Thursday, September 28, 2006

Conformity and Class

Last week, Aspazia had a post about hazing in fraternities and sororities. Bkriplur of Scriptorium, a beloved former student of ours, responded cynically to the suggestion that someone in the structure might stand up and oppose something they know to be immoral within it. He wrote,

"don't ever expect a Gettysburg student, particularly the frat or sorority type, to do this. They would do terrible things before letting that happen. As Nabokov put it, the bourgeois has a "passionate urge to conform...or to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club."A significant number of people I knew in frats in sororities feigned disgust for the whole thing, but they would never under any circumstances do anything that would alienate them from the group. Few have the strength to do that. People Gettysburg won't even go to cafeteria alone!! And you expect them to stand up to their peers? That's a tall order."
I've been thinking about this comment ever since.

The line "they would do terrible things before letting that happen," of course, brings to mind the experiments by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s in which an authoritative voice was sufficient to make people do what they thought was a horrible thing -- administer painful and potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person. Milgram's subjects did cut across across socio-economic lines, so the usual interpretation is that this stance of bowing to authority is human, rather than sociological.

The same is generally held for the famous conformity experiment of Solomon Asch, where five people seated around a table were told they were participating in a perception study and were shown a set of lines and asked to say which was the tallest. All of the "subjects" were confederates except one and every so often, everyone else would assert a wrong answer and quite frequently, the real subject would go along, knowing it was wrong. People would rather go along, than say something they know to be true, but which makes them different. Now, I don't know about the socio-economic distribution of Asche's sample (any psychologists out there, Goddess o'the Universe?), but again the conclusion is usually asserted to be general.

But the Nabokov quotation takes the opposite line in attributing conformity to the bourgeois a "passionate urge to conform...or to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club." Here there is a clear sociological turn in Bkriplur's claim. Is there something about the upper-middle and upper classes that does lead to greater conformity, less expression of autonomy?

Gettysburg students are largely from these classes and I do see a deep sense of risk aversion. My guess is that this comes from a sense of non-inevitable entitlement that is socialized into them -- you will have a comfortable life as long as you don't fuck it up. Their mantra is not "do great work," but "don't screw up." They are on a sliding board to material contentment. As long as they just keep their heads down and slide along the path, they know they will be fine in the end. Rocking the boat, drawing attention to themselves -- good or bad -- is dangerous.

But is this pressure on white, well-off kids really any different from the pressure to conform on any other set? Is conformity based in general psychological aspects attributable to all people or do specific sociological factors play a larger role?