The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robber Cave Experiment by Gina Perry

Review published on July 10, 2018.

This book is a well-researched account and discussion of some experiments undertaken in the early 1950s in America by a social psychologist called Muzafer Sherif.

The first part looks at an initial experiment, where 24 boys previously unknown to each other were brought together for a summer camp type experience. The group bonded, then separated and came back together again, so the researchers could look at conflict and peacekeeping as well as the social relations within groups, herd mentality and social pressure.

Then, the second part goes into the main experiment at Robbers Cave, largely built on ideas and developments from the first study, but more deliberately engineered to bring out group rivalry and conflict.

Finally, the research is put into context and we learn of Sherif’s personal history and development from a childhood in changing Turkey that led to his interest in these ideas and how his life during the worst part of the Cold War in America allowed him to devise the theories he did, as well as a discussion of the implications of the study for other groups and wider society.

His work is largely absent from the sociological literature today, on his death the family donated his research to the archives of the university Gina Parry was working in, culminating in her dedicating herself to this book. My background is in social science and it wasn’t something I remember on my course, despite its cultural links and comparisons to Lord of the Flies and the work of Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s obedience experiments are widely criticised for the dubious ethics and deception of the participants, which is also a feature of the Muzafer studies, in the way that boys were recruited and studied without consent from them or their parents, where there was a manipulation of situations to encourage conflict that could potentially put them in danger of physical and psychological harm. These aspects of the book were the most interesting for me, especially in terms of understanding where social psychology was at these times and how it has changed, especially as the discussion isn’t too dense and is enjoyable for a newcomer to the ideas rather than seeming academic and overly complex. It would also suit someone who wanted it for these purposes as the account and references are thorough.

Overall, I found these studies painted a positive picture of human groups, and remind us that while fighting, war and conflict are deep rooted in humanity, just as important are group bonds, being a good sport and pulling together. My criticism would be the focus of the study – boys only, in a new environment, of a certain age and characteristics, for only a few weeks mean it wouldn’t translate well into looking at wider society. I was glad Gina Perry brought these studies to light for me and retold them with accuracy and in a readable form.

Helen Corton 3/3

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robber Cave Experiment by Gina Perry
Scribe UK 9781911344391 pbk Apr 2018

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