Milgram Biography Reviewed in Isis

In the Dec 2007 issue of Isis, Ian Nicholson (St. Thomas U.) reviewed Thomas Blass’ (U. Maryland, Baltimore County) biography of one of the most prominent social psychologists of the 20th century — The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic, 2004). Milgram is, of course, best known for his obedience research in the early 1960s, in which two-thirds of subjects, led to believe they were part of a simple learning study, were willing to deliver electric shocks to another participant up to the point of his apparent death. Milgram’s work was designed to shed light on one of the key political questions of the day — how thousands of seemingly ordinary German citizens could have participated and been complicit in the death camps of the 1940s. Milgram’s biographer, Blass, is himself a Hungarian Holocaust survivor.

Nicholson’s review of the book is mixed. On the one hand, he praises Blass for having done,

a great deal of detective work, interviewing dozens of former colleagues and students and poring over an extensive archival record. New details about Milgram the man abound, many of them quite unflattering. Blass chronicles Milgram’s repeated use of amphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana, his egotistical manner, and his often domineering ways with graduate students.

He goes on, however, to criticize Blass for missing important historical opportunities:

…unfortunately Blass’s background as a social psychologist prevents him from developing these biographical details into a sophisticated historical analysis. The problem is in part a question of goals. Blass is clearly conscious of his intellectual obligation to present a balanced account of Milgram, but he is also aware of the central role the obedience study plays in legitimizing the field of social psychology. In several places, Blass’s disciplinary loyalties win out in the form of implausible and historically empty psychological “explanations” designed to minimize his subject’s flaws.

The full review is only available on-line to Isis subscribers, including institutional subscribers.

Thomas Blass manages a website devoted to Stanley Milgram and his work.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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