Explorer Explains: Legitimacy


People tend not to accept their rulers without question, at least not according to political science. Instead, the governed expect their government to be legitimate in some way before they play along. That is, it must have good reasons why it should be able to rule over them. Different reasons are given depending on the type of government, however.

Political scientists believe legitimacy to be critical because the lack of it can lead to serious conflict. Illegitimate governments have been the impetus for revolutions since the beginning of modern states. American, French and Russian rebellions are famous examples, but the principle is still at work today. Current headlines document the declining legitimacy of Nouri al-Maliki’s administration in the eyes of Sunnis and Kurds. Some even warn of a partition of Iraq and a new Kurdistan.

Given the importance, what kinds of reasons do governments give to justify their power? And which ones are we apt to believe?

Tanku Abdul Rahman was the popular first prime minister of Malaysia after winning nonviolent independence from Britain.

Tanku Abdul Rahman was the popular first prime minister of Malaysia after winning nonviolent independence from Britain.

Social scientists have thought about legitimacy since early sociologist Max Weber, according to expert David Beetham, at the University of Leeds. Today, he shows, political power is justified when it meets popular beliefs about the source of authority, the ends for which power is used, the kind of law and way its affirmed.

With that theory in mind, Beetham describes legitimacy in a number of different forms of government:


Form of Law: Custom/precedent

Source of Authority: Heredity/the past

Ends of Government: Well-being within the traditional order

Mode of Popular Affirmation: Assembly of the social elite

An Afghan elder sits with his cat outside his store.

An Afghan elder sits with his cat outside his shop.


Form of Law: (Sovereign decision-making)

Source of Authority: (Wisdom or charisma of the leader)

Ends of Government: National purity/ expansion

Mode of Popular Affirmation: Mass mobilization


Form of Law: Codification of collective will

Source of Authority: Party monopoly of truth and representation

Ends of Government: Building communist future

Mode of Popular Affirmation: Mass mobilization


Form of Law: Constitutional rule of law

Source of Authority: (Will of the majority)

Ends of Government: Individual rights protection and advancement

Mode of Popular Affirmation: (Election of representatives)


Form of Law: Sacred texts and canons

Source of Authority: Divine will interpreted by hierarchy

Ends of Government: Purifying society’s moral order

Mode of Popular Affirmation: Various of the above

(Military) Dictatorial

Form of Law: Decree

Source of Authority: None

Ends of Government: Restore order and national unity

Mode of Popular Affirmation: None

In a society like Iraq, the picture is complicated because there isn’t widespread agreement on the norms of legitimacy. Some defer to the ultimate authority of traditional tribes, others to the democratic project, still others, like the Islamic State, see legitimate government as fulfilling religious interpretations.

Social scientists continue to study the ways certain norms appear and become legitimate – like why some sources of authority come to be ultimate in people’s eyes. It’s notable, though, how pretty much every vision of legitimate power assumes it should carry out more than just the interests of the powerful.

Featured Image: Jan Satyagraha, a foot-march event modeled on Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance. It aims to deliver land rights reform to India’s poor communities. Credit: Yann.