Development Cooperation Handbook/Cooperation and Communication/The relational content of communication/The relationship between power and authority

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The relationship between "power" and "authority"

When we confront the relationship between "power" and "authority", we tackle the basic elements in the dynamics of human relationships. This issue is related to what we said before regarding the difference between "teaching to be free" or "teaching to obey". In fact the difference in the teaching approach depends upon whether the human relationship is based on power or on authority.

In normal speech, the two concepts of power and authority are somehow mixed. The term power can be used in a more positive way than it is often used and the term authority in a more negative way than it is often used. Here, instead, we will differentiate them. What is important is not the terms one uses but the concepts. What we want to do is to differentiate two opposite ways of obtaining obedience from the people.

A typical relationship of authority is that which takes place between the teacher and the learner. The teacher must be given the authority. His authority must be aroused and proved in the context of teaching. The feeling of being a father-like figure is something that must be generated in the communication process. This generation is the result of the way that the students react to the teacher. If the students negate the authority of the teacher, he starts becoming impotent in his teaching. It’s difficult, of course, to say precisely who starts this process. In this relationship, it is the teacher who serves. He is taking care of the learners. The learners benefit and not the teachers from the relationship itself. That’s why the learners normally have to pay the teachers, directly or indirectly (society pays). And it is precisely because the teacher serves, that authority is given to the teacher.

In a social set-up, the typical relationship is this: If I’m taking care of the need of the community and I’m doing something on behalf of the community, the community should give me the authority. This is because what I’m doing is not in my individual interest, but of social interest and has a shared benefit. So society must give me a special recognition, because I’m doing things in the service of the society, and not for myself. This is a typical relationship of authority. Now, remember that authority is established by the social group. Somebody is holding the authority, but that person cannot decide that he/she has the authority. I can, for instance, say, that I’ve been given authority by a social set-up and so I have authority on some individuals. But I cannot say that I have authority upon the same social set-up that has not given me that authority.

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