Friday, January 15, 2010

Conformity and Obedience

Techniques for social control can be viewed on both group and the societal levels. People whom we regard as our peers as our equal influence us to act in particular ways; the same is true of people who hold authority over us or occupy positions that we view with some awe. Stanley Milgram made a useful distinction between these two important levels of social control.
Milgram defined conformity as going along with one’s peers – individuals of a person’s own status, who have no special right to direct that person’s behaviour. By contrast, obedience is defined as compliance with higher authorities in a hierarchical structure. Thus, a recruit entering military service will typically conform to the habits and language of other recruits and will obey the orders of superior officers.
We often think of conformity in terms of rather harmless situations, such as members of an expensive health club who work out in elaborate and costly sportswear. But researchers have found that people may conform to the attitudes and behaviour of their peers even when such conformity means expressing intolerance toward others. It has been empirically determined that social control (through the process of conformity) influence people’s attitudes and the expression of those attitudes.
Regarding social control (through the process of obedience) and its potential in alerting people’s behaviour, Milgram says,
“Behaviour that is unthinkable in an individual while acting on his own, may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders”.
Milgram pointed out that in the modern industrial world we are accustomed to impersonal authority figures whose status is indicated by a title (professor, lieutenant, doctor, and so on) or by a uniform (a policeman’s, for example). The authority is viewed as larger as and more important than the individual; consequently, the obedient individual shifts the responsibility for his or her behaviour to the authority figure.


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