Theoretical background

For a detailed elaboration on the multi-level conception of legitimacy, please see Bitektine & Haack 2015 as well as Haack, Schilke, & Zucker 2021


Bitektine, A., & Haack, P. 2015. The macro and the micro of legitimacy: Towards a multi-level theory of the legitimacy process. Academy of Management Review, 40(1), 49-75.

Haack, P., Schilke, O., & Zucker, L. (2021). Legitimacy revisited: disentangling propriety, validity, and consensus. Journal of Management Studies, 58 (3), 749-781.

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

Tost, L. P. (2011). An integrative model of legitimacy evaluations. Academy of Management Review, 36, 686-710.

In the past few years, legitimacy research has sought to integrate individual- and collective- level viewpoints and suggested that legitimacy construal is a multilevel process of social judgment formation in which different components of legitimacy interact (Bitektine & Haack, 2015). This multilevel process comprises propriety as the individual-level component of legitimacy, defined as an evaluator’s personal belief that the essence, qualities, or actions of an object are appropriate for its social context (Tost, 2011). In addition, it comprises validity, i.e., a collective-level belief which describes the extent to which a group considers the nature or activities of a legitimacy object as appropriate (Suchman, 1995). Validity represents legitimacy’s institutionalized component and grants a legitimacy object a status of facticity that is informed by a tacit understanding of how things are (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). A validity belief can be described as an evaluator’s judgment that a legitimacy object is perceived as appropriate by significant others in the focal evaluator’s reference group, independently of whether the evaluator regards that object to have propriety. Importantly, individual evaluators are more likely to judge a valid legitimacy object as proper but may choose to silence their propriety beliefs if they conflict with the object’s (perceived) validity (Bitektine & Haack 2015).

Recently, legitimacy scholars have elaborated on an underexplored topic in the multilevel theory of legitimacy—consensus—a collective-level construct that describes the degree to which evaluators agree in terms of propriety beliefs (Haack, Schilke, & Zucker, 2021). Whereas consensus and validity can overlap, in that validity may reflect consensual approval, they are not the same, given that validity, as an institutionalized perception of appropriateness, may hide underlying disagreement—i.e., low consensus. Haack and colleagues (2021) clarified that the persistence and stability of valid legitimacy objects may be based on a collective misperception regarding the actual support for a legitimacy object, in the sense that consensus for a valid legitimacy object is merely presumed but not real. Open and trustful communication among evaluators may reveal an incongruity between validity and consensus and prompt evaluators to update their propriety beliefs, challenge the validity of the status quo and eventually engage in institutional change efforts. The conceptual distinction between validity and consensus is therefore essential to understand the legitimacy processes that precede the occurrence of sudden and unanticipated institutional change.

We suggest that future research on legitimacy needs to clearly disentangle between the propriety, validity, and consensus components of legitimacy, both conceptually and empirically.