I’ve never been that fond of legitimacy as a concept, partly because it often seems too simple to deal with really complicated situations. The idea of delegitimation processes being mutually connected with legitimation processes, and shaping each other, improves the situation, but perhaps not enough.

Let’s look at some obvious points.

Legitimacy, complexity, process and struggle

Legitimacy is a social phenomena.

Hence Legitimacy is a complex phenomena:

  • It occurs in complex systems and is nearly always dynamic, and possibly unstable.
  • Complex systems tend to stay in equilibrium, but they can change rapidly, perhaps coming into new stable states, that may not be an improvement for all dwellers in the system.
  • Possibly small events can have large consequences, especially if repeated.
  • Unintended consequences are normal. Attempts to impose order generate chaos etc… What is thought to produce legitimacy for a thing/process may weaken its legitimacy. Legitimacy can be risked by enforcement. For example, enforcing fossil fuels destabilises the system, which may destabilise support for fossil fuels.
  • Producing legitimacy, or delegitimacy, is not just a matter of intention, but of mutually influencing factors and forces.
  • It can be hard to draw boundaries around legitimation struggles – they spill over into other ‘factors’ – such as cosmologies, customs, habits, politics, group relationships and identities, economics, ecologies, etc.
  • The course of what happens can depend significantly on the context – or supposed external factors and vice versa.
  • Sometimes with complex phenomena you have to proceed by listing the factors involved so you don’t forget important forces.

Legitimacy is not a noun or thing, it is more a descriptive adjective applied to a thing/process.

There are degrees of Legitimacy/illegitimacy which can be attributed to a thing/process. It is not just on or off.

The attribution of legitimacy involves a process, a struggle.

Legitimation struggles often imply de-legitimation struggles, as some other factors have to be delegitimated – the success of fossil fuels require renewables to be inadequate or hindered, and climate change to be exaggerated. Legitimacy and de legitimacy often come together and shape each other.

Institutions can be fractured and this can affect legitimacy. There can be legitimacy struggles within institutions.

Attribution of legitimacy may not be uniform in society, any more than ethical norms have to be uniform. These differences can drive legitimacy processes.

Legitimacy and Ethics

Legitimacy of a thing/process seems related to ethics in that establishing or demolishing Legitimacy often involves ethical arguments. It is possible that arguments over whether a thing/process is legitimate form a subset of ethical arguments, or that ethical arguments are a subset of legitimacy arguments. We could allege ethics is about the legitimacy of actions, thoughts, existence, relationships, behaviours etc…

Ethics is not only revealed in dispute, but ethical arguments can be irresolvable, so ethical disputes can end up being temporarily terminated by deployment of violence (preferably a violence with some support and acceptance [legitimacy], such as courts, law and police), or some kind of magical terminal category. I suspect the same is true of legitimacy arguments. When the violence is used or legitimacy asserted then it can risk being challenged.

Ethics seems to involve

  • Context – events and framings, what provokes the debate, how the events are understood.
  • Cosmology – how the world works and what ethics, or legitimacy/delegitimacy delivers.
  • Custom and habit – what is done gains ethical force, and ethical legitimacy, up to a point.
  • Doing what other people that a person identifies with, or whose category they are put into, may do… Do what others do.
  • Political relations between groups – social category theory makes predictions here
  • Justification or criticism of what people are doing. Often justification can apply to oneself and one’s group, and criciticism to those in outgroups. The aim can be to persuade people ‘you’ have behaved legitimately, or that ‘others’ have not.
  • Enforcement – ultimate resolution of debate by force, or threat of force, or punishment
  • Exclusion – of some people from ethical debate, by saying they are inadequate etc., eg it seems common to allege young children, slaves or people not of the same monotheistic religion, are not capable of ethics or of deciding whether a thing/process is legitimate.

These factors also appear to affect legitimacy: they can be called ‘framings’ or ‘contexts’ for the struggle.

Legitimacy/delegitimacy: Support, Acceptance, Indifference and Rejection for a thing/process

When we talk about the adjective of Legitimacy we may also be talking about several things, that compose it, apart from ethics.

For example: Active Support, Passive Support, Acceptance, Indifference, Reluctance, Active Hostility and Rejection (you can reject something without being actively hostile to it)

I propose to replace the single legitimation-delegitimation continuum, with two intersecting continuums:

  • Support – Rejection
  • Acceptance – Active Hostility

The central point can be called ‘Reluctance’ or Indifference

This graph allows us to specify that ‘legitimacy’ may involve acceptance and indifference, as much as it involves support. The graph could help prevent people from thinking legitimacy is just one thing. We could guesstimate plotting places for various different groups, to give some idea of the social complexity around a thing/processes’ legitimacy levels, and investigate (and possibly predict) what alliances are possible.

It also suggests a range of paths of transition towards support or towards rejection. Some of this can involve belief about legitimacy, but some of it does not – it may involve a disposition or a set of habits.

Indifference does not have to be on the path to rejection or support. Indifference can theoretically translate into either tacit acceptance or tacit rejection, so it may be less useful to replace this with a single continuum of Support / acceptance / indifference / rejection.

We realise that cumulative small events can trigger instability in the legitimation system, and alter it significantly. The question may be to find those causes of equilibrium stress.

The point here is not to present something entirely accurate, but something better, that hopefully points in more useful directions for this area of study, which allows us to ask better questions.