July 23, 2014

Obedience, Authority, and Domination

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

“Because I said so!”

I’m sure that many of us have either uttered these words or have heard them spoken to us. We hear this phrase expressed in a host of relationships: parent-child, teacher-student, supervisor-employee, and police officer-citizen. Saying this to someone is generally used to get them to obey your authority and do what you are telling them to do with as little resistance as possible.

When we think about obedience to authority, we often think of the famous study by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. Most students have probably learned about the Milgram Experiment where participants were told to administer shocks to people on the other side of a partition. Despite hearing the pleas and cries of anguish from the person on the other side (who, of course, was an actor), the subjects still administered what they thought were electric shocks. In fact, 65% of the participants administered the maximum voltage regardless of the torment they assumed they were inflicting. 

Milgram devised this experiment to try to understand how millions of Germans during World War II could support the Nazis and contribute to the Holocaust. Were these people “just following orders” because “someone said so” or was there something deeper at work? In analyzing the results of his work, Milgram made the following observations:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

Milgram’s work on obedience and authority was groundbreaking, and his research left a lasting legacy in the field of psychology regarding why people follow orders. However, about fifty years before the Milgram Experiment, sociologist Max Weber offered a similar observation in his attempt to understand why people obey authority. In one of the most important texts of sociological theory, Economy and Society, Weber made the following point:

Every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience.

Much like Milgram, Weber focused on the agency of individuals (their capability to act) and the resources (or lack thereof) at their disposal that contributed to them following orders. For Weber, some people might comply because they are just habitually following orders; for others, they may be more calculating and elect to follow orders in order to achieve some gain. In either case, according to Weber, some degree of human decision making is involved.

Weber elaborated on these ideas of authority, legitimacy, and obedience in a lecture he delivered at Munich University which was published as the essay, “Politics as a Vocation.” Here, Weber outlines three types of authority or domination that may contribute to why people follow orders:

1. Traditional. Weber refers to this as the authority of the “eternal yesterday” which basically means we follow orders and conform to the norms because of the established beliefs of our culture and social group. Accepting an arranged marriage, restricting your diet during a religious holiday, or believing that the male should be the breadwinner and the female the homemaker are examples of traditional authority.

2. Rational-legal. Based on the law and legal precedents, this form of authority emphasizes our “statutory obligations”; in other words, we follow the law of the land—be it the Constitution or other forms of local, state, or federal legislation. Stopping at red lights, paying taxes, and not stealing are examples of rational-legal authority.

3. Charismatic. In this case, authority is obeyed due to the “gift of grace” of the person giving orders. Some people have the type of personality or presence that makes others flock to and follow them. Emulating the actions of the cool kid in your peer group, following the words and advice of a religious leader, or believing the theories and ideologies of a political zealot are examples of charismatic authority.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

We all follow orders in our everyday lives and it’s an interesting sociological exercise to consider why we do so. What are our motivations for doing something that others tell us to do? Why might we follow directions even if we are not comfortable with what’s being asked of us? Why would we obey these dictates even if we know that the directions are morally wrong, ethically suspect, or even outright illegal?

Can you think of an example where you followed the directions of someone but you were not 100% comfortable doing so? Why did you do this? Can you identify the thought process you went through in coming to this decision? Where you influenced by traditional, rational-legal, or charismatic authority? Was it a combination of these? Do you think there were other factors besides these three dimensions that contributed to your decision? What about when you give directions to someone. Why do you expect them to follow you? Why, in the words of Weber, should they “voluntarily comply” with your dictates?

These are great questions to think about not only because they help us understand the subtle, yet complex, processes of social life. In addition, these questions illustrate how seemingly ancient and abstract sociological theories are relevant and even readily apparent in our everyday lives.


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It seems that our world would fall apart if there were no authority figures, if there were nobody to obey. It is crazy to think of a life/world without it. It always amazed me. Those who obey blindly, without question. Like in Milgram experiment, they knew that they could potentially be dangerously affected buy the shocks and continued anyway. Thank you for your insight on this topic.

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