Legitimacy crisis (20TH CENTURY)

Mixture of theories of legitimacy and of crisis theory, associated in particular with the German social scientist Jurgen Habermas (1929-).

Modern capitalist societies are undergoing a legitimacy crisis whereby support for both government and economy is systematically eroded. Habermas’s account of the impending legitimation or legitimacy crisis includes all forms of social relationships, both political and economics, and argues that the failure of existing institutions to meet the ethical criteria which would justify their acceptance is leading to a general crisis.

Rodney Barker, Political Legitimacy and the State (Oxford, 1990)


With respect to political theory, a state is perceived as being legitimate when its citizens treat it as properly holding and exercising political power.[7][8] While the term exists beyond the political realm, as it encompasses sociology, philosophy, and psychology, legitimacy is often referred to with respect to actors, institutions, and the political orders they constitute.[3] In other words, actors, institutions, and social orders can be seen as being either legitimate or illegitimate. When political actors engage in the process of legitimation they are pursuing legitimacy for themselves or for another institution.[3] According to Morris Zelditch, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Stanford, theories of legitimacy span 24 centuries, beginning with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.[1]

Theories of legitimacy

First page of Aristotle’s Politics ca. 335-323 B.C.


Some of the earliest accounts of legitimacy come from early Greek thought.[1] Aristotle is mainly concerned with the stability of the government.[9] While he argues that the legitimacy of the government relies upon constitutionalism and consent, he posits that political stability relies upon the legitimacy of rewards.[10][11] In his book Politics, Aristotle argues the ways in which rewards are distributed are found within politics, and distributive justice (the proper allocation of rewards according to merit) is what makes a government stable.[9][11] When there is distributive injustice, on the other hand, the government becomes unstable. Also concerned with justness and distinguishing between right and wrong constitutions, Aristotle bases legitimacy on the rule of law, voluntary consent, and the public interest.[12] While Aristotle’s theory of distribution of rewards and legitimacy of constitutions both deal with legitimation, the prior emphasizes an actors acceptance that rewards are just,[13][14][15][16][17] while the latter is concerned with an actors acceptance of a “moral obligation to obey a system of power.”[10]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Detailed at greater length in The Social Contract, Rousseau insists that government legitimacy is dependent upon the “general will” of its members.[12][18] The general will itself is the common interests of all the citizens to provide for the common good of all citizens, as opposed to individual interests.[18] The people who express this general will, according to Rousseau, are those who have consensually entered into a civil society.[12][18] However, implicit consent is not sufficient for political legitimacy; rather, it requires the active participation of citizens in the justification of state’s laws, through the general will of the people.[19] Because legitimacy rests on the general will of the people, Rousseau believes republican or popular rule is legitimate, while tyranny and despotism are illegitimate.[20]

Max Weber

According to Weber, a political regime is legitimate when the citizens have faith in that system.[21][22] In his book, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, Weber expands upon this idea when he writes “the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige.” [23] Weber provides three main sources of legitimate rule: traditional (it has always been that way), rational-legal (trust in legality), and charismatic (faith in the ruler).[19][24] However, as Weber explains in his book Economy and Society, these ideal forms of legitimacy will necessarily always overlap.[25] The example that Weber gives is with that of legal authority. Legality is partly traditional, for it is “established and habitual.”[26] He argues that due to the presence of legitimate authority and the way legitimate authority structures society, citizens who do not share in the belief of this legitimacy still face incentives to act as if they did.[27]

Mark C. Suchman

In his book Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches, Suchman defines legitimacy as “a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions.”[5] He later adds to this definition, stating that because legitimacy is socially conferred, legitimacy is independent of individual participants, while dependent upon the collective constituency.[5] In other words, an organization is legitimate when it enjoys public approval, even though the actions of an organization might deviate from particular individual interests.[5] Suchman states three types of legitimacy: pragmatic legitimacy, moral legitimacy, and cognitive legitimacy.

Pragmatic legitimacy

Pragmatic legitimacy relies upon the self-interests of an organization’s constituencies, in which the constituency scrutinizes actions and behaviors taken by the organization in order to determine their effects.[5] This is further broken down into three sub-sections: exchange legitimacy, influence legitimacy, and dispositional legitimacy. Suchman defines exchange legitimacy as the support for organizational policies due to the policy’s benefit to the constituencies.[5][28] Influence legitimacy is the support for the organization not due to the benefits that constituencies believe they will receive, but rather due to their belief that the organization will be responsive to their larger interests.[5][29] Dispositional legitimacy is defined as support for an organization due to the good attributes constituencies believe the organization has, such as trustworthy, decent, or wise.[5][30] This is due to the fact that people typically personify organizations and characterize them as being autonomous.[5]

Moral legitimacy

Moral legitimacy is dependent upon whether the actions of an organization or institution are judged to be moral.[5] In other words, if the constituency believe the organization is breaking the rules of the political or economic system for immoral reasons, then this can threaten moral legitimacy.[6] Suchman breaks moral legitimacy down into four sub-sections: consequential legitimacy, procedural legitimacy, structural legitimacy, and personal legitimacy. Consequential legitimacy relates to what an organization has accomplished based on criteria that is specific to that organization.[5][31][32] Procedural legitimacy can be obtained by an organization by adhering to socially formalized and accepted procedures (e.g. regulatory oversight).[5][31][33] In the case of structural legitimacy, people view an organization as legitimate because its structural characteristics allow it to do specific kinds of work.[5][31][33] Suchman refers to this organization as being the “right organization for the job.”[5] Lastly, personal legitimacy refers to legitimacy that is derived from the charisma of individual leaders.[5][34][35]

Cognitive legitimacy

Cognitive legitimacy is created when an organization pursues goals that society deems to be proper and desirable.[35] Constituency support for the organization is not due to self-interest, but rather due to its taken-for-granted character.[5][36][37] When an organization has reached this taken-for-granted status, an organization is beyond dissent.[5][36] While moral and pragmatic legitimacy deal with some form of evaluation, cognitive legitimacy does not. Instead, with cognitive legitimacy society accepts these organizations as being necessary or inevitable

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