Authority: Concept, Nature, Process and Theories

Often influence and authority are wrongly construed as identical.Political leaders constantly endeavor to magnify their influence but they know well that it is highly flexible, fluid, dynamic, indefinite and uncertain, though at times more effective than power itself. It is personal, relational and relative, depending much upon the nature of influences themselves.

Therefore, they remain in search of stabilizing their influence by way of transforming it into authority or acquire a hold over institutions and structures of authority like state, law, presidency, judiciary and others. Apart from political actors, society and its various segments too desires stabilized, accepted, known, and described or formalized patterns of power and influence. Such patterns usually are conducive to individual liberty as well as efficiency and effectivity of political systems. However, it takes years and decades to carve out recognizable authority structures.

Concept, Nature and Process:

It must be remembered that neither force nor influence is authority. But all the three are manifestations or express forms of power. Power, in a sense, is the predisposition or prior capacity which makes application of force, influence and authority possible. Power is the ability to employ force or sanctions, but not its actual employment. Authority is ‘the institutionalised right to employ power’.

Authority has been conceptualised in various ways, such as,

1. A property of a person or office;

2. A relationship between two offices, one superior and the other subor­dinate;

3. A quality of a communication by virtue of which it is accepted; and

4. An interdependence between two segments of authority – one issuing orders, and, others receiving and complying with orders.

There is a lack of unanimity over the meaning and use of ‘authority’. Authority as a phenomenon is older than the ‘state’ itself. According to Bertrand de Jouvenel, it is an outcome of the natural ascendancy of some men over others. Michels regards it as ‘the capacity, innate or acquired, for exercising ascendancy over a group’. But Biersted disagrees with him. In his view, authority is not a capacity. It is a relationship of exercising ascen­dancy. It is a sanctioned or institutionalised power.

Authority is also regarded with deep suspicion, even open hostility. It can be a threat to an individual as it calls for unquestioning obedience. Therefore, some celebrate the decline of authority. It is also a threat to reason and critical understanding. It demands unconditional and unques­tioning compliance, and can generate a climate of deference, and abdication of responsibility, and an uncritical trust in the judgement of others.

In the field of management and public administration, authority has been regarded as ‘a right to command’. According to Simon, authority comes into existence only when the subordinates postpone or give up their own freedom to choose one of the various alternatives available to them, and take up the formal order or indication as the criterion of their choice. Beach puts it as the legitimate authority to direct or influence others’ behaviour. UNESCO report (1955) maintained it as that power which is recognised, respected, known and legitimate.

Tennanbaum finds it as interpersonal relationship between the superiors and subordinates. The subordinate grants ‘authority’ to the decision-maker and puts himself in the position of the latter’s subordinate. According to Simon, authority relations exist only when there occurs actual change in the behaviour of the subordinates.

The superior person takes decisions and communicates them to his subordinates with the expectation that their subordinates will accept them. Authority relations involve (i) expectation of obedience, and (ii) willingness to obey. This concept of authority goes against the traditional view, which regards it, a ‘top-down’ command; the boss has right to issue orders and the subordi­nates have their duty to act on them faithfully.

There are two theories regarding nature of authority:

(a) The Formal theory maintains it as right to issue commands. Authority flows from superior to subordinates, making up the organisational hierarchy,

(b) The Acceptance theory relates to behavioural and human relations schools. According to it, the former theory explains authority only from legal or formal point of view. In actual practice, successful authority depends on the acceptance of the orders by the subordinates.

In view of Chester I. Bernard, four conditions must be fulfilled:

(i) The subordinate must be able to under­stand the order or communication;

(ii) After getting it, he must have belief that it is not against the goals of the organisation;

(iii) He must consider his compliance in conformity with his own individual interests as a part of whole set-up; and,

(iv) He must be, mentally and physically capable of complying with the order.

According to the latter view, authority flows down-up. In the absence of acceptance, cooperation, willingness and ideological similarity, authority becomes nominal or formal. It is no more real authority. Under the accep­tance theory of authority, the subordinates tend to make room in their mind for receiving the orders or communication from their superiors, and comply with them without arguing and opposition.

The subordinates invariably accept orders falling within this area. Bernard calls it, ‘zone of indifference.’ For Tenanbaum, it is ‘sphere of acceptance’ whereas Simon has named it as ‘zone of acceptance’. This zone tends to increase or decrease in proportion to ideological relationship found between the superiors and the subordinates.

It would be observed, there is some exaggeration in the acceptance theory. There is a great need to bring about a synthesis between the two. The subordinates in an organisation do not have so much leeway to accept or reject orders coming from above. Authority, in order to be made effective, is organised in a de-concentrated manner, and various sanctions are attached at various points.

A chain of delimited quantum of responsibility and accountability interlinks these points in the hierarchy. Acceptance of authority by the subordinates cannot be the ultimate criterion of compliance. The general support and consent of the society propels up the authority of an organisation. Bachrach and Baratz opine that while authority is closely related to power, it is not one of its various forms. In fact, it is antithetical to it. They reject the traditional view that it is ‘formal power’, and also criticise that it is ‘institutionalised power’.

According to them, the concept of authority as a form of power is not operationally useful. If it is so, who possesses formal power, when the superior is actually helpless. It is also not useful for those who believe in limited or constitutional government. Its prescription by law does not bestow all legitimacy to it.

Friederich defines authority as a quality of communication that possesses ‘the potentiality of reasoned elaboration’. A possesses ‘authority’, because B regards A’s communication as authoritative. It means B recog­nises compliance or command as reasonable in terms of his own values. B defers to A, not because he fears severe deprivations, but because A’s decision can be rationalised. It is not essential that A’s decision is expressly supported by reasoning. It is sufficient that it has potentiality of such reasoning and is so recognised.

If B believes that A’s communication allows for reasoned elaboration when actually it does not, it is ‘false’ authority. When the source of compliance shifts from ‘genuine’ to ‘false’ authority and B realises that communication cannot be elaborated effectively, then, relationship initially involving authority has been transformed into one involving power. Compliance, thus, commanded is an exercise of power.

Authority operates in terms of similarity of values. It is both a source of and a restraint upon exercise of power. It both justifies as well as limits the use of power. But authority itself has to be grounded upon reasoning that is meaningful to a majority of the people.

Authority can be transformed into power and vice versa. In human and healthy societies, it can perform the valuable function of limiting the behaviour of persons, especially those in official positions, impelling them to confine to legitimate acts. But their actions must be potentially justified by ‘reasoned elaboration’ in terms of values of the same society. If the value pattern of that society itself is pathological, authority, then, is simply a tool in furthering that state of pathology.

Unfortunately, politics itself emerges, evolves, grows, and activates on the basis of those prevailing values. But it is only politics that can put a challenge to those outworn values, and inculcate newer ones. In their own limited way, scholars, philosophers, poets, etc., also do that, though they operate only at the mental level.

Authority, to sum up, is accepted not because it has been given by superior authorities, but on the basis of the consent of the subordinates, who often accept orders considering them right and proper. Authority of the superior person is accepted only when he issues orders in the aforesaid manner. Its basis is not sanctions, but rightness – rather similarity of the goals, values, and norms existing between them. It is direct and institution­alised right to influence the behaviour of the subordinates.

Authority is exercised almost mechanically within the network of clearly defined hierarchical roles: parent-child, teacher-pupil, employer- employee. Authority-relations are institutionalised. Duties and obligations are clearly demarcated. Behaviour under them is reasonably predictable. Relations continue over time and become part of normal life. Under a system of well established authority, men of great ability are less in demand. Under authority, even mediocre persons holding positions in a regular manner can run society or an organisation.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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