By (author) Richard Sennett


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A master of the interplay between politics and psychology, Richard Sennett here analyzes the nature, the role, and the faces of authority-authority in personal life, in the public realm, authority as an idea. Why have we become so afraid of authority? What real needs for authority do we have-for guidance, stability, images of strength? What happens when our fear of and our need for authority come into conflict? In exploring these questions, Sennett examines traditional forms of authority (The father's in the family, the lord's in society) and the dominant contemporary styles of authority, and he shows how our needs for, no less than our resistance to, authority have been shaped by history and culture, as well as by psychological disposition.

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  • Paperback | 206 pages
  • 139.7 x 213.36 x 17.78mm | 294.83g
  • 30 Sep 1993
  • WW Norton & Co
  • New York
  • English
  • Reissue
  • black & white illustrations
  • 0393310272
  • 9780393310276
  • 428,086

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Author Information

Richard Sennett teaches sociology at the London School of Economics and New York University

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Review text

Not a tour de force by this usually provocative social thinker (The Uses of Disorder, The Fall of Public Man) but a competent, often insightful examination of one of the emotional bonds of modern society. (Studies of two others are coming.) For Sennett (Sociology, New York University), authority is a many-faceted concept: it involves "assurance, superior judgment, the ability to impose discipline, the capacity to inspire fear." Relying on a mix of case histories, diaries, letters, and literary examples, he examines the forms authority assumes in modern society, including paternalism (look to Pullman and King Lear) and, more subtly, autonomy. In this latter form Boss still controls reality, but places the emphasis squarely on the subordinate. "He consistently focuses the employee back upon his own responses, aspirations and feelings," thus avoiding dealing with the employee person-to-person. While some individuals may reject authority in either of these guises, Sennett considers them still tied to their masters through bonds of rejection, well-demonstrated by the case of a young white woman who consistently dated black men as an unconscious means of maintaining her dependent tie to her parents. Solutions? Sennett advises that we accept the need for authorities, yet be wary of their claims. He points to the Athenians who, while loving order, also distrusted absolute rule. "This distrust, this fear of hubris, was thought to set a person free. A free person believed there are rules but no Rule." He also advises that we change our negative attitude toward authority to one that accepts conflict as part of the game. Specific suggestions include requiring use of the active voice (over the ubiquitous "It has been decided. . .") and insisting on a discourse about categories (what applies to whom?) and about obedience (how much latitude around the rules?). We also need an open discourse about nurturance, the duty of those in authority. That done, "authority can become a process, a making, breaking, a remaking of meanings. It can be visible and legible." Making it responsive is for Sennett "the hard, uncomfortable, often bitter work of democracy." A reasoned, unintimidating approach to what remains a highly-charged emotional bond. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Back cover copy

This book is a study of both how we experience authority and how we might experience it differently. Sennett explores the bonds that rebellion against authority paradoxically establishes, showing how this paradox has been in the making since the French Revolution and how today it expresses itself in offices, in factories, and in government as well as in the family.

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