As a class we watched and examined the Zimbardo Standford prison experiment. Using multiple sociological perspectives we can examine the experiment from many different angles to gain a much more in depth understanding of the simulation and how and why it played out the way it did. Using the symbolic interaction approach we can look at what effects the proximity and relations between all test subjects involved, guards and inmates, had on the actions both parties took against and for each other while in the "prison". Also, looking at the project from the social conflict perspective, we can study the way that the assigned roles to each person affected their interactions with one another and how these roles caused conflict between "guards" and "inmates", much like in a real prison environment. The simulation is a representation of societal issues past and present, concerning race, class, gender, etc. It shows how implied supremacy can change a person's behavior towards their peers.
Perspective No.1: Symbolic-Interaction approach
- If all of the men prior to the simulation were of the same social standing, why did their assigned roles have such a significant effect on the way they treated one another, especially knowing it was an experiment?
- This looks at the interactions between in mates and guards on a person to person level.
- Micro-level orientation - looking at the social dynamic in this specific simulated situation, we can see how certain intentionally created aspects of the environment the students were placed in, affected the way they interacted with each other. The close corridors we saw in the video and the inmates' restricted access to everyday accommodations such as mattresses and showers, changed the way they acted towards the guards. This interaction shifted because the inmates desired a positive response and rewards from them, so most were complacent when given orders to avoid conflict. Another example of the prisoners complying to the given commands was when the replacement inmate refused to eat his food, and was sent to solitary confinement. The other inmates chose to keep their beds instead of letting him out of confinement, showing how strong their desire to please the guards and provide themselves with the best possible conditions was. They discovered that obeying their given commands created some level of respect between themselves and the guards. Interactions became minimal with said inmate to avoid conflict and keep the system they had established in place.
Perspective No. 2: Social-Conflict approach
- Why does holding a position of power cause one's attitude towards others to change depending on their own social standing?
- This looks at how the differences between the inmates' and guards' possession of power causes friction within the simulation.
- In the beginning of the experiment, despite the assigned roles, the participants treated each other relatively equally and were hesitant to play into their roles, because of their social relativity outside of this situation. As the experiment progressed this approach is significantly present, seeing the change in behavior in both study groups. As time went on, the guards began to establish dominance over the inmates, and both parties started to act as if the simulation were a real prison environment. The guards took advantage of their position, throwing around unusual and harsh punishments in response for ill behavior. The most common, and most severe punishments practiced by the guards were solitary confinement and having the inmates scold any others that did anything wrong. The idea of being alone physically (solitude confinement) or being singled out and ganged up on (group scolding) drove multiple "prisoners" to a mental break and they had to leave the simulation. This was the peak of conflict in the prison. It is clear from this experiment that once given a position of implied power people tend to abuse it.
The shift in behavior form the beginning to the end of this experiment is drastic and unexpected. Entering the experiment with no sociological lens probably made the experiment much more difficult. Without being able to understand the reasoning behind peoples actions towards other people, it is hard to be immune to the intended reaction. The understanding of the sociological imagination and the connections between history and biography would have aided in a more stable completion of this experiment. In history, it has been recorded that prison guards take advantage of their power and are often abusive towards inmates. This had an effect on the biography of the participants, because knowing the way the prison system has worked over time is the only thing they had to go off of. They mimicked the only way they had seen the situation portrayed, even though they may have known it to be morally wrong.