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A Conception of Authority: An Introductory Study


reviewed by Philip H. Phenix - 1972

coverTitle: A Conception of Authority: An Introductory Study
Author(s): Kenneth D. Benne
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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In a world as rapidly changing as ours one would hardly expect to find a work on social and political philosophy, originally published shortly before Pearl Harbor and growing out of concerned reflection on the issues and events of the 1930s, to ring true and to speak freshly to the vastly altered situation of the 1970s. It is a mark of its fundamental quality and of the depth and breadth of its insights that this work by Kenneth Benne contradicts that expectation. So basic is its analysis that there is not a page that might not well have been written in response to our most pressing current concerns in education and social policy.

The theme of Benne's book is the meaning of "authority." This is a concept that is fun­damental to most of today's issues in eco­nomics, politics, social organization, ethics, and education. The fate of inflation control through price and wage regulation is a ques­tion of authority. Problems of civil rights and of law and order are expressions of the crisis of authority. Conflicts between the establish­ment and those who opt out in order to "do their own thing" manifest breakdowns of au­thority. Making government credible and fashioning truly democratic modes of repre­sentation depend on establishing new forms of authority. The "generation gap," the cry for "liberation" by women, Blacks, Chicanos, and Indians, and the demand for more "creative" and "open" forms of education are evidences of the disintegration of tradi­tional systems of authority.

The essential starting point for the treat­ment of all such problems, says Benne, is to recognize that no society can function with­out some kind of authority. The protests of revolutionists and other less radical social critics may properly be directed against par­ticular forms of authority, but not against authority as such. Their demands are, in fact, necessarily framed in terms of alternative au­thorities. Human beings cannot live together under conditions of anarchy.

Benne argues that "authority operates in situations in which a person, fulfilling some purpose or end, requires guidance from a source outside himself. His need defines a field of conduct or belief in which help is required. He grants obedience to another per­son, to a group, or to a method or rule, with a claim to be able to assist him in mediating this field of conduct or belief, as a condition of the grant of such assistance. Any operating social relationship of this sort is an authority relationship." (p. 2) Since human beings are necessarily interdependent, the crucial ques­tion for mankind is not how to free persons from authority, as the historic liberal ideology urged, but how to construct desira­ble and productive authority relationships rather than undesirable and sterile ones. Effective freedom and individuality are possi­ble only with the support of such relation­ships, never by denial of them.

Benne's analysis of the concept of au­thority shows that it refers to a triadic rela­tion with the following elements: a bearer, a subject, and a field. For example, in a busi­ness enterprise the manager may be the bearer of authority in relation to his em­ployees, the subjects, within the field of a particular employment contract defining their respective rights and obligations. In a school a teacher may be the bearer of au­thority with respect to the subject pupils in the field of accepted classroom procedures and the pertinent academic disciplines. No effective authority relation exists without all three elements. Pure external authority, in the bearer, cannot be effective without the consent of the subject. Nor can pure internal authority, in the subject, be effective without regard for the values and structures of the community in which the bearers of authority hold office. Nor can bearers and subjects be effectively related without a concrete social context or field in which to function.

In the light of this analysis, Benne suggests an answer to the fundamental question of how to distinguish between desirable and un­desirable forms of authority. The undesirable forms are, on the one hand, authoritarianism, representing over-emphasis on the demands of the bearer of authority, and on the other, anarchy, which over-emphasizes the sub­ject's right to autonomy of action. In con­trast, the concept of authority as a working interrelation of bearer, subject, and field sug­gests a three-fold criterion for a desirable pat­tern of authority, namely "the degree of continuity with some if not all traditional authorities . . ., the promise of fulfillment it gives to the deepest inward aspirations and needs of individual men ..., and its degree of relevance to existing and developing conditions and means of human action." (pp. 133-34).

Using the same basic triad, Benne de­scribes three important general types of au­thority situations: the authority of the expert, the authority of the rules of the game, and the authority of the community with respect to the growth of children. He shows that the authority of the expert is to some degree in­dependent of the will of the bearer and the subject, since it stems from the objective competence of the expert in response to the demands of his discipline. On the other hand, in the case of the rules of the game, the fiat of the bearer and the consentient will of the subjects who engage in the game determine the field; beyond these rules of order there is no appeal. The pedagogical authority of the community is more comprehensive than ei­ther of the other two types, requiring the appropriate integration of the partial authori­ties of various experts and of various rule systems into a comprehensive process for the nurture of personality, guided by some over­arching social myth which charts, focuses, simplifies, and imaginatively synthesizes the communal ideal.

If one takes these three types of authority situations as a basis for making some logical distinctions between the available ways of legitimizing authority, I think it is possible to extend and strengthen Benne's theoretical treatment. I suggest that the first way of legitimizing is by reference to facts, the sec­ond by reference to forms, and the third by reference to norms. Experts are authorities insofar as they are obedient to the intelligible structures of the reality which they investi­gate. Makers and observers of manners, laws, and customs, and players of games, act ac­cording to authority insofar as they function within the formal patterns they have created and adopted. The community and its teach­ers are authorities insofar as they are guided by ethical norms in pursuit of the common good. Still these distinctions are not mutually exclusive. All authority relations are a com­pound of the three types, in that every such relation has in it factual, formal, and norma­tive components. The goal of human devel­opment is the realization of the good life in association (normative element), using the powers of creative patterning (formal element), in conjunction with knowledge of the structures of natural and human possibility (factual element).

Benne faces squarely the central practical issue of conflicting authority claims and sug­gests the kind of educational setting in which these conflicts may be used for the continuous generation of higher levels of community realization. His characterization of the non-authoritarian association as one that "seeks to fulfill and encourage improvement in oper­ating authority relations by the regularized and public participation of its subjects in the criticism and reconstruction of those rela­tions" (p. 161) suggests the type of demo­cratic society where conflicts may be productively resolved. In such a society, he says, "the development of habits and atti­tudes of fairmindedness and objectivity . . ., appropriate to carrying on such processes of deliberation, . . . define the central function of teachers and students." (p. 191)

A Conception of Authority is required read­ing for anyone who wants to think clearly about our most critical social issues. More especially, Benne's classic is the best cure I know of for the disease of alternating chills of "structure" and fevers of "creativity" that seem to plague educational theory and prac­tice. It is my hope that this reissued study will work its wonderfully sane magic in reas­suring and directing this despairing and dis­traught generation of educators. For here is a man who speaks not as our current educational scribes and pharisees, but with the ac­cents of authority.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 4, 1972, p. 595-597
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1609, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:07:11 PM

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