Charisma Reconsidered

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charisma, leadership, norms, sacred, taboo, Weber

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Charisma is a concept with a peculiar history. It arose from theological obscurity through social science, from which it passed into popular culture. As a social science concept, its significance derives in large part from the fact that it captures a particular type of leadership. But it fits poorly with other concepts in social science, and is problematic as an explanatory concept. Even Weber himself was torn in his use of the concept between the individual type-concept and a broader use of it to characterize the sacral character of culture and institutions. Which use is fundamental? Neither use seems to be able to be extended to account for the other, and in practice the term serves as a heterogenous residual category. Shils’ argument that the charisma of central institutions was fundamental was an attempt to make sense of the examples of institutional charisma that fell into this residual category, such as the jury, and assimilated charisma to the idea of the holy. But this conflicts with Weber’s idea of the originary or creative character of individual charisma, which by definition cannot derive from preexisting sacral qualities. Weber’s account of individual charisma focuses on success, and this suggests the idea that the power of the charismatic leader arises from the ability to confound and surpass expectations - to be extraordinary. This allows us to reconsider ‘originary’ charisma, and assimilate it both to rational choice and to Steiner’s account of taboo. A leader who produces a change in our risk perceptions by proving our previous perceptions wrong by the success of the leader’s actions is providing a novel rational choice for us: a new option together with new estimates of the risk in a course of action. Weber explained the situation of primitive or magical morality in terms of magical charisma producing taboos that were then rationalized, leading to permanent norms - which relies on the notion of charisma without explaining it. But Steiner goes further, by suggesting that taboo represents the intellectual organization of danger through the act of interdiction. The power to interdict is not based on some other power, but rather the power to organize danger through interdiction is originary. Is there originary charisma today? Or is the commonplace use of the term ‘charisma’ a transformation of the concept into something else? In popular culture, the term refers to role-models who break new ground, and if we consider the ‘dangers’ that they appear to their audiences to overcome, the phenomenon is not so different. Charisma seems to collapse into personal style, but in a world in which the old interdicts have lost their power, style itself becomes a matter of experimental success in the face of social danger.

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Journal of Classical Sociology, v. 3, issue 1, p. 5-26