AUTHORITY by Richard Sennett
Kirkus Star


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Not a tour de force by this usually provocative social thinker (The Uses of Disorder, The Fall of Public Man) but a competent, often insightful examination of one of the emotional bonds of modern society. (Studies of two others are coming.) For Sennett (Sociology, New York University), authority is a many-faceted concept: it involves ""assurance, superior judgment, the ability to impose discipline, the capacity to inspire fear."" Relying on a mix of case histories, diaries, letters, and literary examples, he examines the forms authority assumes in modern society, including paternalism (look to Pullman and King Lear) and, more subtly, autonomy. In this latter form Boss still controls reality, but places the emphasis squarely on the subordinate. ""He consistently focuses the employee back upon his own responses, aspirations and feelings,"" thus avoiding dealing with the employee person-to-person. While some individuals may reject authority in either of these guises, Sennett considers them still tied to their masters through bonds of rejection, well-demonstrated by the case of a young white woman who consistently dated black men as an unconscious means of maintaining her dependent tie to her parents. Solutions? Sennett advises that we accept the need for authorities, yet be wary of their claims. He points to the Athenians who, while loving order, also distrusted absolute rule. ""This distrust, this fear of hubris, was thought to set a person free. A free person believed there are rules but no Rule."" He also advises that we change our negative attitude toward authority to one that accepts conflict as part of the game. Specific suggestions include requiring use of the active voice (over the ubiquitous ""It has been decided. . ."") and insisting on a discourse about categories (what applies to whom?) and about obedience (how much latitude around the rules?). We also need an open discourse about nurturance, the duty of those in authority. That done, ""authority can become a process, a making, breaking, a remaking of meanings. It can be visible and legible."" Making it responsive is for Sennett ""the hard, uncomfortable, often bitter work of democracy."" A reasoned, unintimidating approach to what remains a highly-charged emotional bond.

Pub Date: April 21st, 1980
ISBN: 0393310272
Publisher: Knopf