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Legitimacy is defined as a state of appropriateness ascribed to an actor, object, system, structure, process, or action resulting from its integration with institutionalized norms, values, and beliefs. It is a topic of longstanding interest across the spectrum of sociological phenomena and levels of analysis. Legitimacy is a multilevel concept, as implied by the term ”actor, which may refer to individuals, groups, organizations, nation-states, and world systems. It appears as a core concept in diverse areas of sociological inquiry including (but not limited to) social psychology, stratification, deviance, collective action, organizations, political systems, law, and science.
At its core, legitimacy involves a sense of appropriateness that is accorded to an entity. That is, a legitimate entity is one that we view as suited to its social environment and, as a result, deserving of support by other entities in the environment. The sense that an entity is suited to its environment arises from its perceived consistency with the institutionalized norms, values, and beliefs in which the entity is embedded. Institutionalized criteria are beyond the discretion of single actors (although they are socially constructed), and thus they represent superordinate standards, uncontaminated by individual motives and preferences. Their superordinate status lends them a taken-for-grantedness and the sense that, irrespective of privately held views, others will uphold them in the social system. Consequently, an entity that is perceived as integrated with institutionalized norms, values, and beliefs is one that we believe is appropriate and thus deserving of support. That support may take the form of social approval, the investment of social capital, or material/financial rewards.
- Habermas, J. (1975) Legitimation Crisis. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
- Meyer, J. W. & Rowan, B. (1977) Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology 83: 340-63.
- Walker, H. A., Rogers, L. & Zelditch, M., Jr. (2003) Acts, persons, positions, and institutions: legitimating multiple objects and compliance with authority. In Chew, S. C., & Knottnerus, J. D. (eds.), Structure, Culture, and History: Recent Issues in Social Theory. Littlefield Press, Lanham, MD.