Is there a value to Conformity and Obedience?

Conformity to social norms and obedience to higher authorities are values that are instilled in people right from the day they are born.  There are merits attached to this practice, for elderly people (who are also usually the authority figures) have more knowledge and experience than young people and it makes sense to heed their words.  As alluded to in the textbook Social Psychology by authors Saul Kassin,, there are evolutionary grounds for this tendency in humans.  For example, from the evolutionary viewpoint children who obeyed and conformed to the instructions given by their parents survived to leave offspring of their own.  To the contrary those who rebelled or disobeyed probably got eaten by a tiger or fell off a cliff in the primitive settings of our species’ development. (Kassin,, 2007) Hence, obedience to significant others has a definite value. In other words,

“child socialization values, the values that parents hold in high regard and try to impart to their children, occupy a central place in the studies of the family and social stratification. Socialization values not only condition parental behavior in childrearing practices, they also help shape children’s value systems and behavior, which affect their life chances and pathways to success.” (Xiao, 1999, p.641)

Conformity has its value too, in terms of its social utility.  In order for societies to maintain cohesion and harmony, a certain degree of shared virtues, behaviour and values are to be upheld by all members of the society.  Otherwise, discord and disharmony are likely to ensue.  As the famous adage ‘When in Rome, be a Roman’ hints, conformity holds great survival value for any individual anywhere in the world. But it must be remembered that our country is founded on principles of individual freedom and rights and the concept of ‘individualism’ is cherished and held dear by most of the citizens.  Hence there are equally powerful and legitimate countervailing tendencies in the form of conformity and individualism.  As author Wilfred McClay notes succinctly in his journal article for The Virginia Quarterly Review,

“As the example of Huck Finn suggests, American thought and expression have always been rich with figures of heroic individuality-and correspondingly poor in convincing and binding representations of community or social obligation. Whether one considers our accounts of the great colonial religious controversies, such as those involving rebels Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, or the moral fables embedded in our popular culture, such as that offered in the movies One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Dead Poets’ Society, and Fiddler on the Roof, we seem to have a boundless appetite for fables of personal liberation. We are almost invariably asked to side with the put-upon individual, cast as an unjustly thwarted soul yearning to breathe free, and we are instructed to hiss at the figures of social or political authority, the John Winthrops and Nurse Ratcheds of life, whose efforts to sustain order establish them instead as monsters and enemies of humanity.” (McClay, 2001, p.392)

One particular illustration of a call for individualism is seen in the movie Dead Poets Society.  In this Robin Williams starrer, topics of conformity and obedience are explored cinematically.  Williams, who moves into a vacant English professor position in a up-scale prep school (Welton Academy in Vermont), finds his students tough to deal with in the beginning.  The students are prone to make trouble both inside and outside the classroom.  Williams takes upon himself to channel their energies into more creative activities and subjects of poetry and literature serve as inspirational tool, with which he wins over the minds and hearts of the pupils.  The students start behaving much better as a result and in the process engage in the learning and enjoy the classroom experience.  With stimulated minds and liberated thoughts, the students are confounded and conflicted by the emergent and the established.  Despite Williams’ advice to his students to not be aim to be too idealistic, the confused teenagers resolve such conflicts in their own ways.  In the unfortunate case of one student, unable to deal with pressure from school authorities, he kills himself by shooting in the head.  And the movie thus ends on this tragic note, leaving many questions resolved.

Hence, in conclusion and in my personal evaluation, I would say that a moderate approach is needed.  We do not want young people succumbing to pressure and behaving in self-destructive manner.  At the same time, by totally failing to be obedient to well-wishing authority figures, youngsters will be losing out on the advantage of prudence and wisdom already acquired by the former.  In the American context, the idea of individualism will have to be preserved as it is an essential part of who we are.  But care must be taken to restrain individualism from turning into egotism or arrogance.

Works Cited:

Saul Kassin, Steven Fein and Hazel Rose Markus, Social Psychology 7th ed.,  Houghton Mifflin Company; published in January 12, 2007, ISBN-10: 9780618868469

Hong Xiao, Independence and Obedience: An Analysis of Child Socialization Values in the United States and China, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Volume: 30. Issue: 4. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: 641.

Wilfred M. McClay, Individualism and Its Discontents, The Virginia Quarterly Review. Volume: 77. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2001. Page Number: 391+