Tag Archives: Authority

Concept-Checking: Authority Figures (AFs) vs. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

On the surface, one may think that an ‘authority’ or ‘authority figure’ is the same (or nearly the same) as an ‘expert.’ Teasing out the key differences to these concepts is of philosophical significance.
Let’s take an ‘authority figure’ first. Someone who is an authority figure is someone who is seemingly responsible, either preventatively or reactively, for enforcing observance or obedience to a particular norm/rule/principle/ideal. They either encourage us to uphold (or at least not to break) that norm/rule/principle/ideal. Or, if we decide not to do what is asked or expected of us, they may punish us for our seemingly incorrect choice.

We can think of 3 key examples within our daily lives: the religious leader (e.g. priest, rabbi, imam, guru, etc.), the police officer (or military official), and the calculator (or the computer program).

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Power and Authority in the Patient/Physician Relationship in Western Medicine

The largest disparity between position in the social hierarchy of Western medicine is between the patient and the physician. The patient/physician interaction is critically shaped by the rigidity of the social hierarchy. In describing the nature of the patient/physician relationship, Parsons lays out four distinct features that establish and maintain a particular form of the subordinate/superior relationship, most commonly expressed in terms of power/authority.

Before going further, an extremely important distinction must be drawn. Power and authority are, categorically, not the same things. For instance, in at least one form, the legitimization of authority allows one to exercise more power. Authority therefore enhances elements like one’s reputation or one’s social standing. Authority, also, could be viewed as an entirely different form of power. Whereas power may stipulate the explicit use of force/coercion (i.e. violence), authority may stipulate a softer version of that with similar end results but without the use of force/coercion. Instead, psychological mechanisms and tools may be utilized. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole on this, but suffice it to say they are conceptually and logically distinct and should be kept that way for current purposes.

In this case, the physician is bestowed with authority through his/her extensive knowledge of the human body, coupled with the recognition of the former by the social structure known as medical school. The authority of the physician allows him/her to suggest, recommend, and, in some cases, command the patient to complete or permit certain actions.

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