The Social Problem of Group-think

In the play An Enemy of the People there are many social and political issues that Henrik Ibsen touches upon. The one that I find most pressing is the social problem of “group-think”- that a people en masse are inclined to believe whatever authorities tell them. The population in the play never questions their sources of information- The People’s Messenger or the mayor- about the validity of the facts that they present but instead just follow them blindly. The third citizen in regard to Dr.Stockman’s opinion even states “But he is in the wrong; it said so in the People’s Messenger (51).   Because the mayor and the “liberal-minded press” have already told the citizens how to feel about the subject of the pollution of the Baths, they are not even willing to listen to Dr.Stockman’s opposing opinion on the Baths and yell at him while he is giving his speech at the town meeting: “Don’t talk about the Baths! We won’t hear you! None of that!” (56).

Furthermore, the people of the town are so scared of public opinion that they dare not go against it for fear of being estranged, much like Dr. Stockman is because of his difference of opinion. Dr. Stockman is evicted by his landlord, Morten and Ejlif are sent home from school, and Petra, Dr. Stockman, and Captain Horster are all given notice simply because the landlord, the teacher, and their bosses did “not dare do otherwise- on account of his fellow citizens- out of regard for public opinion (68).” The true problem in the play is that individuals are not allowed without social barriers to say and think what they please without fear of being ostracized. Dr. Stockman and his family are estranged form society for going against public officials and this fact of life keeps the citizens from ever thinking differently or forming their own opinions. Perhaps if the society Dr. Stockman lived in were more liberal minded, the citizens would have been able to see the doctor’s point of view, and he would have found more support for his position on the Baths. At the very least, Dr. Stockman, Petra, and Captain Horster would not have been fired because of their difference of opinion, which has nothing to do with their performance at work.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Social Problem of Group-think

  1. looloo14

    Nothing angered me more in the play than the scene where Thomas is trying to deliver his lecture. Now, don’t get me wrong, ignorance is a common theme between both the townspeople and Thomas. But Thomas’ ignorance still allows him to think for himself. The townspeople seem to simply listen to what the media and authorities are saying and just spit it right out. At least Thomas stands up for something that goes against public opinion. I think, however, that the townspeople are not scared of going against public opinion. It seems more like they don’t even consider thinking that what the People’s Messenger or Peter Stockmann could have fault in it.

  2. siegvald

    I thought the people in the story were mainly suckers. They didn’t really know what was going on and were an easily swayed mob. As you said about the 3rd citizen: “But he is in the wrong; it said so in the People’s Messenger.” This man obviously was too dense to figure out that a newspaper only reports the truth as accurately as the editor’s bias. And that there might be more to this issue than met the eye–for instance, the Medical Officer and Mayor had petty sibling rivalry issues that were spiraling out of control. Unfortunately the community was the “at stake” issue. Both Stockmanns’ success was based on acceptance from the community.

  3. You make a great point with the whole concept of group-think. It is very evident throughout the story. The citizens of the town do not ever question the government or People’s Messenger. It is as if the newspaper thinks for them in the play, had they published Dr. Stockmann’s story instead of Peter’s the citizens would have likely reacted to the situation very differently. Also, towards the end of the play when they start firing people and evicting the family from the house since they “could not dare to keep them” really shows how strong the group-think mentality is among the people. It is not even just Dr. Stockmann that experiences the alienation that comes, it is also his family and Captain Horster.

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