great (untested) propositions from org. theory

Today I ran across this beautiful paragraph from an American Political Science Review article (1963) by Peter Blau:

In general, a situation of collective dependence is fertile soil for the development of authority, but its development is contingent on judicious restraint by the superior in the use of his power. If he alienates subordinates by imposing his will upon them against their resistance, they will obey only under duress and not freely follow his lead. If, on the other hand, he uses some of his power to further their collective interests, the common experience of dependence on and obligation to the superior is apt to give rise to shared beliefs that it is right and in the common interest to submit to his command, and these social values and the corresponding social norms of compliance legitimate and enforce his authority over them, as has been noted. In brief, coercive power and authority are alternative forms of social control, which are incompatible, but which both have their roots in conditions of collective dependence (313).

Blau is in fine form here. The paragraph is rich with testable propositions about authority, none of which he actually investigates empirically in the article. I identified the following implied propositions, but there may be more.

  • Groups with greater member interdependence will have higher levels of authority legitimacy (i.e., shared beliefs of the rightness of a superior’s command).
  • Superiors who exercise power against the will of group members will lose the legitimacy of their authority.
  • Superiors who sacrifice to provide collective benefits for the group will enhance the legitimacy of their authority.
  • Both of the above effects are moderated by group member interdependence.

Written by brayden king

August 31, 2010 at 9:15 pm

5 Responses

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  1. It reads a little like de Tocqueville and a little like Hirschman.



    August 31, 2010 at 11:27 pm

  2. […] have quite an expansive member list, as far as these things go… Related news: Brayden King at orgtheory finds some testable hypotheses on the collective foundations of authority in an essay by […]


  3. I wouldn’t say entirely untested. Robb Willer had a piece in ASR about the status rewards that accrue to those that sacrifice that seems close enough, in some respects, to legitimate authority to be worth mentioning. Perhaps there’s much more in this vein – not my field – so my preemptive apologies if this is off point.

    Click to access Willer2009a.pdf



    September 1, 2010 at 5:52 am

  4. Alvin Gouldner pursued many of these propositions in his work on patterns of industrial bureaucracy and in Wildcat Strike. See also the concept of indulgency pattern.



    September 1, 2010 at 9:39 am

  5. Mark and David – excellent references! I’d forgotten about Wildcat Strike. I should re-read that book over Christmas break.


    brayden king

    September 1, 2010 at 5:25 pm

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