A new angle on Milgram
Although there is no shortage of resources available for the teaching of many of the so-called “classics” in Social Psychology, such as Milgram’s obedience studies, I thought it was still worth blogging about an article In August 2015’s The Psychologist magazine entitled “Rhetoric and Resistance”.
Stephen Gibson (Department of Psychology and Sport, York St John University) writes about the importance of qualitative data and qualitative analysis to really understand what Milgram’s research tells us about human behaviour. The article, published in the British Psychology Society’s member’s publication, has the potential to offer a familiar context for students to learn about qualitative research methods for A Level Psychology.
Experiments and qualitative research methods
It can be easy for students to get the impression that qualitative research methods are used by researchers who don’t like experimental methods and that researchers might somehow fall into two camps distinguished by those who favour “scientific” experiments and those who prefer the richness and flexibility of qualitative methods. Many experiments in Psychology aim to tell us what humans might do under particular conditions but qualitative methods are also often employed and are vital for telling us why participants might have behaved in a particular way. Both Asch and Milgram gathered extensive data from post-experimental interviews in order to try to find out why they did or did not conform or obey and the content of these interviews has given insight that numbers alone cannot provide.
Is it really obedience or something else…?
The author of the BPS article focusses on an often overlooked source of qualitative data collected by Milgram which has the potential to challenge assumptions made about what Milgram’s study revealed about human nature. In his classic obedience studies, where a participant is given an order to give electric shocks to confederate for making errors in a memory test, Milgram revealed high levels of “obedience” measured by a willingness to deliver a shock to the “learner” (the confederate) up to 450 volts. Stephen Gibson, however, suggests that the audio transcripts of the interactions between the participant and the experimenter issuing the order reveal a social process that may not actually be obedience at all. Gibson suggests that contrary to popular belief the audio reveals that the experimenter did not stick to the standardised “script” and appeared able to improvise in their interactions much more than reports of the study seem to suggest was the case. This might suggest that participants showed more resistance to the request to carry on and deliver the shock than the quantitative data might imply. The validity of Milgram’s research, therefore, may be in doubt if this source of data is taken into account.
The BPS article includes a section of the transcript of the audio from the experiment where a participant is asking for reassurance from the learner that they are ok and willing to continue. Although we might assume that the experimenter would have simply repeated that the participant must continue, the audio reveals a much more drawn out discussion involving some negotiation rather than standardised orders.
The author points out that it is the recording of this qualitative data that makes this scrutiny possible and makes the case that it is important to gather qualitative data and recordings of the interactions between participants and investigators in experiments, rather than focus solely on the outcome of the experiment.
In the A Level Psychology classroom
The article caught my eye because it offers an angle that could be useful for exploring concepts related to qualitative data analysis and the validity of the experiments such as Milgram’s (AQA AS Psychology – Social Influence 3.1.1: How well does Milgram’s research actually enable us to explain obedience?; 188.8.131.52 Data handling and analysis: the difference between quantitative and qualitative data; AQA A Level – 4.1.1 Social influence; 184.108.40.206 Data handling and analysis: content analysis, coding, thematic analysis).
The article ends with the following line: “If we attempt to analyse what happens in experiments without exploring the use of language, we risk missing the social processes that should be at the heart of the study of social Psychology”. I love quotes to stimulate discussion in lessons and I think this closing line from Stephen Gibson would make a great starter or plenary for a lesson on Milgram’s research which has the potential to either simply introduce the importance of qualitative research methods or as an extension for those who you are encouraging to take opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills.
The article includes extracts of the transcripts of the audio of the interaction between the participant and the confederate acting as the experimenter. If you are not eligible for membership with the BPS you can become an e-subscriber for a small annual fee and access the full article and much much more…