A social group that is organized along the lines of traditional authority is one which relies heavily upon traditions, customs, habits, and routines in order regulate human behavior, to distinguish right from wrong, and to assure sufficient stability to allow the group to survive. Whatever has come before is assumed to be the way things should be, either because they have always worked or because they were sanctified by higher powers in the past.
Those who hold positions of power in systems of traditional authority typically do not do so because of personal competence, knowledge, or training. Instead, people hold their positions based upon characteristics like age, gender, family, etc. At the same time, however, the allegiance that people owe towards authority figures is very much personal rather than towards some “office” that the person holds.
This doesn’t mean that the exercise of such authority can be entirely arbitrary. People may owe allegiance to a person rather than their office or to tradition as a whole, but if a leader tries to violate tradition, the legitimacy his authority requires may be called into question and perhaps revoked entirely.
In a sense, the authority figure owes his allegiance to the boundaries and structures created by tradition. When such authority figures are rejected and/or opposed, it is the person who is normally opposed, in the name of the traditions which have been transgressed. Only rarely are the traditions themselves rejected, for example when a charismatic figure appears and promises to overthrow the old order in the name of a higher purpose or power.
While charismatic authority is by nature independent of tradition or law, and legal authority must be independent of the whims or desires of individuals, traditional authority occupies an interesting middle ground between the two. Traditional authority figures have enormous freedom of discretion, but only within certain limitations which are largely outside their control. Change is certainly possible, but not easily and not quickly.
It is important to keep in mind another important difference between legal/rational and traditional authority, and that is the fact that the traditions which create the social structures of authority are not codified. If that were to happen, then they would acquire the status of external laws and that would lead us to legal/rational authority. It is true that the power of a traditional authority may be supported by external laws, but the authority itself is regarded as deriving primarily from the traditions and only secondarily, if at all, from written laws which codify tradition.
To consider a very separate example, the idea that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman but never between more than two people or two people of the sex is derived from social and religious traditions. There are laws which codify the nature of this relationship, but the laws themselves are not cited as the fundamental reason against gay marriage. Instead, gay marriage is said to be excluded as a possibility precisely because of the authoritative and binding nature of traditions which are held as a sort of collective common sense.
Although tradition can easily have a strong hold on people, that often isn’t enough. The problem with pure tradition is its informal nature; because of this, it can only be enforced in an informal manner. When a group becomes large enough and diverse enough, informal enforcement of social norms simply isn’t possible anymore. Transgressions become too appealing and/or too easy to get away with.
Those interested in preserving tradition must therefore seek other methods for enforcement — formal methods which rely upon codified rules and regulations. Thus, social pressures which challenge or threaten the sanctity of tradition cause a group’s traditions to be transformed into formal laws and rules. What we have then is not a system of traditional authority but rather legal/rational authority.