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Part of the Weberian armoury of concepts dealing with legitimacy, deference has been defined by Howard Newby (The Deferential Worker, 1977) as ‘the form of social interaction which occurs in situations involving the exercise of traditional authority’. Submissive behaviour—but not necessarily, according to Newby, a normative endorsement of the status quo—is required on the part of the subordinate actor or group. A deferential performance need not imply deferential attitudes—merely a conforming to expectations within an unequal power relationship.

As with all concepts of legitimacy, deference requires reference both to those claiming as much as to those ascribing legitimacy to an order, and this in turn led Newby to coin the phrase ‘the deferential dialectic’ to describe the manner in which the superior ‘defined, evaluated and managed the relationship from above’, as much as it was being ‘interpreted, appraised and manipulated from below’. The face-to-face nature of the deferential relationship, and the overt inequality apparent at every turn, suggest that the traditional order within which this relationship is played out is grounded in the most morally powerful of values. Property ownership, with its hereditary overtones as in the case of family farms and the tied cottage, rural religiosity, and respect for natural forces, may all combine in a constellation of such values. The erosion of deferential behaviour amongst industrial workers has been caused by the disappearance of those same conditions for the exercise of such relationships and the collapse of the economic and moral basis to the order that maintained them. See also images of society.

Subjects: Law — Sociology.

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