Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


7 February 2018

Stephen Gibson - ‘We have a choice’: The rhetorical enactment of collective resistance in the ‘two peers rebel’ condition of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments.

Presented By Stephen Gibson, York St. John University
  • 1:00-2:00 pm CRCC Seminar Series
  • U1.22 Brockington Building

About this event

The role of collective processes has always been an important, if under-theorised, aspect of standard social psychological accounts of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments.  In particular, the observation that the introduction of defiant confederates in the ‘two peers rebel’ condition reduced obedience levels amongst naïve participants constitutes one of Milgram’s better-known findings.  Recently, an influential and novel re-interpretation of Milgram’s studies has placed collective processes centre-stage.  Informed by social identity theory, Reicher and Haslam have suggested that identification with the experimenter as a leader (‘engaged followership’) is a better explanation than the standard account of Milgram’s experiments in terms of obedience. 

However, little research has directly explored the dynamics of collective processes in Milgram’s experiments, and no previous analyses of Milgram’s experiments have considered the audio recordings of Milgram’s ‘two peers rebel’ condition, which are held in the archives at Yale University Library.  The present study set out to explore the way in which collectivity was enacted in this condition, with a particular focus on the rhetorical enactment of collective resistance. 

Using the tools of discourse analysis and rhetorical psychology, analysis pointed to three key findings:  1.  There were marked variations in the ways in which the experimenter and the confederate-teachers (i.e. the ‘peers’) constructed collectivity; 2.  Naïve participants could act jointly with confederate-teachers in resisting the experimenter; 3.  Naïve participants acting alone following the withdrawal of teacher-confederates could rhetorically invoke the other group members in their attempts to extricate themselves from the situation.  Ultimately, resistance in this condition was far from a uniform process.  Implications for the engaged followership model, as well as for theory and research on ‘obedience’ more broadly, are discussed.