Advice Not Safely Ignored: Professional Authority and the Strength of Legitimate Complexity

Gitte Sommer Harrits, Lars Thorup Larsen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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It is widely debated how ordinary citizens understand and use different types of knowledge and whether the authority of professional expertise is challenged by the spread of information. These debates underline that we know too little about how professional expertise is understood from the citizens’ point of view and how citizens decide whether or not to accept various types of expertise as authoritative. This article investigates professional authority understood as lay citizens’ willingness to follow certain types of professional advice. We argue that variation in professional authority can be explained by citizens’ evaluations of professional expertise and whether they perceive the tasks and problems addressed by professionals as having ‘legitimate complexity’. The analysis uses survey data from two countries, including vignettes on following advice in concrete everyday situations. We find legitimate complexity to be a strong predictor of professional authority although social status also plays a role.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1015-1034
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


  • authority
  • doctors
  • legitimate complexity
  • professional authority
  • professions
  • quantitative methods
  • survey data
  • teachers
  • vignettes


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