Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Sociology of Anti-Authoritarianism

Public opinion polls have noted for decades a general lack of confidence in major institutions throughout the West.[1] This vague anti-authoritarianism could easily serve as an organizing principle for a new anarchist-sociology. Many people regularly find various “legitimate” forms of authority to be meaningless, detrimental, corrupt, or simply illegitimate—consequently, they choose to not respect them (while often giving them subtle endorsement through a lack of visible opposition). Symbols of hierarchical authority implicitly invite acts of rebellion, while horizontal authority is embodied with agreements and understandings (e.g. cultural norms and mores) that do not require external enforcement by hierarchical institutions (e.g. laws and the state). Instead, many agreements are regularly based upon respect, trust, handshakes, and the like—or what some scholars might call positive deviance that is anti-authoritarian in character (see Williams forthcoming).

Anti-authoritarianism keeps people independent from the control of others through opposition to various forms of domination and hierarchical institutions. To the extent that such anti-authoritarianism accurately represents broad sectors, an anarchist-sociology could seek to understand how these processes function. For example, Max Weber considered three principle forms of legitimate authority that allowed some to wield power over others (Weber 1958). Is there not, logically, some type of anti-authoritarian authority type that Weber overlooked? Perhaps some form of trusted, non-hierarchical power? If so, this type of legitimacy is de-centered from any institution, office, or single person. It rejects the legitimacy derived from other varieties of authority. Anarchists would do well to take note of Weber's observations: authority's strength resides in its legitimacy. For those wishing to eliminate hierarchical authority and its corresponding power over others, then it is crucial to destroy the legitimacy that accompanies that authority.

Anarchist-sociologists could research the ways in which people self-organize sans authority. How do people deliberately avoid discrimination and domination? Is it through heightened tolerance and egalitarianism? Maybe through the creation of new, radically democratic social norms? I suspect we will find that people employ both passive and aggressive strategies that avoid, subvert, confront, and overthrow so-called “legitimate” authority. Evidence will not be hard to come by. Historical and contemporary examples will likely demonstrate many strategies and tactics, whether via cynicism in large bureaucracies or distrust of politicians, or through slave resistance, worker sick-ins and wildcat strikes, or the refusal to participate in mass consumer culture. Ample evidence will also emerge from observing the collective behavior of crowds involved in resisting authority. How do resisters identify authority figures and structures? Can they see past baton-wielding riot police to the sometimes faceless institutions the police protect? How do crowds of people manifest action with or without new authority internal to their groups and organizations? Anti-authoritarianism does not just suggest resistance to long-established, status quo authority figures, but also incipient and informal authority that may evolve within movements and social change networks themselves, regardless of how professedly radical they may be.

A consistent anti-authoritarian sociology would act to remove titles, statuses, and ranks between people interested in studying and transforming society (for example, the varied distinctions between “assistant professor”, “full professor”, “instructor”, “student”, “non-academic”, and so on). A truly egalitarian learning environment requires breaking down the walls between the “learner” and the already “learned”. Also, a reflexive anarchist-sociology needs to encourage a critique—and attack!!—upon privileged, powerful, dominating, and elite persons, organizations, institutions, and practices. It is not enough to profess opposition. One must help to further its ends, through resistance to hierarchy and through the positive creation of alternatives.


[1] Note that this opposition is not just expressed towards specific individuals, but to institutions generally.


Weber, Max. 1958. “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule”. Berkeley Publications in Society and Institutions, 4 (1): 1-11.

Williams, Dana M. Forthcoming. “Why Revolution Ain't Easy: Violating Norms, Re-Socializing Society”. Contemporary Justice Review.

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