Authority, or the power to enforce obedience or influence action, opinion and belief, comes from the French autorité, itself an adaptation of the early Latin word auctoritas. Authority refers to both a structure of power, such as a leader’s conferred right to rule and a hierarchy of individuals and institutions that execute this right, as well as a pre-existing source of ultimate power from which authorities derive their mandate to command others. The earliest references to authority rely on the second definition of authority as the giver of answers, the setter of directions and the final testimony on crucial matters. 13th and 14th century references to authority were in the context of texts acknowledged to settle a question of opinion or give conclusive testimony, or in a person’s power to inspire belief through the weight of his/her testimony (Oxford English Dictionary, 2010, n.p.).

It is in the focus on an individual’s testimony that one can trace the link between authority and “author,” referring to one who originates or gives existence to. The concept of authority is tied to the idea of an original source or genesis that serves as a foundation upon which other structures are based. This idea was lent further credence by Hannah Arendt’s (1961) discussion of authority as the Roman experience of foundation (p. 141). In her 1961 essay, “What is Authority,” Arendt pointed out that the word "auctoritas" descended from the Latin verb "augere", or “augment,” and people in authority augment the foundations of a democratic state, such as the early Roman polis. Arendt argued that “those endowed with authority had obtained this power by descent and by transmission from those who had laid the foundations” for the future (1961, p. 121). Drawing on Platonic political philosophy, Arendt argued that while rulers augmented the foundations of authority, they did not create them. Rather, authority lay beyond the control or creation of rulers, philosophers and kings, being akin to the law of nature or the commands of God. This transcendental authority legitimated the exercise of power and the enforcing of obedience (1961, p. 111).

Authority, Power, and Force

Scholars have often tried to clarify the concept of authority by setting it against the notion of force, violence or coercion. Hannah Arendt set authority against both violence and non-violence by opposing authority to coercion as well as persuasion. According to Arendt (1961), authority precluded the use of external coercion, so that “where force is used, authority itself has failed (p. 93).” Political theorist Robert Jackman lent further support to this view when he theorized famously that power without force was the true measure of the political capacity of states (Jackman, 1993): hence, authority is powerful without being forceful. At the same time, Arendt (1961) argued that hierarchical authority was incompatible with “the egalitarian order of persuasion which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation”: hence, authority is influential without needing to persuade (p. 93).

Authority in Communication

As a subject of academic study in the field of communication, the concept of authority has been examined in the areas of gender relations, mass media, political communication, religious discourse, health, organizational communication and education, the greatest focus on authority coming from the first three sub-fields.

Authority and Gender

Studies of gender communication have been concerned principally with the authority of women in the mass media (covering topics such as the reliability of females as television experts, the effects of television coverage on abortion decisions, and female advocacy) family units, technology and science, and compliance to male authority.

Authority and Mass Media

The mass media sub-field focuses largely on the authority of journalists in the news media, although some attention has been also given to the role of regulatory authorities in censoring the media as well as to the role of authority in advertising.

Authority in Argumentation and Rhetorical Studies

Communication scholarship on political authority has focused on, among other topics, rhetorical and argumentative appeals to authority, the construction of presidential authority, and the use of rhetoric in the legitimization of power.

As Goodwin (2011) notes, the discursive nature of authority has posed a problem for scholars of argumentation studying public discourse because non-expert citizens can be unable to decide which authorities should be trusted. Jackson (2008) makes a related point, calling argumentative appeals to the authority of science in public policy debates "black box arguments" because they derive their authority from complex (and often opaque) institutional processes that are impossible to decipher by non-experts (p. 444).

In addition to studying authority in argumentation, rhetorical scholars have also examined the ways in which authority is constructed, constituted, and performed through rhetoric. In some cases, the rhetorical construction of authority has been shown to be problematic. For example, Erickson (2000) critiques the ways in which visual performances and photo-ops can be used by presidents to establish, reaffirm, and reify the authority of dominant political ideologies and power structures.

Minor Edits By Paul McKean (August 2012).

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“Authority.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 August 2010.

Arendt, H. (1961). What is authority? In Between past and future: six exercises in political thought. New York: The Viking Press.

Erikson, K.V. Presidential rhetoric's visual turn: performance fragments and the politics of illusionism. Communication Monographs. 67(2) 138-157.

Goodwin, J. Accounting for the appeal to the authority of experts. Argumentation. 25: 285-296.

Jackman, R.W. (1993). Power without force: the political capacity of nation-states. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jackson, S. (2008). Black box arguments. Argumentation. 22: 437-446.