Traditional authority is a type of authority that relies on cultural norms and practices for its legitimacy. Examples of traditional authority include monarchies, the patriarchy, religion, and caste systems.
In sociology, there are three types of authority that were conceptualized by Max Weber. These are charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. Each type is based on different forms of legitimacy. Learn about charismatic authority here and rational-legal authority here.
Definition of Traditional Authority
Weber described traditional authority as a type of authority based on traditions, customs, and practices.
He explained it as:
“resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them … obedience is owed to the person of the chief who occupies the traditionally sanctioned position of authority and who is (within its sphere) bound by tradition.” (Weber, 1978)
In the traditional authority model, power and legitimacy are passed down hereditarily without disrupting the status quo.
The ability to rule stays limited to a particular group or class. The followers obey the leaders as they carry the weight of tradition.
Weber distinguishes this from charismatic authority wherein the leader’s charismatic qualities win over the trust of followers who believe in the leader’s charismatic personality, rather than their traditional right to authority.
Examples of Traditional Authority
Monarchies were the default form of human political and social organization in most parts of the world up until the 19th century.
In a monarchy, the monarch is the head of the state and in most cases this position is hereditary. In the middle ages, most monarchs claimed a divine right to rule, basing their authority on a divine command from God.
Monarchies continue to exist in various parts of the world, albeit with greatly reduced powers. Queen Elizabeth II is an example of a contemporary titular monarch, enjoying a largely ceremonial role in all of her fifteen Commonwealth realms. The commonwealth nations are generally ruled these days by a constitutional monarchy model.
Saudi Arabia, the State of Qatar, Sultanate of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bhutan are some examples of strong contemporary monarchies where the king has relatively greater control over the state machinery.
Patriarchy is a system in which a social unit is governed by the eldest male or the male head of the unit.
At its most fundamental level, patriarchy is associated with the familiar unit.
Weber too had based the simplest conception of his traditional authority on the ancient family and household type. The traditional form of patriarchal dominance was one where the household had a male master, who in turn handed over his inheritance to his male heir.
There was no (formal) rationality in such a system other than the belief that a male heir is biologically ordained to protect and lead the family.
This system of patriarchy eventually expanded outwards from the familial unit to become a hegemonic power across all of society, and eventually percolated down to the smallest units of human practice.
For instance, we can see the centrality of the masculine in the use of the male pronoun “his/him/he” to refer even to a gender-neutral situation. This has become such an ingrained habit that it appears almost naturally to most people.
Similarly, the conception of God as male, referring to God with male pronouns is also an almost universal subconscious social trait.
Patrimonialism is a form of government in which the distinction between the public and the private domains is blurred, with all public property being treated as an extension of the ruler’s household.
Stalinist Russia is commonly cited as an example of patrimonialism. Similarly, we see this in Cuban communism where people were not allowed to own property for a long time and, to this day, in North Korea.
Patrimonialism is an extension of the patriarchal system, wherein household administration is expanded to form government systems. The leader enjoys absolute power and the officials treat their service as personal loyalty to the leader, being appointed not so much for their capabilities, but on the leader’s whims.
Feudalism was a system of social and political organization prevalent in Europe from the 8th to the 15th centuries. Under feudalism, a form of traditional economy existed wherein land grants were given to individuals in return for military service or labor.
In certain areas of Europe, the individual was also obligated to pay a fixed share of the revenue from the land in addition to military service and/or labor when called upon.
Feudalism and patrimonialism are similar in the sense that both systems have a powerful ruler who grants rights and in return gets military and administrative services. In feudalism, however, the patrimonial relationship is replaced with a contract of allegiance based on knightly militarism.
5. Hereditary Dictatorship
A hereditary dictatorship is a system of government where the position of the dictator is passed down within a family, usually from father to son.
While a monarchy, where the King or Queen is succeeded by their child, may be an example, the term hereditary dictatorship is usually reserved for dictatorships where the leader does not claim nobility.
The quintessential example is North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. The Kim Dynasty has been in power since 1948, when the country was founded, and shows no signs of abating.
The current leader, Kim Jong-un, is the third generation of the dynasty to rule.
Hereditary dictatorship is a combination of the patrimonial and the feudal system, where the position of ruler is passed down within a family, and the ruler has absolute power.
Few other institutions command a degree of authority so great over the lives of individuals as religion does.
For the vast majority of people in the world, religion dictates what they eat, how they dress, where they live, who they marry, and more, down to the very minutiae of how every hour in a day is to be spent.
Since most major religions in the world are at least a millennium old, this authority of religion has continued to be passed down the ages, solely on the strength of tradition.
Even though neither science nor philosophy have been able to decisively prove or disprove the existence of God, religion continues to play a dominating role in human affairs, despite not fitting into Weber’s classic definition of rationality.
7. Racial Superiority
For much of human history, race was used as a basis for establishing the dominance of one group over another.
This phenomenon peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries as the establishment of European control over much of the world fueled teleological theories of European superiority to explain European dominance.
Colonialism in fact rested upon a foundation of racial superiority of the Caucasian race, or what Rudyard Kipling described as the “white man’s burden”.
This traditional authority concept is still visible in today’s world, where there remains a glass ceiling for women as CEOs or in politics.
8. Caste Systems
A caste is a system of social organization practiced among Hindus, Sikhs, and other religious denominations in India in which society is stratified into a number of hereditary exogamous groups.
Members of lower castes often face discrimination from those of the higher castes. Often, people are expected to marry within their castes, can only get jobs within their castes, and are restricted from leadership positions due to their caste status.
Even though caste-based discrimination is expressly prohibited by the constitution of India, the practice still persists in various forms. The system can be traced back to the origins of Hindu society c. 2000 BC, and continues to exist today on the basis of tradition (Dumont, 1966).
9. Tribal Organization
Tribalism is a form of social organization in which society is divided into groups members of which share a common feature, usually descent from a common ancestor.
Tribes continue to be the major form of social organization in several parts of the world, for instance in Nigeria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India, where tribal chiefs, as hereditary leaders of their communities, act as intermediaries between the members of the tribe, and the bureaucratic state.
Tribes usually have their own customs and laws, whose authority is based on tradition and established practice. For example, Aboriginal Australians have customary law that predates colonial laws.
10. The Pope
The Catholic church is perhaps the quintessential example of an institution based on age-old traditions.
For example, the Pope is considered the successor of Saint Peter, the first Pope, and is thus the supreme head of the Catholic church.
New Popes are selected by the College of Cardinals, in a process that is based on custom and tradition rather than rationality.
The authority of the Pope rests on his position as the chief interpreter of doctrine, a role that he has held for centuries. This traditional authority is further buttressed by his political power as a sovereign ruler of Vatican City.
Manorialism is a system of medieval land ownership wherein a noble or wealthy person would own a large estate. The owner of the estate would invite people to build villages and tend to the land on the manor in exchange for taxes and fees.
Under manorialism, the owner of the manor is the traditional authority. He would pass down his authority to his son, and so forth. The villages under the care of the owner of the manor would follow this system for generations based on the traditions of the manor.
Authority did not exist because of the charisma of the owner of the manor; nor was it based on the rule of law or authority of an elected government office.
Read Also: Manorialism vs Feudalism
Comparison of Weber’s Types of Authority
Max Weber discussed the tripartite classification of authority in his seminal work Economy and Society (1922) and his essay Politics as Vocation (1919).
According to Weber, authority is ‘legitimate domination’ and has three ideal types:
Each type of authority represents a progressive advancement over the previous type as authority becomes more and more institutionalized. Charismatic authority is reliant on just one leader; traditional authority is reliant on norms and traditions; and rational-legal authority is reliant on legal institutions.
In traditional authority, long-established cultural norms and practices are of the highest importance. As opposed to this, authority in rational-legal type is tied to legally enacted principles to make it legitimate.
The third kind is charismatic authority, where neither laws nor customs legitimize domination, but rather authority is tied to the leader’s charismatic traits that legitimize domination over others.
Traditional Authority and the Path toward Capitalism
Weber is most commonly associated with the theory of rationality and bureaucratic leadership, two terms he outlined as the defining characteristics of a scientific, secular, modern world.
For Weber, rationality and the scientific temperament were necessary prerequisites to the rise of capitalism. Traditional authority didn’t fit this model so it’s not an ideal mode of authority for capitalism.
Instead, traditional authority was an intermediate stage between the more primeval charismatic authority, and the more stable rational-legal authority (Ritzer, 2011).
For Weber, traditional authority was defined more by an absence of the rational and the scientific, than in its own terms (Ritzer, 2011).
Traditional authority, he concluded, lacks a hierarchy, as there is no rational ordering of ranks or relations and solely depends on cultural practices.
As a result, it does not allow for ideal grounds for the rise of modern capitalism.
Traditional authority is most commonly associated with forms of governance and authority exercised in pre-modern society, although it continues to permeate most human institutions in one form or the other. It is a type of authority whose legitimacy rests upon traditions rather than rational-legal structures (e.g. democracies) or charisma (e.g. a charismatic leader).
Dumont, L. (1966) Homo Hierarchicus: The caste system and its implications. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological theory. London: McGraw Hill.
Weber, M., & Gerth, H. H. (1957). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Routledge.
Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.