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June 4, 2013 / C H Thompson

Weber’s definition of power

audio by Sam Cook, a former student.

Weber’s definition of power in society has remained the starting point for many sociologists. He defined power as being: “the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them”

From this Weber identified power as being either authoritative or coercive. Authoritative power is exercising power which is seen as legitimate. By being legitimate it is effective because those who are subject to the power do so with consent.
In contrast coercion is where someone exercises power through force – you’re forcing someone to do something against their wishes. While authoritative power isn’t coercive Weber argues it manifests itself in three forms:
  1. Charismatic authority – this type of authoritative power is based on ‘charisma’ – for example the personal qualities an individual has in order to influence a group or person, such as Nelson Mandela
  2. Traditional authority – this form of authoritative power comes from established customs passing power down on a hereditary basis  – for example British monarchy
  3. Rational-legal authority – this form of authoritative power comes from certain groups having certain positions of power over  subordinate groups – for example a policeman telling you to move

Other useful definitions of power:

Lukes and Foucault

Visit these pages to read about the application of power in politics and the media.


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