Milgram and Masculinity, & More in Isis

The June 2011 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now out. Included in this issue are two articles of interest to historians of psychology. In his article on Stanley Milgram’s now infamous obedience to authority experiments, Ian Nicholson argues that Milgram’s research was less an attempt to explain the horrific acts of the Holocaust than it was a response to a crisis of masculinity in Cold War America. Nadine Weidman, in her article on American playwright Robert Ardrey, explores the popularization of the idea that human beings are innately violent and relates this view to the later development of sociobiology. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“’Shocking’ Masculinity: Stanley Milgram, ‘Obedience to Authority,’ and the ‘Crisis of Manhood’ in Cold War America,” by Ian Nicholson. The abstract reads,

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.

“Popularizing the Ancestry of Man: Robert Ardrey and the Killer Instinct,” by Nadine Weidman. The abstract reads,

This essay examines Robert Ardrey (1908–1980)—American playwright, screenwriter, and prolific author—as a case study in the popularization of science. Bringing together evidence from both paleoanthropology and ethology, Ardrey became in the 1960s a vocal proponent of the theory that human beings are innately violent. The essay shows that Ardrey used his popular scientific books not only to consolidate a new science of human nature but also to question the popularizer’s standard role, to reverse conventional hierarchies of scientific expertise, and to test the boundaries of professional scientific authority. Understanding how he did this can help us reassess the meanings and uses of popular science as critique in Cold War America. The essay also shows that E. O. Wilson’s sociobiology was in part a reaction to the subversive political message of Ardrey’s science.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.