Conformity as a Sociological Variable (Video)

In my experience, most undergraduate textbooks treat conformity as a constant psychological feature.  These textbooks typically note how uncanny it is that researchers Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram were able to manipulate their subjects into agreeing with a majority in making a statement that was obviously untrue, or into apparently shocking people to death. My, my, aren’t people such conformists, the standard treatment concludes.

The standard textbook treatment of conformity is neat, tidy and dire, but I believe it is misguided in two aspects. First, conformity is not a constant in Asch’s and Milgram’s studies. Some people do conform to expectations, but very importantly others do not. Conformity is a variable. Second, if conformity is a dependent variable, the independent variables in the Asch and Milgram studies are NOT psychological, and so the label of “psychological experiment” is inappropriate. At best, the experiments are social psychological, and the action here is all in the social. The individual-level psychological distress expressed by subjects in Asch’s and Milgram’s experiments was to no avail. What predicted conformity or non-conformity was the structure of the social situation engineered by the experiments.

In short, the conformity experiments involve sociological explanations for what appears to be a psychological phenomenon. If conformity is a sociological outcome involving independent variables of social structure, then understanding the elements of social structure that impact conformity is vitally important for the individual who wishes to avoid conformist pressures or for the social engineer who wishes to manufacture consent. The video below, produced for an Introduction to Sociology class at the University of Maine at Augusta, presents those independent variables and considers their relevance to micro- and macro-level questions of social living.

Interested in the Milgram and Asch experiments to which I refer here?  Check out these references to learn more:

Asch, Solomon. 1951. Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

Asch, Solomon. 1955. “Opinions and Social Pressure.”  Scientific American 193(5): 31-35.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.”  Human Relations 18:57-76.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority.  New York: Harper Collins.

Call for Applications: Maine Policy Scholar Program

Are you a University of Maine at Augusta student taking classes in the 2015-2016 academic year? Are you interested in politics and/or policy?  Are you looking for a way to take your work to the next level?

The University of Maine at Augusta, continuing its association with the Maine Community Foundation, has the opportunity to nominate a Maine Policy Scholar for the 2015-2016 academic year.  The successful applicant to the Maine Policy Scholar program receives a $1,500 scholarship with a budget of $1,000 for research expenses, and is expected to delve into applied research into a real Maine policy issue.

As the UMA advisor for the program, I’ll be working throughout next year with next year’s Maine Policy Scholar to help her or him in developing and carrying out an applied research program.  The selected student will also participate in three-four statewide meetings with faculty and scholars from across the University of Maine system for rigorous review of progress.  The year culminates in the presentation of a research memo to a board of state political leaders convened by the Maine Community Foundation. This memo has historically been also directed to a Maine political leader relevant to the subject of the student’s research, such as the Governor or the head of a state executive agency.  This is a good chance to gain valuable experience while you make a difference in Maine policy.

Applicants must be matriculated UMA students with a GPA of at least 3.00, and must have completed 60 or more credits of coursework by September 2015.  Previous work in applied research or previous study of research methods is ideal.

Are you interested?  Applications must be received by March 7.   Applications should consist of a current resume describing academic and professional experience and a letter of intent including a description of a proposed research topic. Send applications as an e-mail attachment to or by mail to James Cook, Assistant Professor of Social Science, University of Maine at Augusta, 46 University Drive, Augusta, ME 04330.

For more information on the application process or the Maine Policy Scholars program, please feel free to contact me at 621-3190 or  Additional information is also available at on the web.

Recent Maine Policy Scholars, with links to their final policy memos, are: