Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism

Article excerpt


Despite much attention to the problematic consequences of authoritarianism, little research focuses on the causes of such unquestioning respect for "proper" authority. Elaborating on the social learning approach to authoritarianism, this article argues that economic inequality within countries shapes individuals' feelings toward authority. As differences in condition increase, so does the relative power of the wealthy. As a result, regardless of their incomes, individuals' experiences are more likely to lead them to view hierarchical relations as natural and, in turn, to hold greater respect for authority. Multilevel models of authoritarianism in countries around the world over three decades support this relative power theory.


authoritarianism, social learning, economic inequality, relative power

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Why do some people so often just do as they are told? In their unhesitating obedience to orthodox authorities-and indeed, their demands that their fellow citizens similarly obey-such authoritarian individuals are thought to have provided a crucial base of mass support for some of the worst political disasters of the past century, from aggressive war to genocide. The extent to which a country's citizens prefer simply to conform to the pronouncements of "proper" authority or instead are inclined to think for themselves is therefore a matter of great importance.

The many undesirable consequences of greater deference to such authority have been well established empirically over more than a half-century of study. A few examples will suffice. Individuals who are more authoritarian have been repeatedly demonstrated to be more intolerant of ethnic, religious, sexual, and political minorities (e.g., Adorno et al. 1950; Altemeyer 1988; Stenner 2005; Mockabee 2007). Greater respect for authority yields ready support for the aggressive use of military force (e.g., Herzon, Kincaid, and Dalton 1978; Kam and Kinder 2007; Barker, Hurwitz, and Nelson 2008; Hetherington and Weiler 2009). And higher levels of authoritarianism make individuals much more likely to condone and even endorse illegal and blatantly undemocratic government behavior (e.g., Altemeyer 1981; Geddes and Zaller 1989; Canetti-Nisim 2004).

In contrast, the origins of respect for authority are far from certain. This article elaborates on the social learning approach to explaining authoritarianism by arguing that contexts of greater economic inequality shape experiences with authority in ways that should be expected to increase authoritarianism. Multilevel models that bring together data on authoritarianism from the five waves of the World Values Survey (WVS), conducted over more than two decades in dozens of countries around the world, with inequality data from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database (SWIID) provide impressive support for this hypothesis. These findings constitute important contributions to our understanding of both the origins of authoritarianism and the political effects of economic inequality.

Economic Inequality and Authoritarianism

To date, studies of the causes of authoritarianism have taken one of two theoretical approaches; unfortunately, neither provides satisfactory explanations for the wide variations in the extent of deference to authority found across countries and over time. The first approach maintains that respect for authority is innate and genetically determined: some people by their very nature are simply more authoritarian than others (e.g., McCourt et al. 1999; Stenner 2005). If authoritarianism is simply inborn, then large cross-national variation must reflect great differences in the genetic endowment of the populations of different countries, a possibility that is extremely unlikely. As has been observed with reference to other behavioral phenomena, wide variation across countries "precludes a deterministic biological account" (Penner 2008, S140). …

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