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Conformity and Obedience in An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, is the story of a man named Dr. Thomas Stockman, who becomes a deviant to society. After discovering that the waters in the town’s baths are polluted, Dr. Stockman tries to spread the news and have the baths shut down. He assumes that the townspeople will be happy to hear his news, since the water is what has been making everyone sick. However, many people in the town aren’t very happy to hear such news, and before Dr, Stockman realizes it, the entire town has turned against him. Stockman criticizes the townspeople for this, and even refers to them as “street curs.” What made the town turn against him? Did they honestly all disagree with the doctor’s opinion? Did they fall to group pressure? Or, was it his brother the mayor’s influence?

There are a few possible reasons why the townspeople conformed and turned against the doctor. However, I have come to the conclusion that the most likely reason for their behavior was because of his brother’s influence on the townspeople. Being the mayor, he had the right to give orders, making him a legitimate authority. As we learned for the Milgram experiment, people follow orders from both expert authorities, those who are experts in the field, and legitimate authorities, such as the mayor. The mayor pressured the people into turning against Dr. Stockman by telling them his opinion. The townspeople, knowing the mayor’s authority, are obedient to him.

In the beginning there were two people from the town who supported Dr. Stockman: Aslaksen and Hovstad, the editor and printer from the newspaper. However, after finding out that everyone else, including the mayor, opposes Dr. Stockman, they change their minds. Basically, Aslaksen and Hovstad conform in compliance; they yield to group pressure as to avoid punishment for not conforming. The punishment in this case would be having their homes and jobs taken away, as eventually happens to Dr. Stockman. This quote from one of the participants in Asch’s study closely relates to Alasken and Hovstad’s actions: “I did not want to be apart form the group, I did not want to look like a fool… Scientifically speaking, I was acting improperly, but my feeling of not wanting to contradict the group overcame me.” As for the rest of the townspeople, they basically conform publicly, as to avoid any conflict with the rest of the group and the mayor. Also, the baths are the towns main source of income, and without the baths, the town would most likely fall to ruins. I think that they are all afraid that Dr. Stockman’s discoveries would result in the destruction of their town.

Once the town turns against Dr. Stockman, he is faced with the choice of conformity or deviance. The mayor tells him that if he publicly apologizes and admits that he was wrong, he will be given his old job back. However, Dr. Stockman does not want to give up his integrity and give into the pressures of the group and his brother. Even though he is receiving a great a mount of pressure to conform and obey, Dr. Stockman stands firm in his decision. Giving in would not only mean that he would get his house and job back, his wife and daughter would get their jobs back, and his two sons would be allowed back in school, but his father-in-law would give money to his wife and daughter to provide for them the rest of their lives. Despite all that is at stake, the doctor refuses to yield.

Contemporary research on conformity and obedience, such as in The Milgram paradigm after 35 years, shows that such deviance is not at all common. In fact, 50-65% is the baseline obedience rate. So this just goes to show that although most people say that if they were in the situation of the townspeople they would support Dr. Stockman, in actuality, the majority of people would not. Therefore, Dr. Stockman was quite brave for disobeying the mayor and opposing from the rest of the town. It is a shame that he lost his case, and did not have the baths shut down. However it appears to be human nature for people to conform and obey as the townspeople did.


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