Re/visiting the Stanford Prison Experiment

In other news, an oral history project reveals new ethical issues in a well-known research study. Forty years ago the renowned psychologist and professor, Philip Zimbardo, developed one of the most memorable and controversial experiments in the 20th century. A psychologist whose primary research interest hinged on how people respond and adapt to situations in which their agency is restricted—that ever-present research question of how different power dynamics affect individual behaviors—he set out to construct a mock prison at Stanford University.  The Stanford Prison Experiment became a key study that reshaped the ethics of human subjects research. While the study was approved by the Stanford Human Subjects Research Committee and subsequently found to meet human subjects research standards by the American Psychological Association, it nonetheless led to restrictions on research involving human subjects in simulated prison settings. The merit and ethics of the study remain as controversial today as they did 40 years ago.

To better understand the controversy, a recent article in Stanford Magazine contains oral accounts of the experience by several of the experiment’s key participants. Each participant, whether researcher or subject, had a different view of the experiment and took away a different experience. This begs the question of whether research is accomplishing what it sets out to do and whether we, as researchers, ever accurately assess how our research will impact our participants. Perhaps that is why Zimardo’s experiment continues to be a source of contention.

Read more to hear from the “horse’s mouth” what the Stanford Prison Experiment meant to those most familiar with it.


Author: Julian Thompson

Julian Thompson is a research assistant at the Social Science Research Center at DePaul University. He is completing his MA in Sociology and is expecting to begin doctoral studies in the fall of 2012. Broadly speaking, his interests revolve around issues of identity, culture, power, legal practices and discourses, and inequality. His specific research domains are prisons, punishment, ex-offender reentry, street life, mental illness, and immigration detention and deportation. However, he is particularly interested in studying the racialized experiences of imprisonment and re-entry and the way these impact the racial understandings that offenders of color inculcate and use when making sense of their lives and criminal engagements.

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