Legal Dictionary


Definition of authority


  • (UK) IPA: /ɔːˈθɒɹəti/
  • (US) IPA: /əˈθɑɹəti/
  • Audio (US) [?]


authority (countable and uncountable; plural authorities)

  1. (uncountable) The power to enforce rules or give orders.
  2. (used in singular or plural form) Persons in command; specifically, government.
  3. (countable) A person accepted as a source of reliable information on a subject.


  • 1930 September 18, Albert Einstein, as quoted in Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel (1988) by Banesh Hoffman

    To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.

Derived terms

  • moral authority

Related terms

Further reading

The word authority derives from the Latin word auctoritas meaning invention, advice, opinion, influence or commands which originate from an auctor indicating that authority originates from a master, leader or author. Essentially authority is imposed by superiors upon inferiors either by force of arms (structural authority) or by force of argument (sapiential authority). Usually authority has components of both compulsion and persuasion. For this reason, as used in Roman law authority is differentiated potestas (legal or military power) and imperium (persuasive political rank or standing).

Legitimate Authority

In government, authority is often used interchangeably with the term "power". However, their meanings differ: while "power" is defined as "the ability to influence somebody to do something that he/she could not have done", "authority" refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, whilst a mob has the power to punish a criminal, for example by lynching, people who believe in the rule of law consider that only a court of law has the authority to order punishment.

Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has been a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations, such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authorities) and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).

The definition of authority in contemporary social science is a matter of debate. According to Michaels, in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, authority is the capacity, innate or acquired for exercising ascendancy over a group. Other scientists, however, argue that authority is not a capacity but a relationship. It is sanctioned power, institutionalized power.

In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority (cf. Cristi 2005), and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from Plato and Aristotle to the present. In many democractic societies, there is an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of governmental authority in general. In the United States, for instance, there is a widespread belief that the political system as it was instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     lex fori
2.     landed property
3.     lex situs
4.     respondent
5.     default judgment
6.     tort law
7.     living will
8.     lex causae
9.     law
10.     salacious