Sociology Of Legitimacy Research Paper

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Legitimacy may be defined as the formula by which individuals accept a power and consider their obedience as a just commitment. Thus, it implies consent and stresses the sociological dimension of the free acceptance of a power. As such, legitimacy emphasizes the symbolical aspect of obedience. Power is not exclusively based on coercion, even in the most authoritarian systems; totalitarianism itself includes an adherence which is conceived of as justified by the people. So, the sociology of legitimacy would argue that (a) power is a social relation, (b) this social relation should be at least partly meaningful for people who are involved in it, (c) this system of meanings justifies the power and its ability to make use of violence, and (d) this symbolic relation will be manipulated by the power-holders. Thus, free acceptance does not postulate the liberty of social actors but the social construction of a free adherence to a political order.

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1. The Components Of Legitimacy

Therefore legitimacy is one of the main topics of every research in political science. In a Weberian perspective, legitimacy is cosubstantial to politics. As Max Weber said, ‘like the political institution historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e., considered to be legitimate) violence’ (Weber 1970, p. 78). Reinhard Bendix (1977, p. 294) pointed out that this ‘study of domination stresses the importance of group formation and of beliefs.’ Thus legitimacy should be analyzed by taking into account the formation of the social structure (i.e., social history, social stratification, divisions, etc) and the nature of the beliefs which are used in a given sequence of history. Consequently, legitimacy is concretely made of various historical and cultural references and is currently analyzed by Weber as a specific and volatile combination of types of legitimization.

Thus, beliefs in the legitimacy of a system of domination are a philosophical, a political, and a cultural matter. In a philosophical perspective, it is clearly implied by the social contract philosophy. The obedience to the law stems from the adherence of everyone to the social order which is contractually defined. In a political perspective, ‘men in power want to see their position as ‘‘legitimate’’ and their advantages as ‘‘deserved,’’ and to interpret the subordination of the many as the ‘‘just fate’’ of those upon whom it falls’ (Bendix 1977, p. 294). In a cultural perspective, the political relations of subordination would be conceived as ‘politics of meanings’ (Geertz 1973): The intensity and the efficiency of the subordination will depend on the appropriateness of the political myths that the rulers tend to promote. ‘For a state to do more than administer privilege and defend itself against its own population, its acts must seem continuous with the selves of those whose states it pretends it is’ (Geertz 1973, p. 317). In other words, a sociology of legitimacy must combine the analysis of the sources of legitimacy, of its political manipulation, and of its cultural congruence.

In his famous typology, Max Weber listed three sources of legitimization used to justify the power of command. Traditional domination is the authority of the ‘eternal yesterday,’ that is, ‘the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform’ (Weber 1970, pp. 78–9). In this construction a command will be obeyed, and conceived as just, only if it is strictly in accordance with a learnt tradition. Charismatic domination is legitimated by ‘the extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma), the absolutely personal devotion and personal confidence in revelation, heroism, or other qualities of individual leadership’ (Weber 1970, pp. 78–9). This is the legitimacy of the prophet, the hero, the warlord, the plebiscitary ruler, but also the demagog. Charismatic leaders have to prove that they possess charisma and thus gain the privilege to break with tradition and free their command from accordance with tradition. From this point of view, this kind of legitimacy inserts a dynamic of change since it makes it possible to get the people’s support without reproducing the traditional order. However, this source of legitimacy is particularly fragile and volatile since it may be called into question by a failure or a decreasing performance of the leader. In legal domination, people obey the law rather than a person. The command has to be in accordance with the legal system and those who hold power get their authority from their institutional role. As such, they are also subject to rules which determine their competence.

This Weberian typology has an evolutionist propensity. Legal domination is conceived as rational and superior to the others, on account of its universal orientation. The law is supposed to be equal for everybody, it is clearly differentiated from the person, and has to be written in order to be valid. As such, legal domination is not only fairer than the others, it is also supposed to be more efficient. Moreover, it tends to a homogeneous vision of legitimacy throughout the world and is supposed to transcend the cultural pluralism affecting humankind. Weber has usefully nuanced this construction by conceiving three types of legitimacy as ‘pure types,’ contrasting with a reality made of a complex combination of all of them. The sources of legitimacy have to be found in the propensity of social relations to be based on loyalty to tradition, the attachment to a charismatic leader, and respect for the law.

2. Strategies Of Legitimization

This complexity stresses one of the strategic dimensions of legitimization, that is to say the process by which those who hold power strive to make their commands accepted as such. The strategy implies an optimal combination of the three sources of legitimacy and a skillful attempt at persuasion toward the ruled people. The use of traditional legitimacy is a major method for mobilizing different kinds of structures, like communitarian groups, family, tribes, and clans, or for fueling social relations, like clientelism or kinship. Therefore, it is one of the main components of patrimonial domination and is an important device for balancing weakness, crisis, or even the collapse of the state. This is one of the major factors of tribalization where the state is less developed, just as it contributes to explain religious fundamentalism where the political institutions are less efficient. On the other hand, when traditional legitimacy dominates in a political action, the autonomy of power holders tends to be limited, like their capacity to innovate and to create new kinds of commitment.

Charismatic legitimization, however, creates opportunity for innovation, inventing new ideologies, producing new kinds of institution, as it does with prophetic mobilization or during revolutions. Instead of traditional institutions, charismatic legitimacy mobilizes followers and disciples who are swift to trust in their leader. However, the more domination is purely charismatic, the more it risks being fragile, threatened by a failure or a defeat, the more it lacks permanent structure and institutional order. That is why this kind of legitimacy is relieved by a ‘routinization of charisma,’ by which the new order turns to a new tradition which hampers the free initiative of the leader.

In the same way, legally sanctioned procedures will limit and even encapsulate political action. Even in modern states, the power holders strive to circumvent these hindrances by reviving traditional legitimacy and by making use of their own charisma. This practice is one of the main ways of by-passing institutional rationality in modern political systems, and is also a source of differentiation among the Western democracies.

The power holder manipulates the legitimizing formulas by achieving a persuasive power on those ruled and striving to create the conditions of a consensus mobilization, that is, a downward process that increases congruence within a society. This consensus mobilization implies a socializing process by which the myths on which legitimacy is based are shared among the member-units. It implies also a propaganda by which political practices are described as conforming to these myths (Etzioni 1968, pp. 361, 470). The myths that are learnt include a world vision and a system of values on which legitimacy is built. Universalism, equality, democracy, human rights, social contract, but also modernity, progress, and rationality are the main components of legal legitimacy which reflects the evolutionist postulate of the convergence among modernizing societies.

3. Legitimacy And History

This is the main point stressing the cultural dimension characterizing the sociology of legitimacy. Since it is value-oriented, legitimacy obviously has a cultural orientation, implied by its own history and by the social context of its construction. Historical sociology has shown how legal domination, as it is described by Max Weber, was strongly bound to a religious and cultural situation. Joseph Strayer (1970) pointed out how the Western nation-state authority was transferred from the Roman Church’s vision of authority. Reinhard Bendix (1978, p. 247ff.) showed the religious bases of royal authority in Western, Islamic, and Chinese civilization, while he emphasized that the transformation from the rule of king to the government in the name of people supposed an ‘intellectual mobilization’ which is itself rooted in the social structure and the cultural background of each society. Therefore, the intellectual mobilization has varied from one country to another, both for strategic reasons and according to cultural factors. These differences are real gaps in societies which are clearly far from the Western model of legal authority as the model is built in the cultural context of securalism, Christian delegation of authority and representation, Roman pre-eminence of law and institution.

In this perspective, the sociology of legitimacy should be strongly comparative. It will mobilize close comparison in order to interpret the different ways of legitimization of similar institutions, as de Tocqueville did between France and the USA (Tocqueville 1981). It will also use ‘huge comparisons’ and stress ‘dramatic contrast’ for evaluating how the Western legitimacy formulas are able to be imported into Islamic, Asiatic, or African countries (Bendix 1978, Eisenstadt and Rokkan 1973, Badie 1992). The crisis stemming from the impossible transfer and pressure of globalization and homogenization results in a chronic deficit of legitimacy in non-Western countries but also in a dangerous inversion by which power holders are constantly less legitimate than the antisystem political entrepreneurs, who are mobilizing on behalf of revivalism and a true return to endogenuous values. That is why religious fundamentalism or ethnic identity have the monopoly of protest in many developing countries while they tend to embody a strong legitimacy. Consequently, this rift between state power and legitimacy and this dramatic weakening of the consensus mobilization results in a split inside the society, promoting either a quasi-state (Jackson 1990), a ‘lame Leviathan’ (Callaghy 1987), or a plural society in which legitimacy is entirely encapsulated in the subnational communities (Young 1976).

Thus the sociology of legitimacy also encompasses a sociology of change and a sociology of crisis. Values do not perpetuate themselves without any change among the different social groups. For instance, the increasing influence of postindustrial or postmaterial values implies transformations in the ways of legitimating social institutions (Bell 1960, Inglehart 1977). It will also result in new kinds of social movement (Offe 1985). This intermingling of value systems and mobilizations tends to weaken the consensual formation of legitimacy in modern and postmodern societies. It implies, in them, a competition of visions which are promoting new divisions, instead of furthering a convergence toward a homogeneous modern society; thus legitimacy is nowadays jeopardized by increasing structural oppositions between different kinds of culture: materialism vs. postmaterialism, nationalism vs. transnationalism, liberalism vs. statecentrism, open society vs. closed society. These new changes are cutting across traditional ones and are directly staking out the consensual basis of modern societies in which different collective imaginations of what power should be and how it can be accepted are competing.

In the meantime, turbulence in world politics (Rosenau 1990) is destabilizing the main references of nation-state legitimacy: By promoting transnational relations, it challenges the territorial dimension of politics and the sovereignty claim of the nation (Biersteker and Weber 1996); by encouraging globalization, it promotes common goods and common global interests and redefines the postulates of democracy (Held 1995). In short, the new dimensions of international relations emancipate legitimacy issues from the nation-state structure and transfer them to broader Bibliography: humanity, the global world, world integration, human responsibility (Deng 1997). Therefore, this renewal of the sociology of legitimacy entails new reflections on ethics and international politics (Hassner 1998), on human rights (Mullerson 1997, Sellers 1996), on intervention (Mayall 1996), and on the transformation of international law and the creation of an international criminal court.

At the same time, the discovery and the rise of these new legitimacy issues are balanced by the development of a more positivistic vision of the public policies issues which are understood through the governance paradigm (Rosenau and Czempiel 1992). According to this, the functions of government are monopolized by the state and do not exclusively come within a vertical and hierarchical construction of authority. This last point tends to take political action away from the legitimacy debate: Political action should be appreciated more and more as a technical rather than as a just action. This trend can be analyzed as an ideological attempt at depoliticization and a striving to understate the importance of legitimacy issues in modern societies (Habermas 1975).

Actually, the sociology of legitimacy has also to take into account the intensity of the conscious and willful adherence of each individual to the political and social order. Legitimacy is not only the opposite of coercion, but has also to be distinguished from the passive agreement that political obedience is currently based on. As such, legitimacy is also one of the major components of civic culture.


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