Throughout the centuries, leaders and sociologists alike have striven to define the ideal form of government. While there have been many theories, little consensus has been reached on the sociology of power and politics. The foundations for this area of sociology rest upon the views and writings of Max Weber.
Weber defined power as the ability to control the behavior of others, even against their will. According to Weber, the most direct source of political power is coercion, or the right to use or threaten physical force. This idea is central to Weber's political theories. A definitive example of this is the Cuban missile crisis. While President Kennedy did not actually detonate nuclear weapons in his attempts to prevent the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from establishing nuclear capabilities in Cuba, this threat of force stopped the progression of Soviet forces into Cuba. The USSR was unwilling to subject itself to the possibility of nuclear attack, and thus the threat of physical force gave the United States political power. Figures in authoritarian governments often have power stemming from this same source; Weber recognized instabilities in governments basing their power on coercion because victims of this coercive power view it as illegitimate and often are willing to fight back (Light 384; Shepard 297).
Some of the other sources of political power identified by Weber include numbers, organization, money, land, prestige, and knowledge. Consider Trinity High School's dress code, which requires that students wear ties. Were only four students to refuse to wear ties, they would receive negative sanctions such as detentions. If this behavior persisted, they would likely be expelled from Trinity. But if 500 students-almost half of Trinity's student body-were to refuse to wear ties, the school would probably be forced to make concessions to the students, demonstrating that political power can be obtained through numbers. Organization can allow small elites to wield power over unorganized masses and can allow large groups to become even more powerful. Money and land can support organized groups, and prestige and knowledge give groups more credibility and thus more political power ("Class"; Light 384-385).
Authority is power accepted as legitimate by those subjected to it. Weber said authority may be divided into three basic forms: charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. Charismatic authority exists when the control of others is based on an individual's personal characteristics, such as extraordinary ethical, heroic, or religious virtuosity. Charismatic leaders are obeyed because people feel a strong emotional bond to them. Hitler, Gandhi, Napoleon, and Julius Caesar were all charismatic leaders. Traditional authority is authority in which the legitimacy of the authority figure is based around custom. Historically, traditional authority has been the most common form among governments. An example of this is the kings and queens in the English monarchy system, who must belong to certain families in order to obtain their positions. Modern governments, however, tend to rely more on rational-legal authority. The power of government officials is determined by the offices to which they are appointed or elected because of their individual qualifications. As long as individuals hold these offices, they have a certain amount of power, but once they leave office, their rational-legal authority is lost (Shepard 297-298; "Types").
Weber's examination of legitimate authority led him to define an ideal-type bureaucracy. An ideal type is a theoretical construct used as a measuring rod to determine the similarity between actual social institutions and defined ones. The ideal-type bureaucracy Weber developed incorporated hierarchy, impersonality, written rules of conduct, promotion based on achievement, specialized division of labor, and efficiency. Information flows up the chain of command and directives flow down, according to Weber's model. Impersonal rules explicitly define duties, responsibilities, operating procedures, and rules of conduct. Individual offices are highly specialized, and appointments are made one the basis of qualifications rather than ascribed status. In tandem, these characteristics are designed to promote the collective goals of the organization. This ideal-type bureaucracy was intended to promote economic growth and prosperity. Many of its concepts are echoed in modern-day capitalism and political systems. Weber developed a number of other ideal types, including ideal-type capitalism, which incorporates private ownership, pursuit of profit, competition, and a laissez faire attitude (Ideal).