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Avoiding Crimes of Obedience: A Comparative Study of the Autobiographies of MK Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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This research aims to contribute to an understanding of how and why certain people are able to display prosocial disobedience behaviors, overcome unjust situations, and withstand persecutions deployed by authority. This article presents a hermeneutic content analysis of the autobiographical speeches and texts of Gandhi, M. L. King, and Mandela. The results show that the importance given to parents' value orientation, experiences of injustice during childhood, and exploration of alternative viewpoints during adolescence plays a crucial role in structuring prosocial disobedience. The findings also show that social responsibility and ingroup communication are important conditions for facing persecution without forsaking original goals. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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Avoiding Crimes of Obedience:
A Comparative Study of the
Autobiographies of M. K.
Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Davide Morselli a & Stefano Passini b
a Laboratory for Life-Course Studies (Labo PaVie),
University of Lausanne, Switzerland
b Department of Education, University of Bologna,
Italy
Version of record first published: 27 Jul 2010.
To cite this article: Davide Morselli & Stefano Passini (2010): Avoiding Crimes of
Obedience: A Comparative Study of the Autobiographies of M. K. Gandhi, Nelson
Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology,
16:3, 295-319
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Avoiding Crimes of Obedience:
A Comparative Study of the
Autobiographies of M. K. Gandhi,
Nelson Mandela, and Martin
Luther King, Jr.
Davide Morselli
Laboratory for Life-Course Studies (Labo PaVie)
University of Lausanne, Switzerland
Stefano Passini
Department of Education
University of Bologna, Italy
This research aims to contribute to an understanding of how and why certain
people are able to display prosocial disobedience behaviors, overcome unjust
situations, and withstand persecutions deployed by authority. This article
presents a hermeneutic content analysis of the autobiographical speeches
and texts of Gandhi, M. L. King, and Mandela. The results show that the
importance given to parents’ value orientation, experiences of injustice during
childhood, and exploration of alternative viewpoints during adolescence
plays a crucial role in structuring prosocial disobedience. The findings
also show that social responsibility and ingroup communication are important
conditions for facing persecution without forsaking original goals.
Ever since crimes of obedience have become a distressingly recurrent
phenomenon in human behavior, they have become a focal topic in a
number of social sciences. More than 40 years have passed since Stanley
Correspondence should be addressed to Davide Morselli, Institute of Social Science,
Ba
ˆtiment Vidy-University of Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland. E-mail: davide.
morselli@unil.ch
Peace and Conflict, 16: 295–319, 2010
Copyright #Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1078-1919 print=1532-7949 online
DOI: 10.1080/10781911003773530
295
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Milgram took the world aback with his famous experiments (Milgram,
1974) in which he started to explain some of the psychological processes
that could bring an individual to obey ‘‘harmful’’ demands imposed by
authority. Although the study of obedience has developed through a
number of experimental and theoretical contributions since Milgram’s
experiment (Bauman, 1989; Blass, 2000; Browning, 1992; Kilham & Mann,
1974; Mantell, 1971; Passini & Morselli, 2009; Tilker, 1970), the topic is still
far from having been exhausted.
Most scholars have focused on the analysis of what factors could lead
someone to commit a crime by complying with autocratic commands
(Baumeister & Beck, 1999; Browning, 1992; Miller, 2004; Staub, 2003;
Waller, 2002). ‘‘Under orders from an authority, it appears that many
normal people respond with obedience, despite their own scruples and
discomfort about actions that they and others would usually regard as
illegal, immoral, and even unthinkable’’ (Kelman & Hamilton, 1989,
p. 23). Hence, attention has largely been addressed to the processes of
disengagement that people adopt so as not to feel accountable for their
actions when placed within a relationship of authority.
It is worthwhile to distinguish between destructive and constructive
aspects of obedience (Darley, 1995). Blind, destructive obedience is only
one of the many facets of the relationship subsisting between individual
and authority. Obedience is an important aspect of social life and can play
a key, constructive role in maintaining social order and stability, either
maintaining group norms (social control) or changing them (social change).
Thus, every type of collective life is based on a more or less institutionalized
system of authority.
Some scholars (Darley, 1995; Kelman & Hamilton, 1989; Passini &
Morselli, 2009, 2010b) pointed out that most of the empirical contributions
on obedience have tended to underestimate the role of disobedience in the
authority relationship. Disobedience is often considered to be a sort of
‘‘absence’’ of obedience, and its specificities have often been neglected in
studying the relationship between individual and authority.
We believe that obedience and disobedience ought to be inserted within a
multidimensional framework that could better explain the complexity of this
phenomenon (Passini & Morselli, 2010a). On a theoretical level, Fromm
(1963) applied and developed Piaget’s (1932) definition of heteronomous
and autonomous orientations. In Piaget’s theory, moral development can
be described on a continuum from anomy (i.e., non-regulation by others or
the self), to heteronomy (i.e., regulation by others), to autonomy (i.e.,
self-regulation). Heteronomous morality is a morality of obedience. In other
words, the individual does not regulate his or her behavior on the basis of per-
sonal convictions. In contrast, the morally autonomous individual follows
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moral rules that are self-constructed, self-regulating principles. Piaget’s
theory of moral development has been expanded on by Kohlberg (1969),
who reinforced the idea that heteronomy and autonomy exist within a hier-
archical system in which heteronomy represents a lower moral development
level than autonomy. Although Kohlberg’s approach became the mainstream
theory on moral development, in those years, Fromm suggested that heter-
onomy and autonomy are not distributed on a hierarchical scale. One person
can contemporaneously obey an external authority in a heteronomous way
and his or her own conscience autonomously. As a matter of fact, this
approach fits Piaget’s original theory, according to which a person can mani-
fest a heteronomous orientation within a hierarchical context and an auton-
omous orientation in a situation of peer cooperation (Carpendale, 2000).
Thus, disobedience may be linked to clear-cut moral issues and may be
traced back to what Rochat and Modigliani (1995) called the ‘‘ordinary
quality of goodness,’’ in opposition to the ‘‘banality of evil’’ (Arendt,
1964). As Rochat and Modigliani put it, ‘‘the chances that evil will be perpe-
trated are increased when it is rendered banal, but goodness does not disap-
pear in the process of making evil commonplace’’ (p. 198). Besides, their
conception of the ordinariness is not intended to imply that goodness is com-
monplace so that it will be readily observable in encounters between authori-
ties and subordinates. Rather, it is meant to suggest that goodness ...can be
expressed in quite ordinary ways that are mere extension of common civility
or basic decency. (Rochat & Modigliani, 1995, p. 206)
In fact, we attempt to demonstrate that as long as human beings can eas-
ily obey harmful demands under certain contextual circumstances, they are
also able to disobey if other conditions are present.
The question of what enables people to disobey in a prosocial way has yet
to be answered. Some explanations are present in the literature, but most
focus on individual psychological processes, paying little attention to inter-
action with the social context (Modigliani & Rochat, 1995; Tappan, 2000).
As an alternative, within a sociological perspective, Keniston (1968)
proposed a multidimensional approach to analyze the social framework of
the young members of the New Left in the anti-Vietnam War summer.
Results from his research are still relevant today. They show that individual
factors, such as moral development and attitudes, are closely bound to situa-
tional variables like parental behavior and peer relationships. In other
words, moral reasoning is dependent on the social context. Parental ability
to express moral thinking plays a particularly important role in constructing
children’s moral judgment and their weltanschauung, although parents’ and
children’s judgment need not overlap. Later studies by Helwig (1995) and
AVOIDING CRIMES OF OBEDIENCE 297
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Neff and Helwig (2002) highlighted the interaction between individual
and community levels. Their results show that moral development is based
on the meaning that individuals attach to concepts such as authority, tra-
dition, autonomy, rights, and equality. Such meanings are not simply trans-
mitted to the individuals, but represent shared features of social life and are
co-constructed in the interaction between individual and social contexts.
In this regard, developmental psychologists have studied how some
factors (e.g., socialization) might be responsible for the emergence of stable
individual differences in prosocial behavior (see Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998).
For instance, Colby and Damon (1992) pointed out that personal character-
istics and critical experiences might predict the performance of extraordi-
nary moral actions (Eisenberg & Sadovsky, 2006). According to Piaget
(1932), the nature of the relationships that people experience may influence
moral reasoning by either facilitating or inhibiting the process of perspective
taking. As some scholars (Comunian & Gielen, 2006; Mason & Gibbs, 1993)
pointed out, adolescents who reported more general and friendship
perspective-taking experiences were more mature in their moral judgment.
Thus, situations or relationships that either constrain or facilitate the ability
to understand the perspectives of others should influence moral reasoning.
This is consistent with the studies that analyzed activists in the civil rights
and antiwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s (Duhnam & Bengston,
1992) and those who sheltered Holocaust survivors (Oliner & Oliner,
1988). Those studies underline the relevance of individual compassion and
social responsibility as core values, derived at least partly from personal
experience, that have motivated the actions of people enacting disobedience.
In the domain of social influence, Kelman (2006) and Kelman and
Hamilton (1989) accounted for constructive disobedience behavior as a con-
dition of autonomy acquired by the individual and as the consequence of
perceiving alternatives to the dominant social context. When the status
quo is not accepted as the sole interpretation of reality, then authority’s legit-
imacy is constantly undermined. This means that, in the case of ‘‘harmful’’
demands issued by authority, individuals may recognize their illegitimacy
and disobey them. The significance of a pluralistic viewpoint in the develop-
ment of autonomous decision making may find confirmation in Marcia’s
(1980) theory on the development of individual identity (derived from
Erikson, 1968, and recently revised by Meeus, 1996) and in moral identity
studies (Blasi, 1993; Flanagan & Rorty, 1990; Tappan, 2000). Insofar
as the individual considers different points of view, he or she stands auton-
omously, thereby weakening the influence of authority and consequently
lessening the possibility of committing obedience crimes.
However, solely focusing on authority’s legitimacy and the development of
moral identity does not adequately explain why some people are not deterred
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from disobedient conduct by the prospect of punishment, whereas others are.
The cognitive developmental approach sometimes fails to consider the actual
role of the social context in processes of disobedience and resistance. On the
other hand, a number of social psychological studies have not paid much
attention to the individual’s moral development, which provides important
information in terms of distinguishing prosocial (constructive) disobedience
from antisocial (destructive) disobedience. For these reasons, we believe that
an autobiographical approach will provide further insight into these issues.
True-life stories contain both social and developmental aspects, and can lead
to a better understanding of prosocial disobedience.
To use autobiographies to understand social phenomena, we have to shift
our attention from the factual level to the hermeneutic level and focus on the
interpretations that people give to their lives (Ferrarotti, 1995). Autobiogra-
phies are interpretative schemes that attribute sense and continuity to life
events (Bruner & Weisser, 1991). According to Bruner (1990), narrators
not only narrate, but also justify themselves. Such justification is performed
in relation to the audience. For instance, studies on lesbian and gay
‘‘coming-out’’ narratives (Joos & Broad, 2007; Martin, 1993; Plummer,
1995) show that people reconstruct and interpret their infancy and their
youth to provide explanations for their adult identity. Narrators choose
and frame life events as a function of their aims and the specific audience
they have in mind (Eco, 1979; Schank, 1990). Thus, the study of autobiogra-
phies shifts attention from what happened to how it is interpreted.
To study prosocial disobedience through autobiography is to focus on the
perception that certain life events are conducive to a critical and alternative
viewpoint and to the enhancement of the ability to withstand the persecu-
tions of authority. In this study, we hypothesized that similar interpretations
of life events may be found in the narratives of different people enacting
constructive disobedience. In particular, we expected that such narratives
would reveal the link between constructive disobedience behavior and the
perception of the illegitimacy of authority’s demands. Moreover, if social
and contextual factors are relevant in defining an alternative viewpoint to
the status quo, we expected that, rather than focus on personal characteris-
tics, people would highlight the relation among social, contextual factors;
individual moral development; disobedient behavior; and the capacity to
overcome persecution.
METHOD
This study focused on the autobiographical narratives of Nelson Mandela
(1994), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Carson, 1998), and Mohandas K. Gandhi
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(1929) as case studies of people who became deeply involved into disobeying
authority and who faced strong persecution for this disobedience. In fact,
in Gandhi, Mandela, and King’s lives, the two dependent variables we
observed were both pervasive and meaningful: (a) prosocial disobedience,
which differs from destructive forms of disobedience such as defiance,
delinquency, rebellion, and so forth; and includes a variety of different types
of protests, such as civil disobedience and boycotts, which do not harm
others; and (b) resistance to persecution.
A hermeneutic content analysis of the narratives (Holsti, 1969; Kvale,
1996; Polkinghorne, 1988; Ricoeur, 1984) was applied to the autobiogra-
phies, using the methodology proposed by Keniston (1968) in his research
into the young New Left members. Keniston collected structured autobio-
graphical interviews and arranged them into common topics, identifying
similarities and differences in the respondents’ attribution of meaning.
The narrative units were analyzed by means of a cross-sectional comparison
between respondents, instead of a longitudinal comparison—that is,
the narratives were divided into topics instead of considered as a whole
autobiographical corpus. This methodology allowed us to analyze King’s
narratives, too, despite the fact they were not written by King himself
as a full autobiography, but were collected postmortem by Carson (1998).
1
The analysis proceeded through an iterative procedure carried out by two
independent coders. A first analysis of the texts was performed using the cate-
gories suggested by Keniston (1968; namely, family, mother, father, childhood,
and adolescence), as they provided good explanatory power in the study of the
New Left activists. Two more categories were added at the very beginning,
being in agreement with the variables to be observed: jail experiences and
significant interpersonal relationships (i.e., the perception of support from
other persons). In addition to those, an initial analysis revealed that another
group of narratives was common to the three autobiographies; this was
categorized as social responsibility, or the perception that other people depend
on us (Berkowitz & Daniels, 1964). The books were then wholly reanalyzed
to verify whether more narratives could be coded. During a third step, the
two independent coders compared the coded data and resolved differences.
Narratives were chosen with the help of QSR-N5 software, from
the whole corpus of the text, and were inserted into categories using two
criteria. Initially, text units were selected on the basis of an explicit reference
by the authors to their importance and meaningfulness. Locutions, such as
1
M. L. King’s autobiography is a collection of autobiographical narratives taken from
King’s major books, as well as manuscripts, speeches, letters, and sermons with autobiographi-
cal content. The editing work by Clayborne Carson was hardly intrusive, ‘‘preserving the integ-
rity of King’s statements and writing’’ (Carson, 1998, p. x).
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TABLE 1
Text Units by Author and Category
Author Father Mother Childhood Adolescence Jail experiences Social responsibility Interpersonal relationships
Overall
Father 17 (7.05%)
Mother 2 8 (3.32%)
Childhood 4 5 19 (7.88%)
Adolescence 3 1 0 35 (14.52%)
Jail experiences 0 0 0 0 62 (25.73%)
Social responsibility 1 1 0 6 12 41 (17.01%)
Interpersonal relationships 0 0 0 0 33 2 59 (24.48%)
Gandhi
Father 4 (12.50%)
Mother 0 1 (3.13%)
Childhood 0 0 3 (9.38%)
Adolescence 2 0 0 9 (28.13%)
Jail experiences 0 0 0 0 1 (3.13%)
Social responsibility 0 0 0 5 0 10 (31.25%)
Interpersonal relationships 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 (12.50%)
King
Father 5 (12.20%)
Mother 2 3 (7.32%)
Childhood 4 3 4 (9.76%)
Adolescence 1 1 0 3 (7.32%)
Jail experiences 0 0 0 0 2 (4.88%)
Social responsibility 1 1 0 1 0 16 (39.02%)
Interpersonal relationships 0 0 0 0 0 2 8 (19.51%)
Mandela
Father 8 (4.76%)
Mother 0 4 (2.38%)
Childhood 0 2 12 (7.14%)
Adolescence 0 0 0 23 (13.69%)
Jail experiences 0 0 0 0 59 (35.12%)
Social responsibility 0 0 0 0 12 15 (8.93%)
Interpersonal relationships 0 0 0 0 33 0 47 (27.98%)
301
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‘‘I will never forget’’ or ‘‘That had a particular effect on my development,’’
were used to recognize such key narratives. This criterion was mainly
applied to autobiographical speeches on developmental issues (namely,
childhood, adolescence, and family topics) to sort out the breadth of the
corpus and spot the salience of certain narratives. For the other categories
(e.g., jail experiences, significant interpersonal relationships, and social
responsibility), in addition to the first criterion, we considered the psycho-
logical states and interpretations described by the narrative that could fit
in these categories.
The categories we used are not to be considered exclusive—except for
father–mother and childhoodadolescence—which means that some text units
could be coded into more than one category at the same time, and that there
may be intersections between categories.
DATA ANALYSIS
Two hundred forty-one meaningful text units were coded as follows: parents
(35 text units), including father (17 text units) and mother (8 text units);
childhood (19 text units); adolescence (35 text units); jail experiences (62 text
units); significant interpersonal relationships (59 text units); and social
responsibility (41 text units). Table 1 shows the distribution of text units
for each of the autobiographies.
After the coding procedure, each category was analyzed by comparing its
text units to stress similarities and differences in the interpretation of life
events (Kvale, 1996). For reasons of space, in the following paragraphs
we report only a few text units as examples for our arguments.
RESULTS
Similarities and Differences in the Life Stories
The three participants lived in different parts of the world within different
cultural frameworks. Gandhi (1869–1948) was born in India. He came
from the Hindu culture but read law in London and eventually got a
job as a lawyer in South Africa. King (1929–1968) was born in Georgia
(in the United States). He came from a deeply religious family and became
a Baptist pastor like his father and his grandfather. Mandela (1918–
present) was born in South Africa. He was a member of the Xhosa tribe
and grew up following both Xhosa and Christian principles. He, too, read
law and became a lawyer.
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They all came from the middle or upper-middle social class, which
allowed them to complete their higher education. Nevertheless, they all
were members of disadvantaged social groups, discriminated against by
the Western governments of their countries. Although they had high
social status within their own groups, they had low status in terms of
empowerment and governance. As pointed out by Mandela (1994), ‘‘No
matter how high a black man advanced, he was still considered inferior
to the lowest white man’’ (p. 30).
2
Considerations of the Expected Audience
According to Eco (1979), writers and storytellers always address themselves
to a specific audience they have in mind, which may not overlap with the
actual audience but which still influences their words and choice of argu-
ments. This is even more salient in autobiographical narratives, which have
to be selected from an enormous number of experiences (Bruner; 1990;
Schank, 1990; Smorti, 1994; Trzebin
´ski & Antczak, 2007). Who did Gandhi,
Mandela, and King think of while they drafted their autobiographical
speeches? An important clue is provided by the fact that some parts of
the three books were written during internment. Gandhi and Mandela
started to write in jail, and King’s autobiography includes letters and
thoughts from jail. This may give some insight regarding why and for whom
they started writing. Indeed, we may suppose that these autobiographical
narratives were meant to convey their determination to fellow citizens, start-
ing with those who were already involved in disobedience campaigns.
Hence, the aim of their autobiographies was to transmit an example
rather than an auto-celebration. On this point, Gandhi (1929) wrote:
I am not writing the autobiography to please critics. .. .One of its objects is
certainly to provide some comfort and food for reflection for my coworkers.
(p. 148)
3
The same concept also appears in the introduction (p. 8) in which Gandhi
expressed hope that some readers could draw inspiration from his experi-
ences and follow the same path in pursuit of justice. Although less clear-cut
references are present in King and Mandela, we may suppose that their
intentions were indeed similar.
2
This and all subsequent quotes for Nelson Mandela are from Long Walk to Freedom (1994),
unless otherwise noted.
3
This and all subsequent quotes for M. K. Gandhi are from An Autobiography. The Story of
My Experiments With Truth (1929), unless otherwise noted.
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Categories
Parents. In seeking to interpret the origin of their moral development,
Gandhi, Mandela, and King offered detailed information on their relation-
ships with their parents. In all the texts, particular emphasis is given to the
relationships with their fathers:
He [King’s father] has always been a very strong and self-confident person.
I have rarely ever met a person more fearless and courageous than my father,
notwithstanding the fact that he feared for me. He never feared the autocratic
and brutal person in the white community. (Carson, 1998, pp. 4–5).
4
My father was a lover of his clan, truthful, brave and generous, but
short-tempered. ...But he was incorruptible and had earned a name for strict
impartiality in his family as well as outside. (Gandhi, 1929, p. 15)
My father had a stern manner and did not spare the rod when disciplining
his children. He could be exceedingly stubborn, another trait that may unfor-
tunately have been passed down from father to son ...my father possessed a
proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness that I recognize in myself.
(Mandela, 1994, p. 15)
All three authors stressed the commitment of their fathers to social life
and to their respective communities. In some respects, they interpreted the
relationship with their parents as an important factor in their further moral
development. They stressed, in fact, a sort of heritage coming from their
families. On this topic, King declared:
And I think that my strong determination for justice comes from the
very strong, dynamic personality of my father, and I would hope that
the gentle aspect comes from a mother who is very gentle and sweet. (p. 3)
With this heritage, it is not surprising that I also learned to abhor
segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifi-
able. (p. 5)
Whereas the fathers are described as models of moral integrity and deter-
mination, mothers are described more as direct teachers of moral principles.
For instance, Gandhi (p. 17) expressed his admiration for his mother in
making vows, and Mandela (p. 21) reported that his mother would tell
him traditional stories and moral tales. That is not surprising since Keniston
(1968) also found that the people he interviewed were explicitly grateful to
their mothers for having brought them up with a sense of moral principle.
4
This and all subsequent quotes for M. L. King, Jr. are from Carson’s (1998) The Autobi-
ography of Martin Luther King, Jr., unless otherwise noted.
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Childhood. The search for sources of moral development is also remark-
able in their narratives concerning their childhoods. For example, Mandela
declared that he learned to handle problematic situations during his
childhood. He argued that there is a link between what he learned as a
child and his leadership abilities as an adult:
As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated
by he regent at the Great Palace. I have always endeavored to listen to what
each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own
opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of
what I heard in the discussion. (p. 18)
King’s narratives were less focused on positive events; they focused more
on early traumatic events related to racist segregation:
The second incident happened when I was about six years of age. ...The
climax came when he [King’s friend] told me one day that his father had
demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great
shock this was to me. ...The question arose in my mind: How could I love a
race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me
up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my
mind for a number of years. (p. 7)
In other words, King followed the interpretation that from a very early
age, episodes of victimization trigger a profound indignation toward injus-
tice. Moral education, combined with his parents’ example, brought him to
make a stand against injustice in later years.
Gandhi gave less space to the specific events that had occurred during
childhood. Nevertheless, he noted that evidence of his adult commitment
to fighting for the truth was present during childhood as well:
I do not remember having ever told a lie, during this short period, either to my
teachers or to my school-mates. ...Two other incidents belonging to the same
period have always clung to my memory. ...To follow truth and to go through
all the ordeals Harishchandra went through was the one ideal it inspired in me.
(p. 16)
In narratives about their childhoods, as well as in those about their
parents, the authors highlight the importance of their cultural traditions
(especially for Mandela and Gandhi) and the importance of learning
from meaningful adult behavior. They considered childhood as the period
of their lives in which they first established important moral principles.
In fact, according to Hoffman (1984), it is especially during childhood
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that people develop a sense of responsibility for human needs, built on a
sense of universal justice. Gandhi, Mandela, and King followed this
interpretation of childhood and identified in this period the source of their
adult sense of justice.
Adolescence. As we have seen in the last paragraph, Gandhi,
Mandela, and King interpreted their observation of parent behavior and
childhood as starting points for achieving an alternative viewpoint to the
status quo, which allowed them to challenge authority in later years.
Adolescence is described through significant relationships and encounters
outside the family, which subsequently helped them to achieve alternative
viewpoints and challenge authority. For all three authors, adolescence
represented a significant opening toward society. They attached special
emphasis to adolescence in their autobiographical speeches—35 significant
text units were extracted concerning adolescence, almost twice as many
as those on childhood (19 text units). Therefore, it seems that events
occurring during adolescence were more meaningful than the ones that
occurred during childhood. The authors tell us how they entered a new
social context during adolescence that differed greatly from the one
to which they were accustomed. This is in line with developmental
psychology theories on adolescence. As some authors have pointed out
(see Coleman & Hendry, 1990; Grinder, 1978), individuals are exposed
during adolescence to social interaction situations unlike those experienced
earlier in childhood. The shift from childhood to adolescence is marked by
a change in many aspects of social life. In particular, during this period,
individuals begin to encounter many new demands and expectations
(Damon, 1980) relevant for growing into independent, socially competent
individuals, and may even enlarge and change their worldviews.
Gandhi, Mandela, and King recounted how they started to outline
alternative behavioral styles—especially regarding the relationship with
authority—through encounters with new social contexts, new peoples,
and new ideas. For instance, King described how, during his experience at
Morehouse College, he learned to cope with racism. According to Carson,
King’s experiences at Morehouse College triggered a crisis in the religious
values he had learned within the family:
My days in college were very exciting ones. There was a free atmosphere at
Morehouse, and it was there I had my first frank discussion on race. ...They
encouraged us in a positive quest for a solution to racial ills. I realized that
nobody there was afraid. Important people came in to discuss the race prob-
lem rationally with us. ...As stated above, my college training, especially the
first two years, brought many doubts into my mind. It was then that the
shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. More and more I
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could see a gap between what I learned in Sunday school and what I was
learning in college. My studies had me skeptical, and I could not see how many
of the facts of science could be squared with religion. (pp. 13–15)
A similar narrative is present in Gandhi’s book. Gandhi reported that
during adolescence he questioned the traditional values he had learned
within the family. The following text unit concerns his decision, taken with
a friend, to break the traditional rule of not eating meat. The two boys
had concluded that such a decision would enable Indians to be physically
stronger and could help them to overcome English rule in India:
All this had its due effect on me. I was beaten. It began to grow on me that
meat-eating was good, that it would make me strong and daring, and that,
if the whole country took to meat-eating, the English could be overcome. A
day was thereupon fixed for beginning the experiment. It had to be conducted
in secret. ...I cannot say that I did not know then that I should have to deceit
my parents if I began eating meat. But my mind was bent on the ‘‘reform.’’
It was not a question of pleasing the palate. I did not know that it had a
particularly good relish. I wished to be strong and daring and wanted my
countrymen also to be such, so that we might defeat the English and make
India free. The word Swaraj I had not yet heard. But I knew what freedom
meant. The frenzy of the ‘‘reform’’ blinded me. And having ensured secrecy,
I persuaded myself that mere hiding the deed from parents was no departure
from truth. (p. 12)
Both horizontal social relationships (Berndt, 1992; Selman & Schulz,
1990), as seen with Mandela’s friend, Paul, who openly refused to obey
authority, and vertical relationships (Damon, 1980) with adult figures, are
perceived as having a key role in developing a positive idea of disobedience.
College experiences are described as being particularly meaningful, especially
for Mandela and King. Attending college gave King a new perspective
through which he learned to interpret reality. Also, Mandela told us that in
college he had the chance to come across different viewpoints. For instance,
the following text is about a speech made by the Xhosa poet, Krune Mqhayi,
at Mandela’s College, Healdtown. The poet incited the audience to resist
the power of the Whites and reclaim a specific African culture:
I could hardly believe my ears. His boldness in speaking of such delicate matters
in the presence of Dr. Wellington and other whites seemed utterly astonishing
to us. Yet at the same time, it aroused and motivates us, and began to alter my
perception of men like Mr. Wellington, whom I had automatically considered
my benefactor. ...I was galvanized, but also confused by Mqhayi’s perform-
ance. ...I had many new sometimes conflicting ideas floating in my head. ...I
saw that African might stand his ground with white man. (pp. 36–37)
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Mandela described this event as ‘‘a comet streaking across the night sky’’
(p. 35). He stressed the importance of this experience in presenting an alter-
native view of the social system: ‘‘I had many new sometimes conflicting
ideas floating in my head’’ (p. 36).
Roles of Communication and Social Responsibility
in Resisting Persecution
Experiences of prison are a central topic in the lives of King, Gandhi, and
Mandela. All three were persecuted by authority and were imprisoned on
a number of occasions. The example of Nelson Mandela is quite remark-
able. Despite spending 27 years behind bars, he finally overcame the power
of authority and defeated the apartheid system. Some common narratives
were identified on the topic of resisting persecution and detention without
forsaking original goals and disobedience behaviors.
First, jail experiences are not interpreted as being entirely negative.
Gandhi, Mandela, and King were imprisoned because of their struggle for
the people, so they saw their sentences as bearing witness to their dedication
to the cause. In fact, in Gandhi’s and King’s acts of civil disobedience, being
arrested was a structural part of the fight itself. It had the precise aim of
showing everyone how meaningless the demands and restrictions imposed
by the authority were. King stated:
Ordinarily, a person leaving a courtroom with a conviction behind him
would wear a somber face. But I left with a smile. I knew that I was a
convicted criminal, but I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining
my people in a non violent protest against injustice. ...It was above all
the crime of seeking to convince my people that non-cooperation with evil is
just as much a moral duty as is cooperation with good. (pp. 87–88)
Gandhi used this experience in a positive, proactive way, too. He
considered it an opportunity to improve his own self-control. He wrote:
My first experience of jail life was in 1908. I saw that some of the regulations
that the prisoners had to observe were such as should be voluntarily observed
by a brahmachari, that is, one desiring to practice self-restraint. ...Inhibitions
imposed from without rarely succeed, but when they are self-imposed, they
have a decidedly salutary effect. (p. 184)
In other words, although imprisonment is obviously a consequence
of disobedience and for having challenged authority, the three authors
did not report the jail experience as a punishment, nor as an unwanted
incident in their life trajectories. They interpreted jail time as an
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opportunity to reinforce their activities and their dedication to community
goals.
Second, ingroup and outgroup communications are described as having a
relevant role in the resistance to persecution. Mandela wrote:
We stayed in the Fort for two weeks, and despite the hardships, our
sprits remained extremely high. We were permitted newspapers and read
gratification of the waves of indignation aroused by our arrests. . ..We read
of protests around the world over our incarceration.
Our Communal cell became a kind of convention for far-flung freedom
fighters. Many of us had been living under severe restrictions, making it
illegal for us to meet and talk. ...We reveled in the opportunity to exchange
ideas and experiences for two weeks while we awaited trial. (p. 178)
Like King, Mandela attached great importance to inmate relationships
during imprisonment. None of them felt alone in facing up to persecution.
They felt united with the other inmates and were motivated to resist for
the sake of their country.
The narratives show two different kinds of communication that helped
the authors to overcome detention. It is possible to identify communication
between ingroup members that helped to renew and strengthen the ideals
at the basis of their disobedience. This communication consisted of verbal
or written exchanges between group members; messages concerned the
coordination of activities or general political information. Mandela
described this correspondence as his most important task in jail:
Having sympathetic warders facilitated one of our most vital tasks on Robben
Island: communication. ...As politicians, we were just as intent on fortifying
our organization in prison as we had been outside. Communication was essen-
tial if we were to coordinate our protest and complaints. ...Communications
between sections was a serious violation of regulations. We found many
effective ways around the ban. (p. 366)
Ingroup communication, apart from having a strategic and practical role,
helped the three writers to maintain a good and active state of mind. The
authors also described communication between the ingroups and outgroups,
which provided positive reinforcement to the persecuted group.
Communication, friendship, and collaborative relationships between
group members created a safety net, supporting the individual in facing
great difficulties (Reicher, Cassidy, Wolpert, Hopkins, & Levine, 2006).
Communication provides psychological and emotional support, helping
individuals to stand up for their beliefs and enhance their commitment.
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The narratives show that the influence of the communication is pro-
portional to the individual’s awareness of his or her own group’s cohesion.
The more the individual perceives him- or herself as being part of a
group with high cohesion, the more communication helps in withstanding
the punishment:
Mashall Square was squalid, dark, and dingy, but we were all together and
so impassioned and spirited that I barely noticed my surroundings. The
camaraderie of our fellow mates made the two days pass very quickly.
(Mandela, 1994, p. 115)
Moreover, the support received from outgroup sympathizers is also
very important and helps to provide scaffolding for the individual facing
persecution:
Many people later commented on how poorly I looked, and not just because of
my wardrobe. I had been in and out of solitary confinement for months and I
had lost more than twenty-five pounds. I took pains to smile at the gallery
when I walked into the courtroom, and seeing our supporters was the best
medicine I could have had. (Mandela, 1994, p. 307)
One of the most gratifying developments was the unprecedented show of
unity that was displayed by the national Negro community in support to
our crusade. (Carson, 1998, p. 217)
Meanwhile a number of people had assembled in front of the jail. Soon the
crowd had become so large that the jailer began to panic. ...As I walked out
and noticed the host of friends and well-wishers, I regained the courage that
I had temporally lost. ...From that night my commitment to the struggle
for freedom was stronger than even before. (Carson, 1998, pp. 75–76)
In other words, the social context and social relationships are pivotal in
enabling a person to face persecution following acts of disobedience. There
is a continuous exchange between the individual and the social support
group. This exchange returns information to the detainees concerning their
competence and their role.
Social responsibility is positively linked to the perception that other
people depend on us. The more we know people depend on what we do,
the more our perception of our own social responsibility increases (Berkowitz
& Daniels, 1964). When Gandhi, Mandela, and King received support from
others, either directly or indirectly, they became increasingly aware that a
wide range of people depended on them. This may have led to further devel-
opment of their sense of social responsibility and deepened their commitment
to their roles (e.g., King wrote, ‘‘My commitment to the struggle for freedom
was stronger than ever before’’ [Carson, 1998, p. 76]). The three books are
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replete with examples; the social responsibility category is the third major
category in terms of the number of overall text units (41 text units) and the
first in Gandhi’s and King’s books. Here are several examples:
The black plague enhanced my influence with the poor Indians, and increased
my business and my responsibility. Some of the new contacts with Europeans
became so close that they added considerably to my moral obligations.
(Gandhi, 1929, p. 248)
In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could
play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol
of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of
freedom, fairness, and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I
realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even within the fortress
of the enemy. (Mandela, 1994, p. 276)
Positive feedback received from the international community through
awards and prizes, such as the Nobel Prize, also had an effect on their
perception of their responsibility for other people:
The Nobel Peace Prize was a proud honor, but not one with which we began a
‘‘season of satisfaction’’ in the civil rights movement. We returned from
Oslo ...with feet even more firmly on the ground, convictions strengthened
and determinations driven by dreams of greater and brighter tomorrow.
(Carson, 1998, pp. 260–261)
For Gandhi, King, and Mandela, such awards also increased the breadth
of their moral spheres by exponentially reaching more and more people
and groups. They all started with a feeling of responsibility for their own
group and, subsequently, felt responsible for other groups in the same
situation, then for the whole nation, creating a universal feeling of social
responsibility.
In the conclusion to his book, Mandela clearly illustrated this concept:
At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself. ...Later, as a young
man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honorable freedoms of
achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a
family—the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.
But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and
sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just freedom that was curtailed,
but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. ...It was during those long
and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became the
hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew
anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A
man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is
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locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. ...The oppressed
and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. (pp. 543–544)
In this narrative, Mandela added a precise time sequence to the develop-
ment of his own moral sense and social responsibility. Mandela moved from
a self-focused responsibility (i.e., his own freedom) to a socially oriented
responsibility (i.e., freedom for all). However, as he stressed elsewhere
in his autobiography (p. 93), his sense of social responsibility did not
appear at any one moment, but became more and more salient as his
life progressed.
DISCUSSION
In this research, we have attempted to provide a contribution toward under-
standing how and why certain people can display disobedience behavior,
overcoming unjust situations and withstanding persecution deployed by
authorities. Results have shown that while relating their life histories,
Nelson Mandela, M. K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. attached
particular importance to contextual factors in defining an alternative view-
point to the status quo, developing their morality, and enhancing their
capacity to withstand persecution.
In this sense, what we have found in adolescence is in line with the idea
that being conscious of the existence of alternatives to the status quo is a
development needed to reduce the legitimacy of authority. When people
accept the interpretation of reality given by the authority as the sole
interpretation, they tend to comply with the authority unquestioningly
(Kelman & Hamilton, 1989). Instead, the existence of different viewpoints
and different alternatives could foster debate over the legitimacy of
authority’s demands and, in some cases, lead to disobedience. From the
narratives we have coded on adolescence, the hypothesis emerges that
alternative viewpoints may be considered to be socially shared and con-
structed. The appearance of different viewpoints may lead to a critical
re-evaluation of traditional and family values. It is worth noting that, as
Gandhi stressed in his texts on adolescence, rule-breaking is interpreted
as leading to a greater good, and is value-oriented. For instance, he told
us that he violated rules as he was seeking social change. According to
Arendt (1972), social deviance differs from (prosocial) disobedience mainly
in terms of the goals that actually lead people to break the rules. In social
deviance, such goals are restricted to the members of the ingroup (i.e.,
people disobey rules for their own specific benefit or the benefit of
their own group). Social deviance is disengaged from moral reasoning
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(Bandura, 1999). Prosocial disobedience, in contrast, only violates such
rules as are deemed to run against the community and community mem-
bers’ rights. In this sense, disobedience is based on higher moral reasoning
and shared social values. Thus, congruently with Marcia’s (1980) and
Meeus’s (1996) developmental theory, the authors stressed the importance
of discovering alternative ways of constructing reality, even through
the breaking of rules. Gandhi, Mandela, and King remembered their ado-
lescence as the time when they discovered different ways of behaving and
relating to authority and started to question the reality that was presented
to them.
In addition, our findings suggest that an awareness of alternatives to the
status quo may be necessary, but not sufficient. Gandhi, King, and Mandela
highlighted other experiences that they considered particularly relevant in
undermining and challenging authority. In particular, communication and
a sense of social responsibility appear to have helped them overcome the
reactions of authority to disobedience (i.e., detention, punishments, etc.).
According to our analysis, disobedience and the ability to withstand its
consequences are the result of social interactions based on shared meanings
and values, and are developed and enhanced during everyday life. In line
with our hypothesis, the capacity to articulate alternatives to the status
quo, question the authority’s legitimacy, disobey its demands, and with-
stand its persecution are not to be considered the personal characteristics
of a few special people, but social constructs and learned behaviors that
can be socially enhanced.
Intersections in Table 1 show that the social responsibility category inter-
sects with other categories in several ways. Five of Gandhi’s narratives on
social responsibility were also categorized in adolescence, and in King’s
autobiography social responsibility is connected to adolescence and to nar-
ratives on parents. For Mandela, social responsibility was, instead, linked to
jail experiences, underlining the change he underwent during imprisonment,
as reported earlier. The authors interpreted their disobedience behavior
and attitudes as the result of an interaction between social factors, such
as child and adolescent experiences (mainly concerning the development
of morality and the acquisition of alternative viewpoints), interpersonal
relationships, and communication. According to this analysis, resistance
to persecution may be related to the range of the moral sphere and to the
support received from the surrounding community.
Although the data and analysis we have presented provide some original
insights, the research does have some limitations. We are aware that the her-
meneutic analysis we have presented does not cover all the possible ques-
tions on this issue. This mostly depends on the characteristics of the
analysis itself, which always brings up fresh questions and deals with huge
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and complex amounts of data. According to Bruner (1990), psychology
based on life stories and narratives needs to apply the interpretative instru-
ments used for studying history and culture, without claiming a unique
interpretation of the human being. Thus, when interpreting the results, we
have to keep certain observations in mind. First, we analyzed the autobio-
graphies of three people with a similar background (i.e., middle–high social
standing and deprivation of rights connected with xenophobia). We might
find different results by comparing people who disobey for very different
reasons. Second, our data came exclusively from male participants; hence,
it would be appropriate to analyze women’s autobiographies as well. Fur-
thermore, performing a control analysis would be tricky, as we did not find
autobiographies of people who could be considered a comparison group
(e.g., people involved in antisocial disobedience or not involved in dis-
obedience, but with the same demographic characteristics as our sample).
As a matter of fact, we had analyzed autobiographies of authoritarian per-
sons—specifically, the texts of Mussolini (1947) and Hitler (1935). However,
we think that, in line with Allport’s (1942) classification of autobiographical
narrative, they are not fully comparable with the autobiographies we have
presented in this article, as the intents of the two types of text are mis-
matched. Gandhi, Mandela, and King’s texts were addressed to their fellow
citizens with the aim of encouraging them, not on the qualities of the
authors but on their reactions to situations and events. The purpose of
Mussolini’s and Hitler’s biographies, on the other hand, is mainly
self-celebratory.
Nevertheless, a comparative example may be found in research by
Tappan (2000), who provided an interesting analysis of the autobiography
of Ingo Hasselbach, founder of the National Alternative Neo-Nazi party
in East Germany in 1991. Tappan’s analysis differs from the one presented
here, as it is based more on factual events in Hasselbach’s life than on their
psychological interpretation. However, Tappan showed some aspects of
Hasselbach’s life trajectory that allowed him to distance himself from the
neo-Nazi movement. In line with our findings, Tappan’s analysis stressed
that the starting point for repudiating the movement he had helped to create
was the assumption of a different viewpoint. In particular, his relationship
with a person outside the movement led Hasselbach to embrace a different
perspective over time:
All my friends for as long as I could remember had been in the Movement in
one way or another. Now, to hear my Kamerads talking in the presence of my
new friend [Bonengel]—as I now thought of him—I actually began to feel
ashamed. ...I began to identify more and more with Bonengel and his team
than with my Kamerads. (p. 90)
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This is consistent with our findings. Indeed, Gandhi, Mandela, and King
stressed the way they progressively arrived at a greater awareness of the
alternatives to the status quo and to different and unexplored behavioral
styles. As we have seen, particular emphasis in their autobiographical
speeches is given to school studies, as well as to interactions with significant
adults and peers during adolescence.
Nevertheless, those factors may foster disobedience, but not necessarily
prosocial disobedience. For example, Linden and Klandermans (2007) ana-
lyzed some life-history interviews of far right-wing activists. They found that
experiences in adolescence were important elements in the conversion to
nationalism and right-wing ideology. In fact, for some of the interviewees,
the right-wing and neo-Nazi ideology represented an alternative to the sta-
tus quo in a way similar to the way in which antiracial activism represented
an alternative to the mainstream viewpoint for Mandela and King. More-
over, not unlike our participants, extreme right-wing activists also stress
the importance of feeling responsible for their own community when dealing
with difficulties stemming from their activism.
What seems to characterize prosocial disobedience—and differentiate it
from other types of disobedience—is a deep sense of responsibility toward
others, combined with attitudes of moral inclusion. Its counterpart, moral
exclusion, views others as lying beyond one’s own ‘‘moral community,’’
outside the boundary within which moral values and rules of justice and
fairness apply (Staub, 2003). This captures the dynamics underlying destruc-
tive conflicts, whereas moral inclusion captures the dynamics of peace-
building in its emphasis on equality, justice, and a concern for universal
well-being (Opotow, Gerson, & Woodside, 2005). According to Opotow
(1990), moral exclusion is evident in a number of symptoms, including the
displacement of responsibility. Instead, the analysis of the narrative suggests
that attitudes of moral inclusion are linked to a personal assumption of
responsibility. Therefore, all levels of society are included in the process
of social change. Moral inclusion and social responsibility contribute to
the distinction between destructive and constructive disobedience. Destruc-
tive, antisocial disobedience involves favoring one’s own group by encour-
aging policies that preserve social inequality; whereas constructive,
prosocial disobedience promotes social change addressed to everyone
(Opotow, 2002).
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES
Davide Morselli (PhD in Social Psychology) has a research position at the
Laboratory for Life-Course Studies (Labo PaVie) at the Institute of Social
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Science of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He has been conducting
research on processes of obedience and disobedience with a multi-method
approach. His research also focuses on the study of social values and social
representations in a cross-cultural perspective and on reactions to human
rights violations in post-conflict societies.
Stefano Passini (PhD in Social Psychology) is Lecturer at the Department
of Education ‘‘G. M. Bertin’’ of the University of Bologna. His studies are
focused on authoritarian attitudes, social values, social prejudice toward dis-
advantaged categories, and the psychosocial processes involved in drug
addiction and gambling among young generations. Together with Morselli,
he has studied individual attitudes and behaviors toward different types of
obedience and disobedience.
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... This is in line with the analysis of the autobiographies of recognized civil dissidents, such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. As Morselli and Passini (2010) have shown, civil disobedience is based on a sense of social responsibility e that is, the perception that other people depend on us e and on the extension of such sense of responsibility by exponentially reaching more and more people and social groups. A universal feeling of social responsibility based on attitudes of moral inclusion, that is the extension of social justice to groups that had previously been excluded from the scope of justice (Passini & Villano, 2013). ...
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This book explores the roots of goodness and evil by gathering together the knowledge gained in a lifelong study of harmful or altruistic behavior. Ervin Staub has studied what leads children and adults to help others in need and how caring, helping, and altruism develop in children; bullying and youth violence and their prevention; the roots of genocide, mass killing, and other harmful behavior between groups of people; the prevention of violence; healing victimized groups and reconciliation between groups. He presents a broad panorama of the roots of violence and caring and how we create societies and a world that is caring, peaceful, and harmonious. © Cambridge University Press 2003 and Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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The first edition of Danghiji's Autobiography was published in two volumes, Vol. I in 1927 and Vol. II in 1929. The original in Gujarati which was priced at Re. 1/-has run through five editions, nearly 50,000 copies having been sold. The price of the English translation (only issued in library edition) was prohibitive for the Indian reader, and a cheap edition has long been needed. It is now being issued in one volume. The translation, as it appeared serially in Young India, had, it may be noted, the benefit of Gandhiji's revision. It has now undergone careful revision, and from the point of view of language, it has had the benefit of careful revision by a revered friend, who, among many other things, has the reputation of being an eminent English scholar. Before undertaking the task, he made it a condition that his name should on no account be given out. I accept the condition. It is needless to say it heightens my sense of gratitude to him. Chapters XXIX-XLIII of Part V were translated by my friend and colleague Pyarelal during my absence in Bardoli at the time of the Bardoli Agrarian Inquiry by the Broomfield Committee in 1928-29.