Traditional authority

Traditional authority

Traditional authority (also known as traditional domination) is a form of leadership in which the authority of an organization or a ruling regime is largely tied to tradition or custom. The main reason for the given state of affairs is that it 'has always been that way'.

Traditional authority in Sociology

In sociology, the concept of traditional authority (domination) comes from Max Weber's tripartite classification of authority, the other two forms being charismatic authority and rational-legal authority. All of those three domination types represent an example of his ideal type concept. Weber noted that in history those ideal types of domination are always found in combinations.

In traditional authority, the legitimacy of the authority comes from tradition; in charismatic authority from the personality and leadership qualities of the individual; and in rational-legal authority from powers that are bureaucratically and legally attached to certain positions.

Patriarchs and their households

Weber derives the traditional domination from patriarchs and their households - in other words, from the ancient tradition of family (the authority of a master over his household). The master is designated in accordance with the rules of inheritance. He has no administrative staff nor any machinery to enforce his will by force alone; he depends on the willingness of the group members to respect his authority. Those members stand in personal relations to him. They obey him based on the belief that this is their duty sanctioned by immemorial tradition and on feeling of filial piety for the person of the master.


Patrimonal government can be described as an extension of the ruler's household where all of the governmental offices originate from the household administration of the ruler, and all the population is - in theory - personal dependents of the master. Their relations still are depended on the basis of paternal authority and filial dependence.

However, with the growth of the territory certain patriarchs controlled, the need for organised and more independent administrative staff and military force became greater as well. With forced increased decentralisation some individuals gain more rights (for example, the right to inheritance and marriage without the consent of the rulers, to be judged by independent courts instead of officials of the royal household, etc.).

Military force is one of the important instruments of a patrimonial rule. Weber distinguished five types of military organisations. In all of those cases the forces remain the personal instruments of the ruler (he is responsible for their equipment, maintenance and revenue).

Another instrument of a patrimonial rule is the patrimonial administration. The officials are usually the favourites of the ruler, appointed by him. The ruler treats all political administration as his personal affair, empowers them from case to case, assigns specific tasks, etc. It is very rare to discover any clear and constant system of hierarchy, power and responsibility in the deluge of official titles of most patrimonial administrations.

The officials treat their administrative work as a personal service based on their duty of obedience and respect to the master. Their rights are privileges granted and withdrawn by the ruler. They can treat subject population just as the ruler treats them, as long as they maintain the tradition and interests of the ruler.

One of the best examples of almost pure type of patrimonalism is Ancient Egypt, where the population was entirely dependent upon the coordinated control of the waterways (Nile River). This facilitated the creation of centralised government, and the lengthy period of time the men were free from work on the fields meant that population could and was extensively employed in forced-labor projects. When the royal household required it, any rights of any individual were waived and he was forced to perform the public duties. Thus the whole country was one vast patriarchal household of the pharaoh.

It is interesting to note that when land is given to military or officials for the performance of their duties, their independence increases and the power of the ruler weakens (consider the Mameluks and their rebellions, or the difference between Chinese Confucian literati who were never able to overthrow the power of the emperor and European knights who evolved into powerful aristocracy in many cases vastly limiting the power of the kings (especially in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth)).

Patrimonial dominance has often prevailed in the Orient, where land remained in the control of the patrimonial ruler. However, in the Occident large estates have been out of the control of the ruler, and thus according to Weber this was one of the major reasons patrimonalism has been replaced by feudalism.


Feudalism when compared to patrimonalism, has one major similarity and several important differences.

The similarity is that both are based on tradition and have powerful rulers who grant rights in return for military and administrative services.

The differences are important for the subtler distinction:
* feudalism replaces the paternal relationship of patrimonalism by a contractually fixed fealty on the basis of knightly militarism.
* the patrimonial ruler's grants of authority of liturgical obligations of political subjects and the personal dependence of patrimonial official are replaced in feudalism by the contractual freedom, personal fealty and social and economic prominence on the part of the vassals.

Traditional leaders

Most of the representatives of any dynasty ruling for more than one generation (kings, emperors, etc.) would fall into that category. Thus majority monarchies and some autocracies, oligarchies and theocracies would be ruled by traditional leaders.

Often male head of a common family should be considered a traditional leader. This could also be the case in a family-owned business, if its director and other leader positions are chosen based on family ties and/or age.

ee also

*"The three types of legitimate rule" book by Max Weber
*Pre-industrial society

External links

* [ South Africa: traditional leaders]

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