CRITICAL ESSAY :CONFORMITY AND OBEDIENCE ACROSS CULTURES
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CONFORMITY AND OBEDIENCE ACROSS CULTURES
What do you do when faced in a group pressure? Most of the people would tend to obey or to go with the flow. This term is best known as “conformity.” It can also be considered as a way of yielding to others. Conformity and obedience transcends to a culture. Every culture creates a certain level of conformity. Thus, every culture has different levels of conformity to a particular idea or person. Those are because of the differences across cultures that remain with in them. Conformity happens in collectivistic cultures and when there are pressures with in the groups or other groups. (Social, 2008)
A study made by Hong Xiao entitled Independence and Obedience: An analysis of Child Socialization Values in the United States and China is closely related to this study. (Xiao, 1999)
According to the study, child’s socialization may vary across societies or across an individual. Socialization is the process by which children learn proper values, behaviors, of a society and culture. Because generally, the social structure is affected by culture, culture is a significant factor in the child’s socialization. (Xiao, 1999)
A child raise in an urbanized country and a child raised in a quiet province may have different approaches to pressures and different levels of conformity to these variables.
In this study, children from China and United States were compared and contrast on their independence and obedience. Since the two countries are very much different from each other, the study predicted that there will be a great variance in the obedience and independence of the children. (Xiao, 1999)
After the study, the results showed both differences and similarities with the two children. With regards to the similarity, the two children listed five identical characteristic that they believe are important for every people to have. Those are independence, hard work, responsibility, tolerance, respect and good manners. Both of them valued independence more than obedience. (Xiao, 1999)
The significant difference on the other hand, is that, Chinese children were diagnosed to value obedience and conformity more, than American children. According to this study, those were because of the influence of Confucianism in China and the individual autonomy that is valued by Americans. (Xiao, 1999)
One of the reasons of individualistic characteristic of American children is the heterogeneous U.S. environment. That is, different cultures were mixed up together in their country and there is not so much commonality with in the people.
On the other hand, some evidence also suggests that China is homogenous in nature and is characterized by a more authoritarian orientation, which would result to greater emphasis in order and conformity to children. (Xiao, 1999)
The U.S. country, in contrast, is perceived to be less authoritarian in nature. This characteristic allows children to emphasize more on the value of autonomy and individualism. (Xiao, 1999)
Another is the study made by Thomas Blass on the works of Stanley Milgram about obedience. Milgrma’s studies centered to obedience to authority. In an analysis made by Blass, he agrees that legitimate authority is “perceived to be position of social control with in a given situation.” How does authority impose obedience to people? In Milgram’s study, authority can create obedience to people by defining reality to them. It is the ability to show to a participant the different experiential state or the consequences that would shift from one to another if he or she doesn’t conform to authority. This is the way Communists countries, especially during World War, like Russia influences people to bow to conformity and obedience. (Blass, 2000)
According to Milgram, this type of obedience is disruptive or negative type of obedience. Milgram describes obedience in a political aspect. According to him “it is a psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose”. An experiment in 1963 was made to measure obedience. The participants were made to believe that they will be punished if they give incorrect answers. Although the electric shocks were mild, every time a participant is asked to memorize a pair of words, and recites it incorrectly, each shocks increases. Participants claim to be “intensely shock” even though the shocks administered were mild. (Blass, 2000)
According to Milgram, this is one of the obvious examples of obedience to authority. The participants exert more effort to remember the pair of words they were asked to remember because of the belief that there will be corresponding punishments if they don’t.
Moreover, Milgram stated that the level of obedience vary to cultures. In his conclusion, he stated that collectivist cultures are more obedient to authority than individualist cultures. (Fundamentals, 2008)
Another study was made by Jie Zhang and Darwin Thomas. Their study was entitled Modernization theory Revisited: A Cross Cultural Study of Adolescent conformity to significant others in Mainland China, Taiwan and the U.S.A. (Darwin, 1994)
Modernization Theory can be found in the writings of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Modernization is a broad concept that refers to major social changes that occur in a society. (Darwin, 1994)
In this study, Xhang and Thomas predicted that modernization influences adolescents conformity to their parents, educators and to religious figures. According to the study, the more modernized the country is, the less power parents have, since they control fewer resources in the society. They also predicted that the more modernized the country is, the greater power the educator has than the mother because the mother holds a smaller role in the society. (Darwin, 1994)
On the other hand, it was also mentioned in the hypothesis of the study that family integration increases conformity among adolescents to religious figures. Religiosity among parents were also perceived as a factor to conformity of their children to religion. However, there are not related studies to support thae hypothesis. (Darwin, 1994)
The results showed that Chinese adolescents are much likely to conform to their parents than American and other races. This is because of the traditional Mainland Chinese culture that is emphasizes on respect to their ancient ancestors and the elderly. Moreover, results showed that Chinese students are still, much likely to conform to their teachers, however than Chinese. (Darwin, 1994)
In terms of conformity to religious figures, American youths scored the highest and Chinese Youths the lowest. This result was unexpected, because based on the hypotheses, family integration influences the adolescents conformity to religion. United States has nuclear families, therefore less family integration, but scored the highest in conforming to religious figures. Although this was unexpected, the research stated that this is because China emphasizes more on the teachings of Confusianism. Whereas United States youths, are individualistic in nature, that do not depend on other but to themselves tend to be more religious. Thus, American adolescents are most likely to conform to religious figure. (Darwin, 1994)
Taiwan remained to be in the middle in all three experiments. (Darwin, 1994)
Based on the studies made by Xiao, culture makes a significant influence on the obedience and conformity of the children. In China, children were found more like to obey and conform. This is because of the homogenous Chinese Culture. People living in the society are more or less the same in culture, the same in race, and have no significant differences with each other. Because of uniformity of culture present in China, children are most likely to adapt to it since almost everybody are alike.
Being different or not adapting the culture will make Chinese children obviously different from the majority. This is one type of pressure that keeps Chinese children in conforming to their culture.
However in United States, being different from the others doesn’t create too much pressure of being alienated from the majority. Simply because United States is heterogeneous by nature. United States is already composed of different cultures and there is no much uniformity with in the people living. This type of environment doesn’t create the same pressure as China does because of the fact that people living in United States are diversified.
A simpler representation of this study is a group of people wearing all red in a party. A person who happens to forget to wear red in the party, will terribly feel that he is different among them. The pressure comes in when everyone asks him why he is not wearing red.
On the other hand, a party attended by people wearing in different colors doesn’t create pressure to a person on what color to wear. Wearing any color doesn’t alienate a person on a party attended by colorfully attired visitors. In this case, there is no pressure created by the people in the environment.
Another factor that creates conformity and obedience is legitimate authority. This creates conformity and obedience since it is able to depict the reality to a person that it can create consequences when it is not followed. It can shift one experience to another. However, this type of conformity or obedience is conformity against the owner’s will. Milgram identified this type of factor as a negative factor that pushes obedience. Generally, all individuals conform to legitimate authority because of the fear of punishments.
In Milgram’s study, he identified collectivist culture as more likely to obey than the individualist culture. In this are, we are faced with the question of knowing when a culture individualistic and when is it collectivistic.
Individualistic countries are mostly western countries. They are ones who shows independence among other and they value individual achievement. The people living in theses countries are vocal about their opinions and only follows their personal choices. However, collectivists countries are interdependent among each other. They work as a team and they value group success. They are not so vocal about their own judgment; instead they seek the consensus of the many and the elderly. These are very common in conservative countries. Moreover, individualist countries are flexible in changing their status. They have equal opportunities that can let people move from one level to the other. Collectivist countries have more stable roles in the society depending on the social class, gender and age. (Contrasts, 2008)
Milgram concluded that the collectivist cultures are easier to conform than individualist culture.
At this point, it is hard to realize whether being a conformist or non-conformist is positive or negative. Most of the times, individualist countries are always proud of their autonomy and their vocal opinions on matter. However, there are some instances when conformists are needed in order to gain cooperation and success of a government.
Let’s say everybody has an opinion of their own and each of them believes that they are correct at some point, which might be true, but it would not help a particular government if all of the participants have divided opinions on a particular matter. The result will be conflict and war.
Another study that is very similar to Xiao’s study was Zhang and Darwin’s.
The results from the study of Zhang and Darwin, on the other hand, are in a way similar to the study conducted by Hong. They both proved that Chinese children and Chinese Youth are more likely to conform than American Youth and Children in general.
This answers and supports Milgram’s idea of collectivist and individualist cultures. Chinese adolescents are top the highest on the conformity and obedience to parents and educators because of the Chinese Culture. Chinese culture is very attached to the teachings of Confucianism that developed the value of respect among the elderly to the adolescents and children.
Chinese can now be assumed to be a true conformist. Chinese people may have seem so attach to the values of Confucianism, which is of course, not a bad idea, but it might make China a simple conformist to more dictating and non-conforming countries.
Being a conformist, can not also be generalized a positive trait since it deprives an individual to fight for what he or she believes in.
On the other hand, on Zhang and Darwin’s study, the results don’t match the model or the theory that they used to support their studies. They used the Modernization Theory. The results stated that, Chinese scored the highest in conformity to educators. This result doesn’t support the Modernization Theory which Zhang and Darwin used, because United States is more modernized than China. Following the rule of Modernization, United States should have scored the highest in conformity to educators. However, China, the least modernized among the three got the highest rate.
Again, this result is not influenced by Modernization Theory. Another theory which was mention in Zhang and Darwin’s conclusion to explain the discrepancies in the results of there is Cultural Determinism. As mentioned earlier, China has been though to respect elders, make them respect educators as well.
Cultural Determinism is the idea that the culture which a particular individual was raised determines its emotional and behavioral level. This supports the theory that environmental factors influence a person more than its biological characteristic. (Cultural, 2008)
The result in religiosity-conformation is also unexpected. Following the modernization theory, strong family integration leads to conformity to religious figures. However, individualistic country scored the highest on this aspect. Although, this conclusion might not prove true to all individualistic, countries because there are limited studies similar to this topic.
Therefore, we can not still make a generalization that individualistic countries tend to be more inclined to conform to religious figures.
As a summary, heterogeneous environment creates or allows a person to be less pressured in conforming to society. This is for the reason, that he or she will not feel the fear of being different to other people. An environment with diverse type of people, doesn’t create pressure to an individual to become or dress the same way with them.
Modernization Theory on the other hand, doesn’t prove to support the conformity of individuals in general. Cultural Determinism has proven to influence almost all the results of the experiments made in measuring a culture’s conformity.
Culture that was thought both to children and adolescents weigh heavier than the influence of Modernization.
Conformity to other cultures, religious figures, parents and educators vary among cultures. Collectivist cultures are more likely to conform and obey to their elders, educators and to their environment. This is because collectivists cultures give emphasis to group’s achievements and are interdependent among others. These cultures were thought to respect the consensus of the majority.
On the other hand, an individualist culture, such as United States, may be more likely to conform to religious figures although; there are no enough studies to support the idea. We can not therefore, generalize that all individualistic cultures are more inclined to conform to religious figures.
The differences of the level of conformity among culture may be a good and bad thing and the same time. It is good in the sense that, the stronger opinion will always win and rule, while some others will conform to it without any conflict. The result will be unity and cooperation. The drawback might be manipulation of the stronger ones of the more conforming people. In this case, taking advantage of the stronger culture, to the more comforting ones.
Another possibility is the absorption of the conforming culture to non-conforming culture. Since some cultures prove to be stronger than others, they might influence weaker culture to adapt to them, losing their own identities to the new culture.
In this case, non-conformity may be needed to preserve ones own natural culture.
Generally, individuals conform to legitimate authority because of the fear of punishments. However, this is negative factor that makes people to conform to a particular norm. This was identified to be a negative type of influencing factor to conformity. All individuals conform to legitimate authority on a particular level. This is the political side of insisting obedience to an individual.
However, at some point, legitimate authority may not at all be negative. There are cases with in, legitimate authority is needed with or with out the consent of the subject. There are countries and departments which uses legitimate authority as the only means to organize people’s behavior and stop them from diversion.
In general, conformity is a significant tool to unity among people. Non-conformity may cause division and conflict. On the other hand, conformity may also be a ground for manipulation and harassments. Non-conformity may be a tool to be recognized.
To end this study, the measure of conformity is a long process. It is majority influenced by culture and should not be imposed by unnecessary forced. Any extreme of both conformity and non-conformity has its advantage and disadvantages.
Social Behavior. (2008) Conformity and Yielding to others. [Online source] Available at :
Xiao, Hong. (1999) Independence and Obedience: An analysis of Child Socialization Values in the United States and China. Journal Article. Journal of Comparative Family Studies. Vol. 30 pp. 01 Also Available at :
Blass, Thomas. (2000) Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. pp 40. Also available at :
Cultural Determinism. (2008) wikipedia.com [Online Source] Available at:
Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology. (2008) Obedience across cultures and generations. [ Online Resource ] Available at : http://ezinearticles.com/?Fundamentals-Of-Abnormal-Psychology---Obedience-Across-Cultures-And-Generations&id=668272
Contrasts between Individualism and Collectivism. (2008) West Education. [Online Resource] Available at : http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/bridging/part3.shtml
Thomas, Darwin and Zhang, Jie. (1994) Modernization Theory Revisited. A cross-cultural conformity to significant others in Mainland China, Taiwan and the USA.
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