Friday, March 17, 2006

Essay on Legitimacy in Social Science

Bringing Legitimacy Back In: An Analysis of Institutionalized Myth


Political science as a discipline has been critiqued for its seeming inability to produce clear conclusions on the most basic of concepts. Allan Bloom went so far to remark that most citizens were “frustrated by political science,” for its lack of “clarification about the ends of politics” (Bloom as cited in Ricci 20). While these critiques are not fair entirely, there might be some case considering the treatment towards legitimacy theory in political science. Defining legitimacy, even to an undergraduate student, proved more problematic than conclusive. Moreover, in studying states and institutions, statements about legitimacy become even more muddled. It is the hope of this paper to bring legitimacy theory back to the forefront of political science, especially in its study of institutions.

John Meyer and Brian Rowan, in particular, have done much to bring legitimacy back on the radar in their analysis of organizational and institutional myths. Meyer and Rowan argue that institutions are legitimate not because they are efficient or provide in actuality what they say they do. Rather, institutions and organizations often do not map onto their blueprint, but become legitimized by reinforced practices, customs and rituals that have little to do with efficiency (Meyer and Rowan 23). Meyer and Rowan also look at legitimacy in an “external” light. By external legitimacy, I mean legitimacy that is determined or perceived by those outside of organizations, institutions, states, or international systems. This departs from Weberian ‘belief’ theories or Stinchcombe’s ‘power’ theory that has said plenty about internal legitimacy, or legitimacy that is decided or recognized by those inside the organization, institution, etc. The paper will explore in detail this debate. First, the paper will study various theorists on legitimacy, in particular Max Weber, Charles Tilly and Arthur Stinchcombe. Second, the paper will discuss Meyer and Rowan’s influential theory on the “institutionalized myths” of legitimization. Third, the paper will discuss future implications of Meyer and Rowan’s study with respect to the current political landscape, particularly in developing nation-states. In short, although Weber and others add much to the debate, Meyer and Rowan’s theory of legitimization explains externally the nature of legitimacy as well as providing an important thesis for exploring “new” types of legitimacy throughout the world.

A (Short) History of Legitimacy

Theories of legitimacy prior to Meyer and Rowan have generally focused on belief theory and power theory. As J.F. Merquior has explained, belief theory merely states that the citizenry believes in the ruler’s claims to power (Merquior 6). The belief theory of legitimacy has in some ways been the most common and standard definition in civics textbooks. In other words, states and institutions are legitimate because people believe in them. Although belief theorists divide themselves into two competing camps — subjectivist and objectivist — the assumptions about belief are the same.[1] Power theory asserts a point opposite to belief theorists. Instead of believing in actual authority, power theorists note that citizens obey because “it would be quite foolish… to resist” (Merquior 7). As Jean-Jaques Rousseau argued in his famous Social Contract, “if force compels obedience, there is no need to invoke a duty to obey” (Rousseau 53). Power theorists other claim, and in some ways the most important, is that legitimacy exists when power holders recognize one another (Stinchcombe as cited in Tilly 171). As Tilly said: “Legitimacy is the probability that other authorities will act to confirm the decisions of a given authority” (Tilly 171).

The most prominent belief theorist was Weber. Political scientist Irving Louis Horowitz noted that “in the study of legitimacy we are the children of…Weber” (Horowitz 23). Although questions of legitimacy were explored as far back as Plato, no modern scholar formulated as precise a definition of legitimacy as Weber. In his famous categorical approach, Weber argued that legitimacy existed when people believed power to be just. There were three types of legitimate regimes: traditional, charismatic, or legal in nature (Weber 113). Traditional states were valid because they were always that way, or a product of “ancient recognition” whereas the populace believed in the old ways (Weber 112). Charismatic states were legitimate based on the rule of charismatic leaders who by a “gift of grace” possessed authority. Lastly, legal legitimacy existed based on “the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional ‘competence’ based on rationally created rules” (Weber 112).

Power based theorists have included such notables as Tilly and Stinchcombe. Drawing inspiration from the philosophy of Rousseau, both scholars have questioned legitimacy based on the belief and “conformity to an abstract principle” (Tilly 171). The citizenry of the state in fact has little choice in the matter of legitimating government. For example, as Merquior has shown, when we believe in the police officer it is not because we actually believe in him. But we do know of the power those above him have and the consequences of crossing him (Merquior 7). Or in Tilly’s example in “War Making and State-Making as Organized Crime,” the legitimate state is one that makes war, extracts resources and provides protection before any other. Therefore, legitimacy does not arise from believing, or choosing, anything (Tilly 181). Some have argued that Rousseau’s and Tilly’s notion of legitimacy downplays the conceptualization of the term itself. If legitimacy is simply about the monopoly on force and the power to coerce, is it just a case of “legitimacy by default,” or is it legitimate at all? This is an argument that is too complex to examine fully here, but the power theory is illustrative and important for this discussion because it examines legitimacy from the inside – how and why citizens obey.

Belief theory and power theory provide important contributions to the study of legitimacy with respect to states and institutions. In sum, it gives an internal look about how states and institutions accrue and preserve legitimacy. However, these legitimacy theories are deficient in at least three ways. One, the theories do not explore the externality of legitimacy, especially how legitimacy operates in the international community. A clear example is the mess in parts of the former Soviet Union. Although some outside observers would suggest that, for example, Georgia was not a legitimate state because of the apparent political instability, Georgian citizens might believe that the current president is more legitimate than a Soviet holdover and thus, the state is legitimate. As Jan Pakulski wrote: “The same rulers may be accepted as legitimate by some and rejected as usurpers by others” (Pakulski 37). Weber was either not concerned, or not sure, how to treat cases such as this, where those outside a state might disagree with those inside a state about that state’s legitimate nature. Peter Lassman sought to clarify this point by suggesting that Weber viewed legitimacy as a “precarious political achievement,” trumping force alone (Lassman 88). The second deficiency with previous legitimacy theory is that it suggested legitimacy arose and persisted based on certain causal forces. For belief theorists, legitimacy rested on whether or not certain beliefs about the state existed. For power theorists, levels of authority that forced the citizenry to obey or else caused legitimacy. Often times, organizations, institutions, states, or international systems do things for which they think will garner legitimacy. But as Meyer and Rowan will show, there seems to be no clear path to achieving legitimacy in the ways Weber or the power theorists think. Thus, searching for causal linkages, or creating categorical paths to forming legitimate institutions, might lead the scholar astray.

The Myths of Institutional Legitimacy

Meyer and Rowan’s argument is simple:

…Organizations are driven to incorporate the practices and procedures defined by

prevailing rationalized concepts of organizational work and institutionalized in

society. Organizations that do so increase their legitimacy and their survival

prospects, independent of the immediate efficacy of the acquired practices and

procedures (Meyer and Rowan 21).

Meyer and Rowan do not tackle big questions of state and regime legitimacy like Weber, Tilly and Stinchcombe. The implications of their thesis in bureaucratic and organizational theory made scholars reassess why certain organizations survived despite being inefficient or not mapping on to the preconceived “blueprint” (Meyer and Rowan 20). As they suggest, hospitals are given funding or new technology not because hospitals are efficient but because of the perceived institutionalized legitimacy of hospitals.[2] Therefore, no matter how inefficient hospitals are, hospitals will be supported.[3] Although perception is a type of belief, Meyer and Rowan seek to turn Weber on his head by suggesting that these perceptions (or beliefs) that deem things legitimate occur from the outside, and not within. While their research is grounded more in organizational theory, their thesis is important in terms of how political science can view certain institutions and states with respect to legitimacy. Moreover, Meyer and Rowan address, albeit not always explicitly, deficiencies with earlier theories of legitimacy.

First, the thesis corrects a misconception that legitimacy is always an internal matter, or, that states and institutions are legitimate because those on the “inside” accept or obey claims to be legitimate. Although internal legitimacy is certainly important and should not be altogether discarded, external legitimizing is clearly important. As Meyer and Richard Scott noted: “Surveys of individual happiness or unhappiness with an organization may be of little importance” (Meyer and Scott 201). Instead, institutional legitimacy, “incorporate[s] elements which are legitimated externally rather than in terms of efficiency” (Meyer and Rowan 31). A perfect example of this is the hospital case. Further proof of external legitimacy is the ritual of creating new policies in an attempt to prove the validity of a certain institution, like for instance education. One might argue, per chance, that George W. Bush pushes “No Child Left Behind” not because he cares a great deal about what the program will do, but because education is ritualistically deemed legitimate, and all presidents must have a policy towards it. Here, Washington “insiders” might realize the plan is flawed in many ways, but because constituents, or “outsiders” believe that money should be given to education regardless of what the blueprint looks like, it forces them to act. Those on the outside of the education debate perceive education policy to be good.[4] Legitimacy and externality, as well, have particular importance when one discusses the international community. This point will be explored more fully in the latter section.

Second, the thesis is clear on how legitimacy operates within states and institutions. Because previous legitimacy theorists were worried with how well the state matched to the beliefs of the populace, or how state authorities possessed authoritative power, notions of state, regime and government were conflated to try and explain the inner-workings of legitimacy. Whereas Weber included various caveats for different ways that legitimacy arose and persisted, and then confused these theories by applying them sloppily to concepts of state, regime and government, Meyer and Rowan’s organizational theory is consistent in explaining states and institutions. For Meyer and Rowan, they were not nearly as concerned with the descriptive notions of what legitimacy was, but instead how legitimacy was used and replicated.[5] In each example, whether education or health care, questions of legitimacy was viewed in a structural, top-down formula. If institutions were perceived to be legitimate, by other states or institutions for instance, then they were.

Third, the thesis departs from previous theories in that it is concerned less with causal linkages between certain actors and institutions. Both belief theory and power theory asserted that certain actions produced legitimate states; other actions produced illegitimacy. But causal theories of legitimization rest on an underlying supposition that there are certain criteria for accomplishing either end.[6] Meyer and Rowan are both pessimistic and unsure about how causal action leads to legitimacy. Legitimacy’s myth is “highly institutionalized and thus in some measure beyond the discretion of any individual participant or organization” (Meyer and Rowan 25). More importantly, the myth of legitimacy is so deeply embedded within the institution and state, it is hard to decipher the original cause for any legitimate body.

Future Research Implications: An International Focus

Questions of legitimacy observed through an international lens often times produces conflicting, if not outright spurious conclusions. The earlier example of Georgia raises an important question about whether or not external legitimacy really counts for anything. If Georgian citizens believe in the charisma of Saakshvili, or obey the authority of the police force, then is Georgia not legitimate? Moreover, two states might disagree on the legitimacy of Georgia – for example Russia and the United States – and one might be left with the conclusion that legitimacy is best decided amongst the citizens of the state. But even this argument had its doubters. Many political scientists – arguing out of a Weberian tradition no less – noted that certain totalitarian regimes lacked legitimacy because power was obtained in non-legitimate ways. The United States certainly held this view by refusing to recognize Cuba or China as “legitimate” states.

The above discussion involves enough concepts and ideas to write a lengthy dissertation, but the point of the debate is clear: legitimacy judged from outside observers matters. Meyer and Rowan fit into this debate nicely. Although their research has been influential in organizational theory, their importance to comparativists and internationalists should not go unnoticed. In particular, conceptions of “institutionalized myth” and “ceremonial legitimacy” have great applicability when studying the developing world. This is certainly the case when some studies that discuss legitimacy have tossed out Weberian notions altogether. Like Meyer and Rowan, legitimacy is conceptualized externally, with judgments made by states or institutions outside of the system. Barry Schutz and Robert Slater have argued that in many developing nations state legitimacy has been defined in the international community rather than in the domestic community (Schutz and Slater 8). The reason for this change in legitimacy theory is unclear. But the implications of the change could have numerous effects.

Over the last sixty years alone, hundreds of international organizations were born onto the political map. Some of the more important include the United Nations, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the WTO (World Trade Organization), OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Although each organization has specific tasks, duties and rules, the institutionalized myth about the organization itself has given new meaning to the original blueprint. Instead of merely providing loans to developing countries, as the IMF does, these organizations in turn give the countries validity and legitimacy. Hence, if the IMF trusts Rwanda enough to give Rwanda money, the country must be on the right track. This is particularly interesting considering the relative youth of many of these organizations.

This “new” type of legitimacy – one rooted in myth and ceremony – is particularly dominant in developing nations. OSCE members pack up their bags in Austria, travel to Albania to monitor an election, and give it thumbs up or thumbs down. Although the election itself is important, international observers are more concerned with the grade OSCE gives, not with what is really going on in Albania. If the elections seem free and fair, an American investor might be more likely to bring business to the country. If OSCE gives a bad grade, foreigners of all sorts might be scared off. Either way, the organization itself is symbolically legitimate, even though its only job is to monitor an election. Think back to the Rwanda case. Rwanda was an IMF showcase country, with growth rates that exceeded almost all other African states. But the perceived legitimacy of the IMF had terrible consequences. By highlighting the successes of Rwanda, international observers ignored the bad, particularly the strained relationship between Hutus and Tutsis. The result was a civil war that left more that 1.3 million dead (See Uvin, 1998).[7]

This “new” legitimacy is not all bad, however. Organizations like the WTO have been influential in making “bad” states behave. China and Russia are cases in point. China’s arduous road to WTO membership included fights, among other things, about human rights violations and their treatment of the Falun Gong. Joining the WTO had certain benefits, economic mainly, but also the organization itself was chock full of legitimizing elements. This acceptance went a long way in securing, for example, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. While Russia is a non-member observer, the thoughts of joining the WTO loom large in Vladimir Putin’s mind. Once again, the WTO provides certain material gains for members, but, as it seems, Putin’s mainly concerned with putting a legitimate face on both his rule and Russia.


I began this paper frustrated by political science’s inability to define concretely legitimacy, but I end the paper in no better situation to define it than before. However, this may not be as terrible a thing as I once thought. While Weber tirelessly categorized belief theories of legitimacy and Tilly and Stinchcombe argued from a power perspective, Meyer and Rowan argued that legitimacy was wrapped up in institutionalized myths, with no discretionary way to sort through the mess. Their external analysis produced more concise conceptions of institutions and eliminated causation from the framework. In doing so, Meyer and Rowan hit on a more contemporary debate about the legitimizing effects of international organizations concerned more with ceremony and ritual than efficiency. The implications of what I have called “new” legitimacy will be important for future research as well, especially in developing nation-states. Hopefully, Meyer and Rowan’s influence will extend outside of organizational theory and influence new scholars concerned with legitimacy in a global setting.

[1] Subjectivist scholars, interested in normative concerns, argue that legitimacy is based on whether those that are ruled believe in their ruler. Objectivists, concerned more with empirical political science, have argued that legitimacy is based on how well governmental output matches with the wants and needs of the ruled.

[2] This might suggest that Meyer and Rowan steal a page from Weber’s play book in his discussion about “traditional” forms of legitimacy. That is, states are legitimate because they always have been. But Weber’s legitimacy is much more concerned with how the populace interacts with the state. In Meyer and Rowan’s “alternative Weberian” model, it seems that legitimacy is more “perceived” than real and interactive.

[3] This is not to say that hospitals are not shut down or that one hospital is supported more than another. Rather, hospitals in general, have institutionalized perceived legitimacy.

[4] This is no way resembles the very contentious debate that NCLB created, or that Bush was in fact ritualistic in his support. But, it does accept that education itself is perceived as institutionally legitimate.

[5] In this question of how, Meyer and Rowan are more similar than different from Tilly and Stinchcombe. But even Tilly and Stinchcombe’s analysis relies heavily on the “view from below,” and the inner-workings between the state and populace.

[6] This led to a problem – as well as a dilemma for political scientists – about how to lay hard and fast rules for what legitimate states were or why they persisted. There is still no procedural minimum definition of legitimacy like there is for an equally fuzzy concept – democracy.

[7] This is indeed a severe case and numerous elements caused the civil war.