In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Authority and Work

  • Introduction
  • Intersections of Gender, Race, and Ethnicity
  • Authority: Glass Ceilings, Glass Escalators, and Glass Cliffs

Sociology Authority and Work
Ryan A. Smith, George Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0210


The sociological study of authority (i.e., legitimate workplace control of human and organizational resources) is rooted in early theoretical debates surrounding the conceptualization of stratification and social class position. Such debates around conceptualization naturally led to disagreements over the manner in which authority should be measured (qualitative categories versus quantitative scales) for empirical assessment of social inequality. Thus, this field of sociological inquiry is about measuring positions in the workplace, the processes leading to those positions, and the consequences of those positions for workplace rewards. In addition to theory and measurement, the emergence of authority research includes studies of gender, race, and ethnic differences in the factors that determine authority and in the consequences of authority for various workplace outcomes. As multiracial/ethnic samples became available, researchers focused on the manner in which gender intersected with race/ethnicity to forge differential authority outcomes for men and women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Studies here underscore the fact that job authority remains unevenly distributed nationally (race/ethnicity, gender), and cross-nationally (gender), and authority gaps have remained robust over time. Authority studies employ a variety of data from the United States and Europe, regions that dominate quantitative assessments of authority inequality, but recent data from Israel and Korea foreshadow the extension of these inquiries to less traditional locales, thereby expanding our understanding of group differences and similarities in authority attainment more globally.

Theoretical Foundations

The theoretical foundations of authority as an important dimension of social inequality is rooted in the unreconciled debate regarding the conceptualization of modern industrial societies as either based on social class or social status. This debate, which has broad implications for the measurement and operationalization of authority for quantitative research, remains unresolved.

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