Types of legitimacy: definitions, principles, and examples of the legitimacy of authority (political, legal, social...)

Types of legitimacy: definitions, principles, and examples of the legitimacy of authority (political, legal, social…)

Generally, when people question what legitimacy is, they think that it is a synonym for the legality, but in reality, it is a justification for manufacturing figures of power that are distributed in the types of legitimacy.

The legitimacy of authority is a term used for the explanation of obedience, suggesting that you are more likely to obey other people if you are perceived to have sufficient authority to prevail. However, there are types of legitimacy that change how concepts are applied, which is why in this post we will define what legitimacy is in its different branches with examples that contribute to the meaning of legitimation.

What is legitimacy?

A main concept of legitimacy proposes that it is a general perception or assumption that the actions of an entity or person are “desirable, adequate or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definitions”. The definition of legitimacy goes hand in hand with the concept of authority, which is often identified as a legitimate power and contrasted with pure power.

Legitimate authority is based on voluntary compliance and the belief in the authority’s right to demand compliance. So, the principle of legitimacy seeks to explain how organizations behave, and how they develop and implement social information to survive the expectations of society and its concept of legitimacy.

On the other hand, legitimacy is often confused with legality, so it is necessary to establish the difference between legality and legitimacy. In the first place, legality refers to something that is governed and adjusted to the legal frameworks established by law; while legitimacy implies following guidelines that are considered “the right path”, the idea of ​​justice that adheres to morality and ethics.

In summary, legitimacy is a synonym for justice, inheritance, and the idea that it is deserved and, on the other hand, legality, in a symbol of what is considered an “official seal”; that is the difference between legitimacy and legality. Now, to delve a little deeper into the issue of legitimate authority, we will apply the definition of legitimacy in its different branches.

social legitimacy

Meaning of social legitimacy can be defined as political support based on the authority-power relationship of public officials, political organizations,s and public policy. Another idea about what legitimacy means is that it is a “legitimate exercise of authority, force and power” that comes from a person, a group of people, or an institution or body that “orders and demands obedience”.

Legitimacy is defined almost identically in sociology and political science. That said, when legitimate is defined, it refers to the belief that a ruler, institution, or person who is considered a leader in society has the right and capacity to govern.


It is the perception that an individual has about the legitimacy of a hierarchy that is divided between the rule, the subject, and the obligations of the subordinate towards the figure of authority. The legitimacy of authority, when shared by many individuals, leads to distinctive collective effects in society and could generate a more just and consensual social order.

political legitimacy

Political legitimacy can be defined as “the legal power of a ruler, government, state” or a figure of power that is recognized as “legal and accepted” without the need to resort to violence. For example, in a democracy, voters of a losing political party may regret losing an election, but they do not disobey the new government.

Likewise, legality should not be confused with democracy, since in an absolute monarchy, for example, the people consider a monarch who has not been elected by the majority to be fully legitimate. That said, the legitimacy of a political regime can be approached from two angles: the legitimacy of the subordinate and the legitimacy of the command.

In short, political legitimacy can be described as “the recognition and acceptance by the population of the validity of the norms” that constitute the political system of their nation, as well as the decisions of their rulers. Consequently, from the legitimacy of authority and politics, political systems can be expected to be stable, resistant, and legitimate so that they can withstand periods of crisis.

It is also expected that the rulers have the legitimacy of power, and the authorities apply political formulas effectively to release resources and make decisions without the need to obtain the approval of the governed people; In these last points lies the importance of political legitimacy in politics and political analysis.

legitimacy in law

The legal definition of legitimation has different conceptions in the legal framework. For example, when looking for the meaning of legitimate as an adjective, it means “legal or correct”, but it also refers to a person “of legal descent”, who was born in wedlock; otherwise it would enter the meaning of illegitimate.

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When we talk about what legitimate means as a verb, it means “to legalize or legitimize something”, it is to do what is correct. An example of a legitimate right is when a child born to single parents is legally recognized and would have the same rights as one born to married parents.

The concept of what it means to legitimize comes from ancient times, based on traditional Western common law, which has to do with the legitimate status of children at their birth. Children born out of wedlock are called “bastards” or “children of love”; It is a term that is related to inheritance and roots, but has now fallen into disuse.

Likewise, what is legitimate in law is used in criminal law (and other areas of law) to distinguish that an action can be legitimate, but also illegal. In short, the laws must be followed because they are “the right thing” and they are the definition of legitimate, although this is not always the case.

Legitimacy in philosophy

In philosophy, legitimacy refers to “the legitimacy of a power holder or system of government.” The term was born out of disputes over property and succession; and as explained above, it was also used to differentiate children who were born out of legal marriage, so they were considered illegitimate.

These examples of legality and legitimacy gave rise to the term used for the political discourse on the legitimacy of the succession to the French throne that was restored after the Napoleonic period.


Likewise, it gave rise to the questioning -which comes from ancient Greece- about what makes the government be considered legitimate; In this sense, the definition of legitimation has the years of existence of political philosophy. And the importance of its knowledge and application lies in the moral foundations and in the obedience of the people who follow the subjects who are considered a figure of power and who, in turn, exercise it legitimately.

Max Weber’s theory

Max Weber (1864-1920) was the German sociologist, political scientist, and jurist who first laid the foundations for the concept of “legitimacy”, which was adopted as a universal concept. According to Weber, legitimacy is based on “belief” and obtains the obedience of the people. Max Weber explained in his studies that power is effective only if it is legitimate. Undoubtedly, power has the right to use coercion, but that is not its main element.

Power must be based on legitimacy, otherwise, it would cause problems and could be ineffective. On the other hand, legitimacy in Weber argues that three types of legitimacy exist in a society.

However, these three forms of authority that are explored below do not constitute the totality of the types of domination that exist, although they do show how some individuals can exercise power over others for the simple fact of being seen as a figure of leadership.

Furthermore, Weber’s theory of legitimacy and democracies explains that authority extends and maintains power, and shows that a study of its origins can be an illustration of how people come to accept this dominance as something that happens naturally. regular and structured way. On the other hand, Weber’s studies make it clear that these are different types of ideals, so there is the possibility that any actual use of power has aspects of more than one type of authority, and also other manifestations of power, such as the use of force or coercion.

traditional legitimacy

This legitimacy can be defined as an action that is performed mechanically by repeating a habit. Thus, for Weber, it stands at the frontiers of what might be called meaningful action and at the limits of what constitutes the subject of sociology; because it is often nothing more than a fuzzy response to habitual stimuli, it slips into an entrenched situation.

One of the examples of traditional legitimacy is the ancient hereditary monarchs, who based their power on the length of their offspring, thus being power by tradition. In this case, power prevailed, since it was not chosen by a group of obedient people.

In modernity, patrimonialism is a form of traditional legitimacy and consists of traditional domination that has been granted by an administration and an army, which serve as “purely personal instruments of the master”, a concept that was addressed by Melvin A Eisenberg, in 1998.

This form of authority works if all officials are “personal favorites appointed by the ruler”, however, those individuals do not have rights and their privileges can vary according to what the leader wants. Something that is seen in nations with mostly populist and social-communist governments.

charismatic legitimacy

Charismatic legitimacy (or source of exceptional personal qualities) comes from perception. The governed are based on the personality traits that a leader has and these are perceived by the environment that surrounds him. One of the characteristics that describe charismatic legitimacy, according to Max Weber’s studies, is that it is a person who is self-confident, projects himself as someone with good values ​​and irreproachable morals, and is capable of influencing others to have the certainty of their beliefs.

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Having said this, a leader can be considered “charismatic” if he or she is a person with a high capacity to communicate his vision, the government plan, and how he will do it, in clear terms so that people can clearly understand the message. That is, legitimacy based on exceptional personal qualities may be based on “devotion to the specific and exceptional saintliness or exemplary character of an individual person.”

Those who are followers of the power of charismatic authority do so because they feel attraction or admiration for the leader or outstanding figure. To be elected, the charismatic leader must be extraordinary and inspiring, with a good sense of humor, and must generate a sense of change, or demonstrate that he has all the solutions to crises.

rational legitimacy

Rational legitimacy or rational-legal authority, according to Weber’s studies, is “power legitimated by laws, written rules and regulations.” In this type of legality, the authority or figure of power, “is conferred to a particular logic, system or ideology and not necessarily to the person who implements the details of that doctrine.” In this case, a country that is governed by each article of the constitution uses rational legitimacy.

On the other hand, rational-legal authority is also executed in workplaces that have an established labor manual, and in this way, it functions as an authority different from that of the head of the company. In short, what is written in a manual or a constitution, the laws that have been approved by the citizens are the highest authority, far above the figure of authority.

Certainly, the ideal of rational-legal authority is rarely taken into account 100% in the real world, since few governments or leaders can be classified in this type of legitimacy; but there is the possibility that the figure of authority or government begins its path by exemplifying a type of authority such as rational authority and, gradually, changes towards one of the different types of legitimacy.

The theory and arguments of Norberto Bobbio

After having defined what Weber’s legitimacy is, it is time to talk about the theory of Norberto Bobbio, the Italian political scientist and philosopher (1909-2004) who became a reference on the subject of politics, democracy, and legitimacy. On this last factor of his studies, Bobbio maintains that the problem of legitimacy is “a matter of justification of power” because it lies in the “right to command”.

Likewise, he argued that the principles of legitimacy can simply be reduced to two sides of the coin: leaders are given power by the will of God or by the will of the citizens of a nation.

Bobbio also stated that the principles of legitimacy play an important role in the process because they have the function of transforming the force-right relationship. On this, the Italian philosopher formulated that legitimacy consists in the analysis of the many forms of relationship between law and power.

Legitimacy and legality according to Bobbio

Norberto Bobbio’s political analysis also emphasized the difference between legitimacy and legality to end, once and for all, the confusion that had existed around these terms. According to Bobbi:

«Legitimacy refers to the title of power, legality to the exercise. When power is required to be legitimate, it is required that whoever holds it has the right to have it (not be a usurper). When reference is made to the legality of power, the holder is asked to exercise it in accordance with established rules (not to be a tyrant)».

After establishing this idea, the illustrious Italian maintained that if viewed from the point of view of sovereignty, legitimacy “is what establishes his right, legality is what establishes his duty”, while from the point of view of citizenship, legitimacy is “the basis of their duty to obey”; while legality, for its part, is “the guarantee of their right not to be oppressed.”

The exercise of power and legitimacy

In the analysis of politics and doctrines carried out by Norberto Bobbio, he made clear his thinking about power and its exercise based on legitimacy, and stated that “power is more legitimate the more it is exercised.”

It argued that if it is exercised from the lower levels to the highest level, “in accordance with pre-established and presupposed norms.” He also said that the value attributed to the rule of law tends to absorb other factors with legitimacy, legality, and effectiveness, they lose their own identity and distance them from the axiological foundation of their genesis and the exercise of political power.

Finally, Bobbio established in his ideas about politics and the exercise of power that “neither effectiveness nor legality” diminishes the process of legitimizing power, since its duration is subject to the validity of values ​​(equality, justice, moral value) and the established norms (respect for the constitution) for the functioning of a governed society.

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Termination of power justified

Previously, we talked about how governments should function to enjoy legitimacy and in his studies, Bobbio addresses the idea when he explains that effectiveness is not as easy to observe, as it happens with “natural events, but rather that” they are the consequence of a series of motivated behaviors, “to whose motivation it is necessary to refer to judge at a given historical moment the degree of legitimacy of a power”.

This degree of legitimacy of power serves as an indicator to determine, in a justified way, the cessation of power, in case the nation is under a government that is based on tyranny or wants to impose itself. Of course, the duty of obedience of the citizen also ceases.

Examples of Weber’s types of legitimacy

In the final section of this entry, after having defined what legitimacy is and what the types of legitimacy are, it is time to exemplify those different forms of authority that were established by Weber’s research.

Queen Elizabeth – Traditional Legitimacy

Following the ideas of Max Weber, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain is a clear example of traditional legitimacy, since she occupies a position that she inherited according to the traditional rules of succession of the English monarchy.

Types of legitimacy: definitions, principles, and examples of the legitimacy of authority (political, legal, social...)
Queen Elizabeth is a perfect example of traditional legitimacy (Wiki images, Pixabay).

In this case, the governed people adhere to said tradition and to the authority in charge of governing, because they are laws that are rooted in the past and they do not see the possibility of perpetuating this form of government.

As explained above, in the context of traditional legitimacy the ruler is elected by popular vote but continues with a political lineage. The legitimacy of this type of authority has been accepted for many centuries.

Leaders – Charismatic Legitimacy

Charismatic legitimacy, several leaders appear as an example of this type of authority. According to Max Weber, those who are considered leaders because of their charisma tend to last a short time in power, but he exposes the possibility that the rulers are as tyrannical as they are democratic or heroic.

Types of legitimacy: definitions, principles, and examples of the legitimacy of authority (political, legal, social...)
The former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) was considered one of the most charismatic presidents in Latin America ( Embassy of Venezuela, MinskCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons / Crop, improved tone and resolution of the original).

On the male side, the names of leaders who were chosen for their charisma were Jesus Christ, Napoleon, Malcolm X, Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez, and Winston Churchill, while women considered charismatic figures of power were: Joan of Arc, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Mother Teresa.

As previously stated, the rulers who appear in this type of authority are characters who stand out for the way they allow themselves to be seen, and society can perceive them as saviors, regardless of the political ideology they represent or how they exercise the power.

Mohandas Gandhi – Rational Legitimacy

Eschewing force and violence, positivism, and political activism, the Indian leader, Mohandas Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) led powerful movements seeking change to bring about change and better functioning of the governed society.

Types of legitimacy: definitions, principles, and examples of the legitimacy of authority (political, legal, social...)
Mahatma Gandhi was a peaceful leader who moved the masses (Wikilmages, Pixabay).

With peaceful but functional strategies, Gandhi managed to move the masses, just as Martin Luther King Jr. (1929) did the same by organizing marches, boycotts, and rallies. In the case of rational legitimacy, the rulers remain as a distant figure before the written laws, which must be respected and taken into account, since they are above any figure of power.

By way of summary, and after having analyzed what legitimacy is and the types of legitimacy, it can be said that the political analyzes of the aforementioned authors (Weber and Bobbio) sought to give a broader vision of how people follow the commandments of a person seen as a figure of power to be governed and governed by specific laws.



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