There are two principal approaches to assessing legitimacy. One is concerned with normative standards to which an actor, institution or political order must conform in order to be considered legitimate. In this approach there is a right way that an actor, institution or political order should exercise power. A normative approach to state legitimacy, based on western liberal values typically understands a legitimate state as a state which features democratic elections and respect for human rights. Andersen (2012) termed the state-centred normative approach based on western liberal values the ‘state institutional-normative approach’, while Lemay-Hebert characterised it as ‘neo Weberian’, emphasising its treatment of legitimacy, in terms of functionality of institutions, based on a Weberian conceptualisation of the state (Lemay-Hebert, 2009, 2010). Examples of this approach include Fukuyama, 2004; Rotberg, 2004; Paris, 2003, 2004; Ignatieff, 2003; and Kaplan, 2004, 2005. The UN employs a normative approach to legitimacy. Since the 1990s, the normative approach has increasingly been questioned by scholars and practitioners (c.f. Chandler, 2004; Clements, 2008; Teskey et al., 2012).
The second approach treats legitimacy or the ‘rightness of an authority’ as being determined by both the governed and the authorities in a given society. This approach tends to focus on the perceptions which people hold about an actor, institution or political order, but is also concerned with the factors that incentivise a society to consent to power. It is referred to as the descriptive or empirical approach (e.g. Papagianni, 2009; Gilley, 2006; Beetham, 1991, 2013; Roos & Lidström, 2014).
It is useful to identify which approach is being used, because an entity could be described as both legitimate and illegitimate based on whether a normative or empirical approach is being used. A state could be considered legitimate by its citizens, for example, despite failing to conform to the normative definition based on features such as democratic elections and respect for human rights, or vice-versa. In everyday use of the term legitimacy in the media and in development, the state institutional-normative approach is often used to evaluate the legitimacy of states. The state institutional-normative approach is less relevant for evaluating armed non-state actors, although normative evaluations of non-state actors are often made based on the same values. Thus the Free Syrian Army is judged to be legitimate by international actors because it advocates a secular democratic state and the protection of human rights, whereas ISIL is judged to be illegitimate as it advocates an Islamic state and does not adhere to the liberal concept of human rights.
Two principal approaches to understanding legitimacy
In his exploration of how to think about legitimacy and illegitimacy, Robert Lamb (2014) emphasises the importance of not only identifying what entity is being evaluated for legitimacy/illegitimacy (which he termed the ‘conferee’) but who is making that judgement (the ‘referee’). It follows that the legitimacy of individual actors, political parties, states or political settlements will vary according to who the referee is. Using the normative approach to evaluating legitimacy, the referee is the evaluator him/herself whereas, in the empirical approach, the referee is the population over which the conferee exerts authority.
- It should be noted, however, that a state which conforms to the Weberian ideal type does not necessarily feature democracy nor respect for human rights. For example, e.g. the Prussian state conformed to the Weberian ideal type but would not be understood as legitimate from a modern liberal perspective.
- Andersen, M. S. (2012). Legitimacy in state-building: A review of the IR literature. International Political Sociology, 6(2), 205–19. See document online
- Beetham, D. (1991). The legitimation of power. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
- Beetham, D. (2013). The legitimation of power (2nd Edition). Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
- Chandler, D. (2004). The responsibility to protect? Imposing the ‘liberal peace.’ International Peacekeeping, 11(1), 59–81. See document online
- Clements, K. (2008). Traditional charismatic and grounded legitimacy. University of Queensland.
- Fukuyama, F. (2004). State building, governance and world order in the 21st century. London: Profile Books.
- Gilley, B. (2006). The determinants of state legitimacy: review for 72 countries. International Political Science Review, 27(1). See document online
- Ignatieff, Michael. (2003). Empire lite. Nation building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. London: Vintage.
- Kaplan, R. (2004). Partner or patron? International civil administration and local capacity-building. International Peacekeeping, 11(2), 229–247. See document online
- Kaplan, R. (2005). International governance of war torn territories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Lamb, R. (2014). Rethinking legitimacy and illegitimacy. Washington, DC: Centre for Strategic and International Studies. See document online
- Lemay-Hébert, N. (2009). Statebuilding without nation-building? Legitimacy, state failure and the limits of the institutionalist approach. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 3(1), 21–45. See document online
- Lemay-Hébert, N. (2010). Rethinking Weberian approaches to statebuilding. In D. Chandler & T. Sisk (Eds.), Routledge handbook of international statebuilding (pp. 3-14). London: Routledge.
- Papagianni, K. (2009). Political Transitions after Peace Agreements: The importance of consultative and inclusive political processes. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 3(1), 47–63. See document online
- Paris, R. (2003). Peacekeeping and the constraints of global culture. European Journal of International Relations, 9(3), 441–473. See document online
- Paris, R. (2004). At war’s end. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Roos, K., & Lidström, A. (2014). Local policies and local government legitimacy. The Swedish case. Urban Research & Practice, 7(2), 137–52. See document online
- Rotberg, R. I. (Ed.). (2004). When states fail. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Teskey, G., Schnell, S., & Poole, A. (2012). Beyond capacity—Addressing authority and legitimacy in fragile states. See document online