Power, Politics, and Government

Power and Authority


Power is the ability of individuals or groups to impose their goals, needs, values, and interests on others.

In many ways, a society is shaped by how power is distributed among and used by different social groups. German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) developed definitions of the connected concepts of power and authority. Weber defined power as the ability of individuals or groups to achieve their goals, despite resistance from others. Power is thus the ability of people and groups, including nations, to make their own interests or concerns count above the competing interests of others. It is a major social dynamic that appears in all human societies. People who hold power in a society are more able to make their interests, needs, and values dominant within society. Powerful nations are more able to make their interests count on the world stage. Relationships of power are complex and can shift based on numerous factors. For instance, in the United States, workers in some industries, such as the auto industry, gained power in the early 20th century through labor unions. These labor unions used strategies such as organized strikes to achieve goals related to pay and working conditions, despite resistance from employers. Greater power at their places of employment provided these workers some economic, social, and political power as well. However, the power structure of the auto industry and the power structure of the country at large are both shaped by many forces. The auto industry was also able to exercise power, pushing its goals despite the resistance of workers. By the late 20th century, labor unions in the United States had lost power, although many of the achievements of the labor movement, such as rules relating to the length of the workday, had become norms.

Weber stressed that power involves achieving desired results despite resistance from others. In some cases, power is achieved through violent means. For instance, a nation can use military violence to gain power over another nation. Armed revolutionaries can use violence to take power from a leader or government. However, power does not necessarily include violence or the use of force. While power is strongly associated with governments and government institutions, power is a factor in all human interactions. Parents have power over their children. Nations have power over their citizens. Wealthier nations have power over poorer and weaker nations. Even when people or groups are considered equals, power dynamics are at play. For example, in workplace relationships power exists between managers and lower-level workers. These differences are based on a wide range of factors, including competence and seniority as well as facets of identity including age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and ability or disability. Institutions and groups that hold power affect people's wealth, opportunities, and access to resources. The distribution of power is a key part of the structure of any society. Social expectations about what it means to hold power and beliefs about the responsible exercise of power help to create and maintain social structure. Within a society, individuals and social groups have different interests—cultural, social, and economic needs, goals, and desires. People and groups work to gain and exercise power in order to advance those interests and to meet needs. Consider the needs and interests of transgender individuals. Prior to the 21st century, transgender people generally were expected to remain invisible in U.S. society. Starting in the late 20th century, individuals and groups began to push for recognition, acceptance, and an end to discrimination. Other groups and individuals resisted this attempt to gain rights for transgender people. In particular, many Christian groups objected to the acceptance of transgender people in society. In a 2017 survey of U.S. adults, 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants said that Americans had gone too far in accepting transgender people. Resistance to the attempts to gain rights for the transgender community include formal and informal measures. For example, employers have brought court cases arguing for the right to fire transgender employees. Informal means include complaints from some parents about which bathrooms transgender children use at school. While violence occurs against transgender people, much of the struggle for power occurs through legislation and court cases, as well as in the surrounding culture.


Authority is a type of power granted by society and exercised over people; members of society recognize and accept authority as legitimate.

Weber also developed a specific definition of authority, a concept he distinguished from power. Weber defined authority as a type of power exercised over people and accepted as legitimate by members of society. Authority is granted to individuals and institutions when a society views the power they hold as justified and valid. Weber identified three types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. Traditional authority, such as monarchies, is accepted as legitimate based on the history and traditions of a society. Charismatic authority is based on the characteristics of an individual leader. Rational-legal authority is based on a system of accepted rules and institutions.

Sociologists consider how authority can have different sources in different places and times. In the United States, the authority of the government, the ruling body of society, rests on the consent of the governed—the idea that those who put themselves under the authority of the government do so willingly, in return for benefits such as protection and stability. This principle is at the heart of democratic forms of government. People accept governmental authority but also have the right to make changes to the system, including changing how much and what types of authority the government has. People choose and can change who holds authority, through political actions such as voting. In feudal monarchies, authority came from a divine right of kings—the idea that God chose the monarch and approved their use of power. Different societies have different understandings of what constitutes legitimate power.

In any society, authority is never absolute or unchangeable. Social change often occurs in part because individuals or groups challenge the systems of authority in their society. Other factors, such as economic changes, also play a key role in social change. However, widespread dissatisfaction with authority can prompt calls for social change. Challenges to social and political authority can occur when people believe that the authority they live under has become illegitimate or is abusing its position of power. Such dissatisfaction played an important part in the American Revolution, when many colonists believed the British Crown was abusing its authority over them. The U.S. civil rights movement fought against segregation and Jim Crow laws (racially based laws), arguing that the government entities that enacted these policies were using their power to enforce an unjust and violent system of racial oppression. Both of these movements forced political and social reform and a change in the distribution of authority in American society. Social change is complex but often involves changing attitudes toward the people or institutions in authority.

Sociologists analyze where authority comes from, how it is constructed, and how people react to it. Governments and police forces wield authority. So do paramedics who attend to victims of an accident, and teachers who instruct students in a classroom. Societies generally grant parents authority over children. Authority figures are often distinguished by uniforms, special symbols, and special powers. For example, police officers wear a uniform to inform other people of their special status as an approved agent of authority. Social rules govern how people interact with authority figures. These rules are shaped by history, culture, and social structure. The social rules about how students interact with teachers, for instance, vary across the world. In the United States, students might expect more warmth from teachers than in societies such as France, where students are expected to maintain a respectful social distance from their teachers. Both French and American teachers are generally regarded as authority figures, but each society has a particular understanding of what that authority means.

Weber's Three Forms of Authority

German sociologist Max Weber defined three major types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. He argued that societies accept these types of authority because they are seen as legitimate.