Defining Authority

I didn't set out to write a book about authority, but this topic emerged as one of the most intriguing themes. I became fascinated by the shift from traditional sources of authority such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Wall Street Journal towards the collective intelligence embodied in the Wikipedia.

In fact, I found myself relying on the Wikipedia as an invaluable reference tool, alongside such authorities as Nature, Scientific American, and Harvard Business Review. And I ended up singing the praises of the collective intelligence embedded in heavily edited Wikipedia articles, and arguing:

"Like relevance, authority is subjective and ascribed by the viewer."

And when it came time to solicit advance praise, I naturally asked Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia. So, imagine my surprise when I received an email from Jimmy in which he flat out disagreed with my definition of authority. In short, he stated that authority is objective, and that the Wikipedia is just plain better and more authoritative than Britannica.

We had an interesting debate via email (which I promised not to publish) and we both ended up where we started. Since then, I've had little time to dig into this subject. Beyond this post about the nature of authority by Clay Shirky, I haven't found much.

So, what do you think? Is authority subjective or objective? What role is findability playing in changing our sources of authority? And where can we go to learn more about authority? Thanks!

Authority is subjective. (And I like how your comparison elevates relevance to an idea of subjective authority.)

I don't know Mr. Wales, but I can't see any other possibility other than he's wrong. (And no one is ever entirely wrong.) I assume him to be an intelligent man with good reasons, but I can't think of any situation where authority is *not* subjective.

The best I can come up with is that perhaps authority is objective, but our *perception* of authority is subjective. While this might be true, every "node in the ontology" becomes authoritative, and we're back where we started, a tautological circle:

Nothing is true. Everything is true.

("Node in the ontology" is in quotes because I wasn't sure exactly how to best convey that idea.)

On all of 5 minutes thought, I can't see how authority can be anything but subjective. Everything comes with its own frame and cultural biases, and an authorative piece of work has them as much as anything.

I can see that wikipedia may be closer to an arbitrary standard of 'correctness' than other authorative sources, due to the more highly collaborative and debated nature of the work and the fact that it can always be further reviewed.

Authority is communal. Communities have experts and sources that they trust. A source can be an author ("Clay Shirky") or a text ("the bible", "wikipedia"). A UT researcher did research showing that citations were stronger predictors of blog political affiliation than vocabulary:

Adina stole my thunder! (Her comment appeared between the time I clicked to add a comment and the time it took me to get through the TypeKey nonsense).

My point was going to be that, yes, "authority is subjective" but, no it's not "ascribed by the viewer."

Authority is a collective understanding and appreciation. An individual's take on authority is pretty much meaningless.

Stating that an individual's take on authority is meaningless is like saying an individual's vote is meaningless. The whole derives from the parts.

Also, the individual often gets to choose the community or collective to which he or she ascribes authority.

One individual may choose the Wall Street Journal and another the Wikipedia. The sum total of those individual choices makes a big impact on society.

But you're no longer talking authority. If I choose to read the WSJ, that doesn't mean it is authoritative. The WSJ is authoritative because a community deems it so. The WSJ is authoritative whether or not I choose to read it.

I think you need to detach "choice" from "authority."

I also think your first statement, "Stating that an individual's take on authority is meaningless is like saying an individual's vote is meaningless" is fallacious. Because, the power of an individual's take on authority is different than the power of an individual's vote. When I vote and when the editor-in-chief of the WSJ vote, our votes are equal. But the e-i-c view of authority by and large trumps mine. Because a community has imbued him with that authority.

Authority is not simply a single person's "take". That's a solipsistic world view that simply denies social reality.

While I'd never go as far as Margaret Thatcher who said "there is no community, only individuals," you seem to ignore that a community is composed of individuals. Social reality is constructed one person at a time. But you are right that when it comes to authority, not all votes are equal.

Wales' personal support for Ayn Rand's "objectivist" philosophy (note the "trivia" section in his wikipedia page: sheds some light on his position in this matter. We may take a page right out of the Wikipedia on the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

"Objectivism derives its name from the conception of knowledge and values as "objective," rather than as "intrinsic" or "subjective." According to Rand, neither concepts nor values are "intrinsic" to external reality, but neither are they merely "subjective" (by which Rand means "arbitrary" or "created by [one's] feelings, desires, 'intuitions,' or whims"). Rather, properly formed concepts and values are objective in the sense that they meet the specific (cognitive and/or biocentric) needs of the individual human person. Valid concepts and values are, as she wrote, "determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man's mind."

But this side-steps the problem of what determines validity. If valid concepts reside in the natural world, why is it that so many of us disagree with Rand? I seem unable to discover a value system inherent in nature, especially these days, even if we were really separate from nature to begin with.

I suppose that I have been trained to think more in terms of a postmodern world though, so I have my own biases. As a result, I tend to see things like "authority" as whatever 51% of say it is, as a socially constructed idea that is bound to a time and a place. But those are too deep of waters for this librarian to tread :).


In reading Peter's discussions on authority and the links he provided to related (also provocative) discussions, I'm noticing several presentations of how to conceive of authority. These include personal or corporate reputation, measures based on documented objective achievements (such as a PhD or awards, which still sound like reputation to me), and consensus (such as Marquis Who's Who or []), but with little emphasis on the potential costs of misperceiving authority.

What if, before discussing what authority is, we talk about why it matters? Perhaps operationalize it, in a way. Authority matters if you are making a decision based upon the information presented. The importance of the decision and the costs of making a wrong decision determine the significance of consulting an expert. Does perception of authority change based on the costs of a bad or incorrect decision?

If authority is objective, then what criteria are used to define an authority? Are the same factors objective from a personal point of view as from a communal point of view?

Marquis Who's Who asks for nominations from the public: "Know Someone Who Belongs in Who's Who?" They follow this by defining a few of the criteria they might consider: "You may have colleagues who, through their achievements, academic performance, or occupational position merit inclusion in a Marquis Who's Who Publication." So, a person could become listed based on their actions or the job they hold. Presumably, having been hired for a position would mean that someone else (or several someones) reviewed their abilities and found them competent. Or were they simply the best available at a given point in time? Does it matter? If someone is listed in a Who's Who, does this mean they are more expert than someone who is not? Most librarians will tell you that there are Who's Who publications which are essentially vanity listings, in which you pay to be included. Marquis is considered the creme de la creme of Who's Who, but even they don't provide the rationale by which someone is or is not listed, and they *do* try very hard to make money selling copies of the books to those listed.

The Best Doctors survey asks physicians: "If you or a loved one needed a doctor in your specialty, to whom would you refer them?" The survey is not sent to all physicians, but only to physicians who have already been selected for inclusion in their database. Does this mean the listing comes as a result of a popularity contest, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours? Or by merit and the respect of one's peers? Are these necessarily different? In what way? Is it reputation, or what they say in public, or their actions, or can these be separated?

There is a nifty little 2004 article by Robin Good that links authority (influence, reliability) to credibility (trust) and popularity.

Robin Good: PACmeter - Popularity, Authority, Credibility Online: How To Measure Them?:

He's talking about web pages, but this idea works for me -- that all three are related. Bascially, what he seems to find is that popularity can be an indicator of authority and credibility, but is not necessarily the same thing. Alevin (in the comments above) mentioned trust as a component of authority, and I was very glad to see that mentioned, as I have seen this have more impact on perceived authority than any other factor.

BBC: Radio 4: Reith Lectures 2002: A Question of Trust (Onora O'Neill):

We frequently discuss the issue of authority / reputation and quality of information in the medical webmaster community. This is not a new discussion. We find it in the Prayer of Maimonides: "Remove from their midst all charlatans and the whole host of officious relatives and know-all nurses, cruel people who arrogantly frustrate the wisest purposes of our art and often lead Thy creatures to their death." The context here would be that health care consumers (a.k.a. patients) make decisions that are literally life or death based on information they find on the Internet or from friends or other sources. We might call both these groups stakeholders in other circumstances -- people to whom the decision or issue matters. What is observed or feared in the health community is that sometimes HC consumers and HC professionals don't trust the same authorities. Sometimes the HC consumer saves their life by asking questions and finding information their clinician doesn't. Sometimes they don't, and sometimes they make what can only be called life-threatening decisions. I have argued that this is their right -- to make their own decision. But that means accepting that the individual may view authority in a way that differs from the community, and deciding to value the individual perspective.

Personally, I agree that authority is subjective at both the personal and communal levels, but that there can be measures that lend it an air of objectivity. I find those measures helpful in making personal decisions, but not sufficiently that I would exclude other information from the decisionmaking pool. Ultimately, if the value of authority is as important as the decision to be made, then authority is personal (and subjective), because the decisions are made by persons.

I think I agree with what others are saying: authority is culturally subjective, but individuals subscribe to that valuation. I think some people (and I think the Rands of the world might be included here) confuse the concepts of power and authority.

Authority is a voluntary acceptance of power to a person or group of people - "I respect the authority of Science [the journal", "I accept the authority of the military chain of command", whereas power can also be about involuntary coercion. The definition of power I have found useful is "the ability to impose one's will on others" - although I also think that it include the ability to do as one wishes in relation to ones own life.

Thus, power is relatively objective: can this person do what they wish in this scenario and/or can this person force another to carry out their wishes.

You do then get into an interesting discussion of scenarios such as 1930s/40s Germany in which the general population subscribed to Hitler's tyrannical power, thus legitimating it's authority. This appears to me to be an extension of the natural law debate, which is somewhat Platonic in nature. Lawyers subscribing to the natural law theory of jurisprudence argue that legitimate law is an expression of an underlying "meta-law", and that any law which violates is in fact not law.

This was exemplified in post-war Germany where the courts allowed a man to sue his wife for betraying him, even though betrayal was mandated under Nazi law. This was justified because such a law could never be compatible with natural justice. In this case, the law had power which was given authority by its cultural acceptance.


Voluntary authority is personal and therefore subjective. Mandatory authority (police) is definitely objective.
If I choose to be Catholic then the Catholic church holds authority for me. If I choose to be Muslim, then Islam holds authority.
If my experience with Wikipedia has built credibility then I will assign authority to it.
But if I live in Michigan (which is in itself a choice) then the laws of the state of Michigan are not a choice for me. One can argue that even the law is subjective. You can choose to break it and face the consequence. But I am referring to it as objective because it is embodied by real institutions.

Part of the problem is that we use "authority" to mean different things - trusting the accuracy of the Wikipedia is quite different to respecting the power and duty of the police to enforce the laws.

Of course, police authority is a social fact backed up by the power of the people. In a revolution, that authority vanishes.