Authority (I): A Promise Theoretic Formalization

26 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2021

Date Written: April 23, 2021


Authority is a central concept in social systems, but it has a variety of meanings. Promise Theory offers a simple formalized understanding of authority, and its origins, as polarization within a network of collaborative interactions. This idealized approximation stands in contrast to the usual deontic view of authority in socio-philosophical literature, and unifies the various interpretations with a single idea. It's shown that the elementary meanings of authority can all be understood as a promise, analogous to that of a `compass direction' within some decision space, with which agents may choose to align voluntarily. Authority is therefore separated from the embodiment by any particular agency or kind of agent, and is closely related to the concept of leadership in management science. Agents may try to impose authoritative directives onto subordinates, but imposition will generally be ineffective, due to their autonomy or causal independence. Stable configurations may be formed from resonant interactions that employ both semantics and dynamics to bind agents. This simple-minded formalization serves as an foundation for later study about the
dynamics of authority and derived `power'.

Keywords: Promise Theory, Authority, Formalism

Suggested Citation

Burgess, Mark, Authority (I): A Promise Theoretic Formalization (April 23, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

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