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Power and Autority: Comparison of Political Terms Essay

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2021


With reference to politice, the terms power and authority are usually used interchangeably. But, the fact remains that the terms are completely different and their meanings and context are different as well. As can be defined, “while “power” refers to the ability to achieve certain ends, “authority” refers to the legitimacy, justification and right to exercise that power. For example, whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, such as through lynching, only the courts have the authority to order capital punishment. The phenomena called authority is at once more ancient and more fundamental than the phenomena called state; the natural ascendancy of some men over others is the principle of all human organizations and all human advances” (Authority, 2007).

Power and Authority

Having power means being capable of getting things done by others. The basic charateristic of punish and reward. Power does not need authority to exist on its own. For example, an armed robber has power but he does not have authority. On the other hand, authority is the power to enforce law and take command, and to expect obedience from those without authority (What is the difference between power and authority, 2003).

Authority does not in any means require power to exist. It can exist both with and without it. For example, the teacher of a classroom has authority over the students that she teaches, but that does not give her any power over them. It is believed that three dimensions of power exist namely: decision making, non decision making and manipulating desires. When a laq is being passed in the parliament, and is under discussion between the MP’s along with any other form of political group, there has to be a particular body that has the power to execute power on others in order to reach a decision.

A number of differences exist between authority and power. First of al lthe most significant difference between the two is that of the nature of the terms and the differences that exist between the types of each concept. The first of these differences being the nature of the concepts of power and authority, the second, the sources from which each derives the power/authority, and finally, the many types of each concept. As is said, “Power is comprised of a relationship between two or more people. The political scientist Robert Dahl (1957:202), encapsulates this important relational focus in his definition of power: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something B would not otherwise do. A person or group cannot have power in isolation. Power has to be exercised or deployed, or has the potential of being deployed in relation to some other person or group. Power is similar to a currency exchange. It is meaningless unless linked or compared as an exchange commodity. Power is never linked to price, but always to value.’” (Potgieter, 2000).

Power means having the capability to transform the conduct of another person in a way which is perhaps, in opposition to their will, the term “power struggle” entails that power has been used by one side over another so as to resolve the outcome in their support. From this, we can deduce that power can entail the use of compulsion either by political, economic means or by vigor. The differentiation that exists between power and authority is there because of the fact of legitimacy. Authority by its very definition means ‘legitimate power’ and according to Jouvenel, those who are subject to authority accept it voluntarily without the use of intimidation or the danger of atrocious force. As is said, “The line between power and authority lies without the rules that secure it. For example a Governments authority is said to be legitimate because it is given the right to rule by the electorate, it then has the obligation to follow the explicit legal rules of Government and the conventions of the parliamentary process” (Distinguishing Between Power and Authority, 2007).

Hence, we can say that power can be defined in terms of having the capacity to manipulate the ending of events. Power can be used both correctly and incorrectly. It can be used and exerted incorrectly by the use of sheer force and coercion. On the other hand, authority is said to be subjective and is greatly dependant upon the perception of an individual when it comes to its rightness. Authority is taken into consideration it terms of being rightful power. “It might be helpful to think which individuals and institutions in your lives command rightful power. Perhaps your bishop; perhaps President Gordon B. Hinckley. In terms of our political lives, the president of the United States and his administration command authority, or rightful power, for at least a critical mass or majority of American citizens” (Bowen, 2000).

Authority as mentioned previously can be defined as the right to decree or grasp, the power to give instructions, which is believed that others are supposed to obey, the right to make and enforce law. In a free society, power is only used when it is needed so as to protect the people along with their property, and rights of the innocent, and it is also used as a last resort after a number of efforts have been made and fail after an appeal to the higher authority. Authority only subsists when subsidiaries recognize the idea that the supervisor has authority over them. Authority is not something that can be overpowered upon the lives of others, hence it does not entail power by any means. Authority can remain unrecognized by the subordinates, by means of taking up disobedience, denial, or work delays. Even though people usually accept authority without questioning or double-thinking about it, but abusing authority can lead to a number of mishaps and can make it turn completely ineffective. On the other hand, people who possess power over others often use it to influence others toward the accomplishment of command goals. Power is at times even used for personal gains and on the better side, it can be used for the betterment of the entire nation. Nevertheless, if people under you believe that one is misusing his or her power by using it for his or her own betterment, then one will soon experience a wearing down of that power. But, if you can manage others to believe that power is being used by you for the betterment of the society and the nation as a whole, your power to influence them will become stronger. Power can also be strengthened by acquainting with those who practice authority over the people (Authority and Power, 2007).

Authority by no means entails power. But on the other hand it is believed by some that this is a very common consequence. As is said, “Every state has a number of institutions which exercise authority based on longstanding practices. Every state sets up agencies which are competent in dealing with one particular matter. All this is set up within its charter. The use of authority by contemporary social scientists is not dispute free. According to La swell and Kaplan, authority is formal power. But Friedrich rejected their definition and defined authority as the quality of a communication which is capable of reasoned elaboration. La swell and Kaplan believed that power is a form of influence whereas Friedrich maintained that influence is a kind of power, indirect and unstructured. According to him, it seems of unlimited value to pursue a definition of authority as a special case of power or influence. Social Scientists are by no means agreed on how the concept should be used. According to Michaels, in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, authority is the capacity, innate or acquired for exercising ascendancy over a group. But Kiersten’s argues that authority is not a capacity, it is a relationship. It is sanctioned power, institutionalized power” (Authority, 2007).

Authority does not in any way require exercising brutal force or coercion over others, while power can be used in rather negative ways. Power does not come with authority as has been proved above. It is a mere misconception. Having power means having possession of practicing control over others. Weber has defined power as having the capability to make someone act in a way which is not acceptable by the person acting upon it. When power is practiced in politics, one has to act in ways which he or she would not have done so if he or she had been free. Considering in terms of politics, authority is very different from political power. Authority in politics requires legitimacy as well as recognition. It can be said that only those people or state can practice authority who have been given a professed right to do so. Legitimacy is a characteristic of government achieved by means of the attainment and appliance of power in reference to documented or accepted standards or principles. Three types of authority are present in the current day politics, known as traditional authority, charismatic authority and legal-rational authority. Traditional authority is that which is followed by people due to the fact that it continues and supports doing what has always been done previously. It is followed because it supports doing things the way they have always been done. Charismatic authority on the other hand is that which is attained by using ones own personal charms or strengths. This type of authority is usually very short-lived. Legal-rational authority receive their ability to compel behavior by virtue of the office that they hold. It is the authority that demands loyalty and obedience to the office and not the office holder.

Hence, power just can not in any way be linked with authority. Power with reference to politics is a term that can be explained as having the ability to make someone act against their own will and make them do what you wish them to do. There are three types of power known as: legitimate power, referent power and expert power. They can be defined as “Legitimate power, the power of the policeman or the referee, is the power given to an individual by a recognized authority to enforce standards of behavior. Referent power is bestowed upon individuals by virtue of accomplishment or attitude. Expert power springs from education or experience. Following the lead of an experienced coach is often rewarded with success” (Politics, 2007).


In the light of the above discussion we can hereby culminate that even though power and authority are terms that are often used interchangeably, their meanings and context are completely different. Authority in politics does not entail power; hence saying that authority and power are together is just a mere misconception.


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  6. Potgieter, J. (2000). Negotiator Power Authority. The Negotiation Academy. 2000. p.1.
  7. What is the difference between power and authority. (2003). Serebra. 2003. p.1.
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