recognizing the ‘signs,’ or of deciding upon the norms on the basis of which the charisma can be recognized in the most rigorous possible way. Sometimes the personal charisma disappears completely, as is the case with primogeniture, which affirmed itself in the West and in Japan, where lords or monarchs are such independently of the recognition of their subjects; from this point of view, they can be completely devoid of any personal charisma.

Among these forms of transmission of charisma, of particular importance is the possibility of transmission through ritual acts, which takes a concrete form in the charisma of function. This is the case of priestly charisma and of royal charisma, both transmitted through purification, laying on of hands, and anointing. The charismatic capacities that have been acquired this way are independent of the personal qualities of those who possess them.

The transformation of charisma in everyday practice has many consequences. For example, the establishment of the principle of the charisma’s inheritance extended to the administrative apparatus implies the hereditary transmission of the powers of lordship and administration of goods, therefore founding the type of the ‘aristocratic state.’ Moreover, the transformation of charisma in everyday practice implies the loss of the extra economic character, distinctive of voluntary militant adherence, in favor of a continual acquisition and redistribution of resources. The vassals are substituted by the ‘taxable subjects,’ the trustworthy supporters by the party’s executives, the penitential charisma of the martyrs and ascetics is replaced by the official charisma of the bishops and priests.

Weber also establishes a relation to the economy: ‘But the more developed the economic interdependencies of the monetary economy, the greater the pressure of the charismatic subject’s everyday needs becomes’ (Weber 1956 1994, p. 44). To conclude: ‘Charisma typically appears early on in the development of a religious (prophetic) or political (conquering) authority. It will give way before long, however, to routine powers as soon as its authority has been assured and, above all, as soon as it has gained sway over the masses’ (Weber 1956 1994, p. 44). This way the passage takes place between the charismatic and the ordinary administration.

3. Charisma As An Operational Concept In Contemporary Research

Contemporary sociology has shown interest in the Weberian concept of charisma in various ways, in the frame of a general rediscovery of this author. Important studies have been carried out in the field of political sociology where a reconstruction of the ‘charismatic leader’ has been accomplished. From this reconstruction a new interpretation of totalitarian dictatorships, and of the crisis of contemporary democracies, has emerged. Besides this, a second stream of research can be seen in the field of the study of the routinization processes of charisma and, in particular, of the coexistence of personal and official charisma. In fact, if we admit that among the different forms of transmission of charisma there is one that rests on ritual acts carried out by a ‘charismatically qualified’ authority, a substantially different situation is reached. In this new situation, the faith of the believers is not directed toward a person but toward a way of transmitting an extraordinary quality, reproduced through a ritual, which is in turn guaranteed by an institution. The functional charisma does not refer to the subject anymore but to the ‘belief in a state of grace, specific to the institution’ (Seguy 1988). The result is a situation opposite to the initial one: ‘from being a personal, unstable, and ephemeral characteristic, and by definition nontransmissible, the charisma becomes stable and enduring’ (Seguy 1988, p. 18, my translation). In this way, it becomes possible to imagine a ‘charismatic grace,’ characteristic of the carrier of personal charisma, as opposed to an ‘institutional grace.’ Weber does, of course, admit the possibility that a personal charisma may hide inside a subject—for instance a priest—who carries a functional charisma. Jean Seguy does not, however, see an exceptional opposition between the two, but more a kind of kinship or elective affinity. Functional charisma is not given in an indiscriminate fashion from the charismatically qualified institution to everyone who may ask for it. It is not just the result of a charismatic education, but is founded on the pre-existence of the charisma itself inside the subject. Briefly, the institution is only a caretaker whose task is to protect the personal vocation, and therefore the gift, that the individual has received in a completely free and personal way, and to let it grow, therefore guaranteeing its realization.

4. Methodological Issues And Possible Developments

The concept of charisma has gained remarkable success in ordinary language. There, it has been assumed in its weak meaning, becoming synonymous with qualities that are functionally connected to the mere communication process. The charismatic person is first and foremost a communicator and the ‘charisma’ consists essentially in his or her capacity to communicate and convince. The current extension and complexity of mass media communication renders such qualities crucial for media success. The decisive character of this kind of success in the contemporary communication society renders the success of such weak understanding of the concept of charisma treacherous and misleading. In fact, even if the communicative qualities that explain media success are personal and free, they do not establish real leaderships.

When passing from the revelation of pure media success to the contents of such success, it is evident that it is not possible to put on the same level the success of a television journalist and that of the media preachers who were flourishing in the USA during the 1980s and 1990s. Nor is it possible to compare the latter with the media success of a political leader. Compared to the original Weberian conceptualization, the mere art of communicating and convincing certainly does not contain the social aspects of charisma, except in the most insignificant way. Media success does not make this carrier a ‘people’s leader,’ nor does it make the person the carrier of a mission, which in some way transcends his or her ordinary professional task. Nothing impedes the carrier of personal charisma, spiritual as well as political, ‘from the plebiscitary ruler, to the big demagog, or to the leader of a political party’ (Weber, 1958, p. 50, my translation) from making constant and methodical use of the potentialities of the mass media. This does not prevent the charisma—understood here as characterized by the assumption of a leadership responsibility following an absolutely personal call and in response to a crisis situation—from expressing itself completely independently from the mediagenic qualities of the subject and, therefore, of their eventual enhancement through the mass media.

The concept of charisma, correctly interpreted in its ideal-typical meaning, is far away from being just a historically born out and conceptually concluded sociological category. Even if charisma is often connected by Weber to the infancy of societies and is supposed to come before the widespread and all-embracing process of rationalization, the ‘charismatic’ moment continues to cross contemporary social establishments periodically, every time they find themselves in a context of crisis. Elements of ‘charismatic power’ are sometimes present, not only behind official charisma but also to distinguish between the functionary of a party with a strong ideological identity and who, chosen among the holders of leadership offices, will be its actual leader. While occupying the leadership position this person will trace the boundaries of the ethic of conviction, redefining the objectives. Of course, this is not enough: In their redefinition of the objective, leaders need to lean on the main principles with which they feel themselves to be personally invested. Elements of ‘personal charisma’ and of ‘exemplary prophecy’ can therefore be found inside a party secretary as well as inside every founder of a religious movement. It was exactly among these religious movements that the term ‘charisma,’ among others, was reintroduced into Paul’s original interpretation. The charismatic movements, which came into being in the beginning of the twentieth century within Protestant circles, have been spreading within European Catholicism since the 1970s. Based on prayer, and on biblical, theological, and spiritual growth, they consider the charisma as a totality of gifts given by the Holy Spirit, which is able to give life to the present Christian communities in the same way as it did to the original ones.

In many parts of his work Weber admits the possibility of a charismatic presence inside rational society, founded on instrumental rationality. This is the case with some finance managers who, thanks only to their uncommonly strong personal trustworthiness, are able to obtain conventions and agreements that others can absolutely not obtain. Such phenomena are ‘in ihrer ganzen Struktur, ihrem ‘‘Geist’’ nach, grund erschieden on der rationalen Leitung eines regularen großkapitalistichen ‘‘Betriebs’’…’ However, they are part of the ‘twofold nature’ of what can be called ‘capitalistic spirit’: ‘…und ebenso das Verstandnis des spezifischen Eigenart des modernen, ‘‘berufsmaßig’’ burokratisierten Alltagskapitalismus ist geradezu da on abhangig, daß man diese beiden, sich uberall erschlingenden, im letzen Wesen aber erschiedenen Strukturelemente begrifflich scheiden lernt’ (Weber 1956, p. 667). In a word: charismatic entrepreneurship not only is not foreign to ordinary routine bureaucratized capitalism but belongs to it, even though rationality and charisma should be conceptually distinguished.

Charisma remains therefore clearly present inside rational society, even if it is intertwined with bureaucratic-legal power and the professionally qualified bureaucracy. Rather than presenting exemplars of the pure types indicated by Weber, the concept of charisma appears to be an important conceptual tool to define and explain phenomena such as personal power and consensus in the bureaucratic-rational institutional organizations. It can work as a precious revealer of situations of latent crises as well as of conflicts— latent or open—which are growing in the society as a whole and the various institutions inside it. If it is true that we are living in an epoch ‘without God or prophets’ it is also true that elements of personal charisma, in its various forms, do not cease to appear, mostly, even if not exclusively, in the political and religious arenas.


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