Shocking Masculinity: Stanley Milgram, 'Obedience to Authority,' and the 'Crisis of Manhood' in Cold War America

Citation:

Nicholson, Ian. 2011. “’Shocking’ Masculinity: Stanley Milgram, ‘Obedience to Authority’ and the ‘Crisis of Manhood’ in Cold War America.” Isis 102 (2): 238-68. 

Author: Ian Nicholson

Abstract:

Stanley Milgram's study of “obedience to authority” is one of the best-known psychological experiments of the twentieth century. This essay examines the study's special charisma through a detailed consideration of the intellectual, cultural, and gender contexts of Cold War America. It suggests that Milgram presented not a “timeless” experiment on “human nature” but, rather, a historically contingent, scientifically sanctioned “performance” of American masculinity at a time of heightened male anxiety. The essay argues that this gendered context invested the obedience experiments with an extraordinary plausibility, immediacy, and relevance. Immersed in a discourse of masculinity besieged, many Americans read the obedience experiments not as a fanciful study of laboratory brutality but as confirmation of their worst fears. Milgram's extraordinary success thus lay not in his “discovery” of the fragility of individual conscience but in his theatrical flair for staging culturally relevant masculine performances.

Topics: Armed Conflict, Gender, Men, Masculinity/ies, Gendered Power Relations, Violence Regions: Americas, North America Countries: United States of America

Year: 2011

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