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.