Legitimacy is a much used concept in the social sciences. However, the absence of precise operational meaning has prompted questions about its utility as an explanation of compliance with social norms. Most recently, Alan Hyde has argued that legitimacy cannot be disentangled from other explanations of compliance such as coercion and self-interest and should, therefore, be abandoned. However, institutional, attitudinal, and behavioral dimensions of legitimacy can be operationalized. As part of our research on small claims courts we examined variations in institutional processes and legitimacy, gathered data on levels of voluntary compliance, and questioned defendants about their reasons for paying claims against them. We conclude that institutional legitimacy is related to voluntary compliance, and that the “language of obligation” is an important part of normal discourse. Operational meanings for legitimacy are available and empirical research about legitimacy should be a prominent part of the social science research agenda.