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Rhetoric and standardization in Milgram's obedience experiments

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This presentation draws on materials from the Stanley Milgram Papers collection held at Yale University Library in order to highlight some hitherto largely neglected aspects of the obedience experiments. The archives include audio recordings of many of Milgram’s experimental sessions, as well as Milgram and his confederates discussing aspects of the experimental procedure. Through considering these two lines of evidence, it is argued that (1) existing attempts to account for Milgram’s findings have neglected the role of rhetoric in the interactions between experimenter and participants in the studies; and (2) the received view of Milgram’s experimenter as following a heavily standardized and rigid script is unsustainable. In fact, the experimenter responded flexibly to the rhetorical strategies mobilized by participants in their attempts to argue their way out of the experimental situation. Furthermore, at least one of the experimenter’s improvised strategies appears to have been incorporated into the standardized set of interjections (prods) available to the experimenter. However, this strategy was omitted from Milgram’s published accounts of the studies. These findings are considered in relation to work in the sociology of scientific knowledge on the contingency of standardization, and in light of recent scholarship on the Milgram experiments which suggests that they may not be about obedience at all. To the extent that the audio recordings highlight the importance of argument and persuasion in the Milgram experiments, it is suggested that they point the way to a perspective on the Milgram experiments informed by rhetorical psychology

This talk is part of the Social and Developmental Psychology (SDP) Seminar Series series.

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