The Social Construction of Legitimacy

  • David Beetham
Part of the Issues in Political Theory book series (IPT)


Let me begin by recalling that the social scientist’s primary interest or purpose in the analysis of legitimacy is an explanatory one. In the first instance this purpose is, through understanding the distinctive rules, the justificatory principles and beliefs, and the conventions about consent that underpin a given system of power, to explain the behaviour of people within it, and the kinds of relationship that it involves. Such an understanding also provides the basis for a judgement about the degree of legitimacy of a particular authority figure, power relationship or system of power as a whole, when measured against its own criteria; this judgement will help identify its potential points of vulnerability, and explain any erosion of its ability to secure cooperation from the subordinate when under pressure. In making such a judgement the social scientist is not imposing extraneous or a historical criteria, but employing those internal to the society or system of power itself, against which it requires to be judged; he or she is, as it were, reproducing the reasoning of people within that society, and reconstructing the logic of their own judgements. However, in doing so, the social scientist is also guided by a general understanding of what legitimacy involves, as in the threefold structure I have outlined, which provides an exploratory or heuristic framework for identifying the kinds of consideration that are relevant.


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Copyright information

© David Beetham 1991

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  • David Beetham

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