Authority at work

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when authority tells them to, as an experiment by Milgram (1971) demonstrated. Milgram’s research question was simply to ask to what extent ordinary individuals, people who are not authoritar- ian personalities but display all the signs of normalcy, follow the commands of figures perceived to be in authority. His answer demonstrated that the kind of situation in which people are embedded determines, in part, how they will act. He designed an experiment in which white-coated scientists instructed ordinary people (the subjects) to do cruel and unusual things to other people (the partici- pants) as part of an experiment in a laboratory. In a nutshell, the subjects were instructed to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to the participants as part of a behavioral learning program. They did so under a range of circumstances. When participants gave incorrect answers to test questions, they were to be admin- istered a shock, with each one to be higher than the one before. (No shock was actually administered; the participants, unbeknownst to the subjects, were actually actors.) When the subjects were face to face with the participants and told to administer the electric shock directly to their hands, using force if necessary, only 30 percent did so. When the subjects could still see the participants but used a con- trol lever that administered the shock instead of having to force the hands of the participants onto the plates administering the shock, 40 percent did so. When the subjects could no longer see the participants but could only hear their distress as the current apparently surged, 62.5 percent were able to apply the current. Moving the others out of earshot marginally improved the rate to 65 percent. The more distance – both physical and psychological – there was between the controllers and the controlled, the easier it seemed to be to do seemingly inhumane and cruel things. The closer the relation between the controller and the supervisor, and the more removed the subject, the easier it became to continue. Obedience to author- ity flows more easily when the subjects of action are at a distance. When these sub- jects can be transformed into objects in the controller’s mind, when they are dehumanized or reduced to just another example of a specific case, obedience flows even more easily.

Another factor facilitating the application of current was the incremental threshold.

Once someone had committed to the action, each increase in the threshold was just a small step, just another slight increase in pain to be endured. It is not as if they started out to kill another person or cause them irretrievable injury. They just did what they were instructed to do – only they did a little bit more of it each time. Where such action should stop, once started, is not at all clear. And after someone has committed to the action, especially if others are complicit, there arise what Milgram (1971) termed ‘situational obligations’. In organizations with complex divisions of labor, sequential action invariably makes us complicit with many others, in many interactions.

Milgram (1971) made one crucial change to the experiments to test out a further hypothesis: that plurality produces space for reflection and pause for consideration. In the experiments reported thus far, there was only one expert giving instructions. Milgram introduced another expert and instructed them to disagree with each other about the command being given. The disagreement between authorities paralyzed the capacity for obedience of the research subjects: out of 20 subjects in this experiment, one refused to go further before the staged disagreement; 18 broke off after it; and the remaining subject opted out just one stage further on. Polyphony – the presence of competing and conflicting voices – increases the probability that people will think for themselves rather than just do what they are told. Thus, strong organizational cultures that suppress value differ- ence are more likely to produce unreflective and sometimes inappropriate organi- zational action than more democratic and pluralistic settings.

Discussion of Milgram leads us back to total institutions. It is in these, precisely, that we would least expect to find polyphony and difference. As Bauman suggests, ‘the readiness to act against one’s own better judgment and against the voice of one’s conscience is not just the function of authoritative command, but the result of exposure to a single-minded, unequivocal and monopolistic source of authority’ (1989: 165) Total institutions – as organizations that presume to exercise strong cultural con- trol over their members, to the extent that they diminish pluralism – squeeze the space in which civility, reflection, and responsibility can thrive. Bauman urges that ‘The voice of individual moral conscience is best heard in the tumult of political and social discord’ (1989: 166).

Even in times and circumstances that are considered normal, you might find powerful total institutions at work, which the following case demonstrates. Again, the absence of polyphony is one of the preconditions for the establishment of total institutions. Haney et al. (1973) designed an experiment that resonates with government practices that are accepted as normal and routine in many societies. The researchers divided a group of male American college students into two types of people, those defined as guards and as inmates. They created a mock prison in a laboratory basement, using as subjects 21 healthy male undergraduate volunteers. Each person was to receive $15 a day for two weeks. Nine were randomly selected to be ‘prisoners’, with the remainder designated as ‘guards’ who were to supervise the prisoners in a rotating three-shift system. Each wore the symbolic garb of the role. Prisoners were given unflattering uniform clothing and tight caps to simulate shaven heads. Guards were put in a militaristic-type uniform and given LA cop sun- glasses. Names were suppressed with norms of impersonality, and complex rules and penalties for their infraction were promulgated. Then the experiment began.

The experiment had to be aborted after less than a week. An escalatory chain of events occurred; the construed authority of the guards was enforced by the sub- missiveness of the prisoners, tempting the guards to show further and increasingly illegitimate displays of the power that their authority allowed them to exercise, leading to further humiliation of the prisoners (Bauman 1989: 167). Bear in mind that the subjects were all normal, well-adjusted people before the experiment began but that after one week they were playing their roles with such conviction that the experiment had to be abandoned because of the real possibility of harm to the ‘prisoners’. No sense of solidarity developed between the two groups, and almost all of their conversation centered on the roles assumed in the experiment.5 Of course, these were just little experiments, play-acting one might note, wryly, so let’s look at a real-life experiment in which the stakes were somewhat higher and the drama existentially real. We shall begin with an account provided by the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.6

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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