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Power, Authority and Legitimacy


HOBBES defined power as "the present means to obtain some future good".

He saw power as the "power to" - a capacity to get what is in one's interest.

E.g. to fulfil our creative capacities by learning to play the guitar or compose poetry.

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Power, Authority and Legitimacy (2)


Dahl suggested power should rather be understood as "power over" - power is when you can get someone to do something they would not otherwise do.

E.g. a policeman has the power to stop, search and arrest those suspected of breaking the law.

In this sense political power is the ability to command others through enforcing laws.

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1 dimensional power = being able to get others to act as they would not otherwise do, where both parties acknowledge their different interests.

2 dimensional power = subtle manipulation of the choices available.

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POWER = the ability to rule, to force others to do as you wish.


LEGITIMACY = the right to rule, where power is justified in some moral or political way.

(legitimate power)

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Traditional authority = based on custom or tradition. E.g. the patriarchal family model with a father figure commanding authority over the rest of the family. They willingly obey him without any need for him to exert physical force as this is traditional in the way families are run.


Charimatic authority = rests on particular qualities the individual may posess setting them apart from other individuals as a leader.

E.g. Jesus, as someone who can communicate with, or somehow embody, God.

E.g. 2 Martin Luther King Jr - his courage and dedication to the cause of racial equality & electrifying public speeches won him wide support.

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Why might it be difficult to distinguish between power and authority?

If we accept that authority is legitimate because it has popular approval we could question just what had been popularly approved.

E.g. a government that is elected but then wages an unjust war - this was not what the people had voted for so may not be legitimate, therefore it is questionable whther ythis action is done purely because the govt. has power NOT authority.

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