Obedience is a word that most people have had more than just a brush with at various points in their lives it’s a popular refrain from parent’s teachers and authority figures throughout one’s life. In various cases and circumstances, some people could obey by default, some people can be coaxed or cajoled into obedience, come require gentle or slightly less gentle prodding, and some other people will only obey after the have been shamed, browbeaten or forced to obey an instruction. Several theories have been proposed on the subject of obedience, how it can be elicited, what factors influence it and what conditions make disobedience the only viable response in an individual. Several works and experiments have been carried out on the subject of obedience with various interesting albeit somewhat controversial results. Probably the most discussed work on the subject was carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1963. This paper will examine the various view points on the subject of obedience and specifically the discursive approach.
Obedience is by definition carrying out the instructions given to one by another person some time despite ones reservations and objections to the issued instructions. Within this definition lies the main issue with the subject, the reservations and objections of the subject(in this case the person from whom obedience is expected) what kind of situations or conditions are sufficient to make a person do something that they would rather not do. Milgram (1963) carried out an experiment that formed the intellectual basis of the psycho-social narrative on the subject of obedience and is lauded by many despite its many critics as probably the most iconic psychological experiments. In a nutshell he got about 40 male subjects (designated as teachers) to apply increasing amounts of electric current to another subject (designated as a learner) each time they learner gave incorrect answers to the teacher all in order to get the learner to give correct answers to a given set of questions, at its core the experiment explored the influence of an authority figure on people’s tendencies to do things which they were morally uncomfortable with.
A not too dissimilar experiment but with difference in focus was conducted by Dr Philip Zimbardo to understand the reason for conflict between guards and prisoners in military prisons. These two experiments have sought to show how dependent on an authority figure a person’s response to certain uncomfortable instructions can be.(Haslam & Reicher, 2012) from Milgram’s experiment we can draw the conclusions that people or in this case subjects were most likely to obey instructions under some specific circumstances which included; when these instructions came from a person they saw as an authority figure rather than a fellow volunteer, when the experiments were conducted within a prestigious institution, if the participant designated as the learner was in another room, and when the subject was not a witness to the disobedience of another subject. Research into the results of this experiment revealed that people were more likely to do things that they considered extreme if they could absolve themselves of blame by assigning responsibility to the authority figure, and if the authority figure was one who they were wary of offending, and finally that people who obeyed the first seemingly routine tasks were more likely to or felt compelled to continue obeying even more difficult tasks within the above settings.
These experiments raised the issue of destructive obedience and the conformational bias that reinforce such behaviour, this bias was essentially focused on compliance to directives from authority figures and the opinion among commentators was that conformation bias in the places where it existed was strong enough to actively obscure resistance and disobedience. The arguments in favor of this bias were made stronger by the work of Ardent (1963) whose work on the trial of Eichmann (one of the major players in Hitler’s Nazi pogrom) introduced the term the banality of evil, in which he made the case for people who would fulfil tasks assigned to them by an authority figure who they were willing to pass off the blame to because they considered themselves to be just parts of a whole, and ultimately were not responsible for their actions. The work seemed to suggest that despite the appearance of Eichmann as a psychopath he was only an efficient and diligent bureaucrat essentially content with carry out orders without pondering the weightier issues of the morality of the instructions (Ardent, 1963).
The preceding paragraphs and the authors cited therein paint a picture of the near inevitability of destructive obedience namely the fact that despite personal misgivings, people will blindly obey an authority figure, while this might be so in a lot of the time, case in point the Nazi pogrom and the amount of people that committed various heinous crimes under the influence of Nazi rhetoric, it essentially leaves out one fundamental fact from Milgram’s experiment, namely the fact that not all of the subjects went through with the requests of the experimenters. Many experts have pointed out that in the rush to find evidence for destructive obedience and conformational bias a lot of authors have placed little significance on the fact that some of the test subjects were able to extricate themselves out of the experimental situation. In essence the were able to disobey the authority figure in this experimental scenario by arguing skilfully applying rhetoric to get out of the uncomfortable situation as seen in Gibson’s rhetorical analysis (Langdridge & Taylor, 2007)
Rhetorical psychology provided the methodological frame work for the analysis done by Gibson and is part of a larger group of discourse analysis methods. The focus of rhetorical psychology is the identification of discursive strategies and arguments and how they are applied in discourse. At the time of Milgram’s experiment the discursive approach was not yet a popular method of experiment analysis, however some years after the conclusion of the experiment, an analysis of the discourse between the experimenter and the test subjects is yielding valuable fruits for this sort of analysis. Many of the test subjects began to show varied degrees of discomfort after passing the 150volts mark and sustained opposition to going on with the experiment was sufficient to get the test subjects out of the experiment. The disobedience shown in this experiment came not immediately directly but in some cases by way of discussions and bargaining’s. The initial disobedience from the test subject (teacher) came not from a direct challenge to the authority figure in the this case the experimenter, but in the test subject changing the paradigm by insisting that they would take orders from the patient (learner) even though they were cautioned against doing this by the experimenter (Langdridge & Taylor, 2007). The changing of the authority figure by the test subject (teacher) in the case followed the subjects assertion that since they were in America he had the option of continuing with the protocol as it was not. Thus by changing the authority figure from whom he obtained instructions, the test subject was able to tactfully extricate himself from the uncomfortable situation by undermining the authority of the experimenter.
To better appreciate the dynamic of this conversation and properly analyse the experiment a proper understanding of the authority figure in the context of the experiment is vital. In the Milgram experiment the experiment is to the test subject one who has the right to give commands and to who another feels the obligation to obey. Milgram himself describes the relationship with the authority figure or an authority system as one consisting minimally of two people where one of them is perceived to be able prescribe the behaviours of the other one and thus has social control over the environment, stating that this authority stems from the perceived position in the social structure being discussed or observed (Blass, 1999), with this kind of system in mind a better perspective can be gotten from the conversations of the test subject with the experimenter. In one case after the experimenter suggests to the test subject that no permanent damage has been done to the learner, the teacher informs the experimenter that due to his experience as an electrical engineer he knows that shocks can actually hurt and in so doing attempts to undermine the authority of the experimenter(the authority figure in this narrative) by pitting his experience against his and in so doing extricate himself from having to obey this authority figure.
In any case the discursive approach shows how obedience can be achieved by a social construct that enables one person to demand the same from another person who feels that in that particular situation, the authority figure can demand obedience from them. Obedience studies, remains an important part of psychological investigation. Studies on the subject of obedience focus severally on how individuals and situations influence obedience and how this affects social interaction.it is the research into obedience that has given rise to the various approaches like the discursive one. However analysts point out that the degree of conformity to the demands of an authority figure is a direct product of personality, and personality type has influences on what conformational goals of people in various social situations which in turn determines their agreeableness.(Begue et al, 2014).
In conclusion the discursive approach allows the rhetoric basis of an authority system to be understood and provides the platform for arguments and bargains as a means to undermining authority figure to the end of disobedience. It must be understood that the personality type of the individual determines if they will be able to raise the proper arguments and if they will be amenable to conformation.
- Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.
- Bègue, L., Beauvois, J.-L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. A. (July 24, 2014). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality,
- Blass, T. (January 01, 1999). The Milgram Paradigm After 35 Years: Some Things We Now Know About Obedience to Authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29, 5, 955-978.
- Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. D. (November 20, 2012). Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's Studies Really Show. Plos Biology, 10, 11.)
- Langdridge, D., & Taylor, S. (2007). Critical Readings in Social Psychology. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- MILGRAM, S. (January 01, 1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 67, 371-8.