One of my favorite ways to teach about authority is to draw upon Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments. As many (if not all) of you know, Milgram designed a series of experiments to see whether people would shock others up to lethal levels when instructed to do so by a scientist. In most cases and depending on various situational characteristics, the majority of people complied, showing they would shock someone up to lethal levels. You can read more about the experiments on a Backstage Sociologist post, found here.
A BBC documentary covered an effort to recreate the experiment a few years ago, which found similar results (with a small number of total participants, however). The entire documentary is on Youtube, but if you’re worried about time, this 6-minute clip shows the actual experiment and includes brief discussions about authority.
I’ve used this clip generally to talk about authority as well as more specifically to illustrate how human rights violations may take place. This clip is also a great introduction to a discussion about Weber’s types of authority.
Below is an activity that will be included in an upcoming Norton volume on politics. The activity could be modified to fit any discussion about power. A few weeks ago, I used it in a human rights law course. We were discussing power and authority as part of a unit on the causes of human rights violations. Thus, the activity below is slightly modified for this discussion, though you could change the questions on power to reflect any class discussion.
We started the discussion about power with this activity. Then, we defined power and talked about why it’s a loaded word. We also talked about a few other assumptions that came up during the discussion, such as the idea that power is only an attribute of people (rather than something structural or institutional) and the idea that only some people have power. This activity could be paired with the TSP Special on power, found here.
Make four signs labeled “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” Hang one sign in each corner of the room.
Tell participants that you will be reading a series of statements about power. After each statement, they should stand under the sign that most closely reflects their reaction to the statement (and that they must choose a sign).
Read the first statement (listed below). After participants have assembled under the signs, ask each group to discuss why they picked that particular position and to choose a spokesperson to explain a few points of the discussion.
Ask everyone to leave their group and go to the center of the room. Then ask participants to stand under the sign that most closely reflects their own reaction to the statement again. (This gives participants the opportunity to change their positions if they wish, though this is optional based on how discussion is going and the time you have allotted.) Ask whether, after hearing the various arguments, any participants changed their position. Then ask a few volunteers to explain why they decided to change their positions.
Repeat this exercise for the following statements. You can add or subtract statements to alter the length of the exercise.