organizations for undergraduates

Each semester in the Weber section of my undergraduate social theory class I show Obedience–the film version of Milgram’s Obedience to Authority–to warn of the dangers of bureaucratic thinking. I am continually impressed with the movie, and especially it’s editing. Not only are there weird Twilight Zone overtones throughout–the experimenter even looks a bit like Rod Serling–but it also gives you a real sense of the experiment and its nuances; plus, Milgram has an excellent narrative voice and portentously highlights the big questions underlying the study at the end: “If one goofy looking man in a white coat can convince so many to shock the snickers out of innocent bystanders, just think what government, with its silos full of authority, can make you do” (ok, he may not have said snickers and silos, but you get the gist).

Anyway, and despite its greatness, repeated viewings of the movie encourage a person to start noticing the minutia (the irony of nervously laughing at your students as they nervously laugh at the subjects as the subjects nervously laugh about the screams of pain of those being shocked only remains delicious for so long–you know, marginal utility, self-reflection and all that).  A good example is when the experimenter gives one subject a sample shock so that he will have an idea of what the other guy will be feeling. He gives the shock and then asks him to estimate the voltage.  Being a stolid 1950s male, he has to act like this a reasonable question and like he has some idea, so he answers, “Oh, about 120 volts.” And then the experimenter is like, “No, you little baby, it was 75” (again, my memory is a little fuzzy about the exact dialogue), before going on to add, “but it may have felt stronger because of the electrode paste I put on your arm.”

Huh? The guy is supposed to be able to predict how strong of a shock he just got in volts? Where would you learn such a thing? How’s he supposed to respond?  “Well, good sir, that goes a long way toward explaining my overestimation; when I shock myself at home, 125 volts feels very much like that shock you just gave me. But, as you suggest, I do not use that delightful paste to ensure clean contact (I wouldn’t mind taking some of that with me, by the way).  Also, because I shock myself at home regularly, I think it is completely reasonable that you are asking me to make fine distinctions between magnitudes of voltage. Oh, what I have learned already! I am so looking forward to this experiment!” 

And there are many more funny little scenes, but I digress–actually the digression was the post, but now I will digress in the direction of an ostensibly relevant point. In the near future, I am going to be teaching an undergraduate organizations course for the first time. Having never taken such a course or even watched it from afar, I was wondering what readings and topics and movies and excuses to skip classes others with more experience had found useful. I have a sneaking suspicion that this question has probably been discussed here before (and heretofore), but all I could find in my cursory search was Teppo’s helpful post on moving away from textbooks and a few others that he links to there. The class I have been asked to teach is a mid- to upper-level course (Sophomores to Seniors) at a large state university somewhere in the Midwest.  Oh, and I do plan to show the Milgram movie, so this post is totally coherent.




Written by Michael

July 1, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Posted in uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. I teach an undergrad OB class, and
    some of my favorite in-class movie clips are:

    Hudsucker Proxy for bureaucracy and de-coupling (when the accounting dept’s formal process is decoupled from actual pricing practices) – see:

    Some of the early scenes of _The Devil Wears Prada_ for organizational culture. It’s great – nonverbal communication, rituals with sacred artifacts, myths, socialization, norm violations and sanctions – all in about 8 minutes. see:

    from about 4:35 to about 6:50 and

    from about 3:15 to 7:55

    good luck!



    July 2, 2008 at 1:39 am

  2. Here’s a few things that have worked for me:

    A visit to the art museum —

    The Curb Your Enthusiasm clip already gets a mention in the above post —- (I also have some clips picked out from Seinfeld and the Office)

    Org design resources I like —

    Youtube has all kinds of brilliant resources (I have CDs of various orgs-related clips, but now everythings on Youtube). For example, I like showing the Ash experiments, students are blown away by the footage.

    Readings-wise I use various primary and secondary resources from orgs-related journals. I also had students read Heath’s excellent Made to Stick last year. Am going to add a section on collective action-type of intuition for next year. Great class to teach!



    July 2, 2008 at 5:30 am

  3. I used to use the first 15 or so minutes from The Corporation to show how organizations have become actors in contemporary society. It does a nice job of quickly summarizing the legal history of the corporation (and it’s entertaining too!).

    Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room for a discussion of organizational deviance. I also used it to talk about how certain organizational identities can lead to socially irresponsible behavior.

    Some clips from Apollo 13 brilliantly illustrate how bureaucracies are created to be technically efficient. It works nicely with any discussion of Weber or the Carnegie School.

    CNBC did this nice little documentary on Walmart (The Age of Walmart, I think) that is really useful for a discussion on resource dependence theory. The students can easily see how power imbalance in an interorganizational relationship can lead to coercion. Plus, the movie fuels a good debate about whether Walmart is really good for society!



    July 2, 2008 at 6:46 pm

  4. Thanks a lot for all the suggestions. They are really helpful. Are there any general introduction texts (not necessarily textbooks–I’m thinking more like Perrow, except hopefully cheaper) that have worked well for you all?



    July 2, 2008 at 10:37 pm

  5. I never used textbooks. I really liked Mandell’s reader though. I know that Amy Wharton also has a nice reader that features more contemporary stuff.



    July 2, 2008 at 10:52 pm

  6. Some clips from Apollo 13 brilliantly illustrate how bureaucracies are created to be technically efficient.

    I use a few clips from this, too. “What’s the procedure? What’s the procedure?”

    I also use some bits and pieces from Brazil (procedure gone nuts), Office Space (procedure drives you nuts), and Accepted (it just has to look like you have a procedure the same as everyone else).

    Another film I use several clips from over a few lectures is The Fog of War, because McNamara’s biography is like a recapitulation of Major Organizational Events of the 20th Century — there he is at HBS, there he is running the Bombing Campaign against the Japanese, there he is reorganizing Ford’s in the 50’s, there he is in the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc, etc.



    July 4, 2008 at 3:02 am

  7. […] Sauder had a nice post last year about using the Milgram experiment (specifically the associated film) in one of his […]


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