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The Use and Abuse of Authority in International Relations Scholarship

Clayton J. Cleveland



The concept of authority is crucial to explaining many interesting outcomes in international politics. Despite its importance, the conceptualisation of authority suffers from neglect and misuse. A clear understanding of the context and limits of authority will aid social scientists who seek to develop testable propositions and improve rigour in social science research. When scholars fail adequately to conceptualise authority they encounter problems identifying situations where the exercise of authority is present. For instance, scholars identify voluntary or diffused forms of authority. Moreover, scholars may test their explanations against weak or inaccurately applied versions of authority-based explanations or fail to consider that authority played any role in their outcome of interest. I argue that using an interpretation of authority based on legitimised power can help scholars avoid these pitfalls. Scholars will be able to compare the significance of the different sources of authority within international politics and thereby craft compelling tests of alternative hypotheses about the role authority plays in international politics. Using this interpretation will substantially enhance our understanding of phenomena in international politics.

Keywords: Authority, Legitimacy, Power, International Politics


Bibliography: Cleveland, Clayton J.: The Use and Abuse of Authority in International Relations Scholarship, ERIS, 1-2015, pp. 90-106.


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