Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Legitimate means being in conformance with law, social morays, cultural imperatives or ideological expectations.

explanatory context

In social research legitimate means conforming to law, accepted norms, values or standards. It implies a degree of authenticity. Indeed in some areas, such as art (including performing arts) high (quality) art is sometimes referred to as legitimate art as opposed to populist art forms. However, for Lukacs, for example, authentic art is determined by content not form.


Legitimate also has meanings in the sense of legitimate birth or heredity: a legitimate child in some societies is one born to a legally married couple and a legitimate monarch is one who hereditary line can be determined.


A logical conclusion to a problem. is also sometimes referred to as a legitimate solution.


Legitimation can also be used to refer to the standing of a social system or element of it. Habermas, for example, discuused the legitimation crisis facing capitalism and in some countries there are problems with the legitmacy of military dictaorships. Ideology serves to legitimate social systems.


analytical review

Crossman (2013) defines legitimation as follow:

Legitimation is a process through which a social system or some aspect of it comes to be accepted as appropriate and generally supported by those who participate in it. Legitimation can be accomplished in a variety of ways and begins early though childhood socialization.

Hurley and Sá (2013) discuss orgnisational legitimacy:

In institutional theory, legitimacy is the primary incentive for the adoption of institutionalised practice, as a means to provide stability in the face of uncertain markets or technologies (Meyer and Rowan, 1977). Legitimacy is tightly connected to the concept of institutions, which are enduring social structures and processes that give order and meaning to life. Legitimacy is a necessary characteristic of a well-established
Suchman (1995) defined legitimacy as ‘a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions.’ Organisations may be highly dependent on constituents for resources, which could lead to the application of high standards for legitimacy, while others may be relatively independent, resulting in lower standards for securing support. Suchman provided a detailed typology and possible strategies for acquiring and maintaining legitimacy. His typology includes pragmatic legitimacy, which is based in an observer’s expectation that they will benefit from exchanges with the entity; normative legitimacy, based in the entity’s congruence with established social, legislative and professional norms; procedural legitimacy, rooted in broad acceptance of institutional processes and cognitive legitimacy, which is based in the comprehensibility and appropriateness of the entity, the fit of the entity into the social fabric. Scott (2001) also identified pragmatic, moral and cognitive aspects of legitimacy. Pragmatic legitimacy arises out of real or potential direct benefits. Normative legitimacy is founded in rules and values-based assessments of the propriety of the organisation, its products, methods, group membership and leadership, where the rules may be those imposed by government, or may come from either socially constructed or professional norms. Cognitive legitimacy is a result of gaining a position within social models and structures that provides comprehensibility and taken-for-granted status.
At the most basic level, compliance with formal laws and regulations brings legitimacy. Endorsements resulting from professional assessments or accreditations, as identified as a motivator of normative isomorphism by DiMaggio and Powell (1991), are a strong source of normative legitimacy. However, Deephouse and Suchman (2008) noted that normative legitimacy extends beyond the rules of professional practice to include the rules, norms and values of social institutions, and from concrete performance to considerations of general social benefits. Consequential legitimacy is extended when the output, or technical performance of the organisation meets appropriate standards, regardless of its pragmatic value to the observer....

Legitimacy is a socially constructed, cultural-cognitive condition that assigns characteristics of good, appropriate and desirable to actions of an organisation or other social entity based on the subjective perceptions of interested observers (Scott, 2001).


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) states:

LEGITIMACY. The generally held belief that a particular social institution is just and valid.

LEGITIMATION CRISIS. The lack of sufficient commitment on the part of members to a particular social institution for that organization to function effectively. Governments that lack legitimation often rely on repression to continue their rule (which is very inefficient).  Legitimation crisis in other institutions produce parallel responses on the part of administration.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 1


Crossman, A., 2013, 'Legitimation' available at, accessed 11 March 2013, still available 22 December 2016 but links to 'Socialisation' entry 9 June 2019.

Deephouse, D.L. and Suchman, M C., 2008, 'Legitimacy in organizational institutionalism', in Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Sahlin, K. and Suddaby, R. (Eds.), The
SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism
. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 49–77.

Dimaggio, P.J. and Powell, W.W., 1991, 'The iron cage revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields', in Powell W.W and
Dimaggio, P.J. (Eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Hurley. P. and Sá, C., 2013, 'Higher education policy and legitimacy building: the making of a new academic credential in Ontario', Higher Education Quarterly, forthoming

Meyer, J.W. and Rowan, B., 1977, 'Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony', American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), pp. 340–63.

Scott, W.R., 2001, Institutions and Organizations, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Suchman, M.C., 1995, 'Managing legitimacy: strategic and institutional approaches', Academy of Management Review, 20 (3), pp. 571–610.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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