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Think. Discuss. Act. Authority

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Review: Authority

R. Sennett (1980). Authority. New York City: Vintage Books.


Richard Sennett, a professor of humanities at New York University, discusses authority from a socio-historical viewpoint. While a background in humanities is not necessary for reading this book, it is helpful, as he refers to authorities of the last three centuries who have informed the major academic disciplines. Sennett believes “the dilemma of authority in our time, the particular fear it inspires, is that we feel attracted to strong figures we do not believe to be legitimate.” (p. 26) There is a fear of being deceived by authority. Thus, he ponders what the modern fear of authority is, who is inspiring it, and what better image should be established. (p. 16)

Development of Book

The book begins with a discussion of the “negation” of authority. Formerly, authorities were seen as legitimate powers in dominant institutions (church, government, business) by their subjects. Today, these authorities inspire a strong sense of illegitimacy. (p. 26) He asks, “When the dominant images of strength really are illegitimate, malignant, lacking integrity, is it not irrational under these circumstances to rebel against them?” (p. 17)

Two aberrations of authority are paternalism and authoritarianism. Paternalism emerged from the industrial revolution as bosses began to act like parents. Workers were treated like children. Paternalism is a false love; true nurturing is missing. “The leader cares for the subjects only insofar as it serves his interests.” There is “no tolerance for crankiness, no willingness to sacrifice for them, no encouragement of their independence.” (p. 82)

The autonomous authority has developed out of those who have become the experts in society (doctors, lawyers, technical specialists). He does not need others; others need him. This authority can be aloof and indifferent. Nurturing is a hindrance; therefore, it is absent.

These types of authority “convey, the subjects perceive, that there is something unattainable in the character of the authority. There is power, self assurance, or some secret the subject cannot penetrate. This difference arouses both fear and respect.” (p. 154) This may also lead to a crisis of authority whereby a person “renounces visions of a satisfying, omnipotent authority” because the subjects feel there is something illegitimate it. (p. 132)

In dealing with illegitimate authorities, one cannot just reject them. Doing so builds bonds with them based on fear of their strength, and desire to define their failures. (p. 120) Combat with them has similar effects. Sennett suggests that the resolution of the crisis comes from redefining authority. It must become legitimate. The authority should be one who judges and reassures. (p. 154) Fear is inappropriate for creating respect. He asserts that authority needs to be visible and legible. (pp. 168-85) Visibility includes being clear and candid with one’s subjects; discussion is possible. Being legible means that one is not the soul judge and jury; the subjects help decide what power is. Democracy, not tyranny, modeled.


  1. Parents need to consider the type of authority they exhibit in the home. Is authority used at home the same way it is used in the office? The greatest weakness of paternalism is never allowing children to mature and gain independence. Protection is needed, but so is exposure.
  2. The rejection of and battles with authority by youth create bondage. Emotional scars may be inflicted for years because authority was illegitimate, and perceived so. How can authority be exercised to produce a healthy perception of authority? How can authority be made legitimate or illegitimate?

Richard White 

© 2018 CYS

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