Scholarship Update on Stanley Milgram

50 Years of ‘Obedience to Authority’: From Blind Conformity to Engaged Followership, Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 13, pp. 59-78, 2017

Abstract

Despite being conducted half a century ago, Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority remain the most well-known, most controversial, and most important in social psychology. Yet in recent years, increased scrutiny has served to question the integrity of Milgram’s research reports, the validity of his explanation of the phenomena he reported, and the broader relevance of his research to processes of collective harm-doing. We review these debates and argue that the main problem with received understandings of Milgram’s work arises from seeing it as an exploration of obedience. Instead, we argue that it is better understood as providing insight into processes of engaged followership, in which people are prepared to harm others because they identify with their leaders’ cause and believe their actions to be virtuous. We review evidence that supports this analysis and shows that it explains the behavior not only of Milgram’s participants but also of his research assistants and of the textbook writers and teachers who continue to reproduce misleading accounts of his work.

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