The Social, Cultural, and Political Context of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

The Social, Cultural, and Political Context of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).


The ingenuity of a writer or a film director is deciphered by a thorough conceptualization of the inherent themes in the work. Indeed, “One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest” is a masterpiece that invokes the zeal to reevaluate values held dear in society. The film addresses the issue of liberation from a repressive regime using a creative personality in the name of McMurphy. The understanding of the social, cultural, and political contexts in this work reveal the worldwide paradox that most people can attest to, since, in virtually every society, insanity has been substituted with sanity and vice versa. McMurpy’s predilection in the film reflects how a person can oscillate in the paradox pendulum and in essence cure the madness in the world. This will be proven by a critical look at the social, cultural, and political undertones in the film. In doing so, the paper will specifically focus on the main protagonist, McMurphy.

The Political Context

The political context is very much clear especially when we look at situations where the inmates are seen to undergo some oppression both in the asylum camp and in the work farms. The director uses McMurphy, whose part is played by Nicholson, as a champion of political emancipation in the asylum. In political theory, it has been hypothesized that liberators must first bear the pain of oppression, before leading the masses to freedom. To this end, they came with metaphors that reflected such prepositions. For instance, political theorists often believed in architectural metaphors like, “the founder lays the foundation” (Wolin, 1981, p. 401). The one with the burden must lay the foundation of for transformational change in society. If a political player has to initiate any change, he or she must take the necessity steps to bring about something. Wolin writes, “if political actors are to bring about something, they presuppose conditions that make possible action in question and the means for doing it” (p. 401). McMurphy is a true embodiment of this statement. Indeed, he was put in the asylum because of his uncooperative and inquisitive nature in society. He uses his new “home” to bring the desired change. In society, McMurphy was seen as nuisance. He was branded as insane and hence had to be separated from society. However, McMurphy uses his segregation from society for the benefits of society. To execute his scheme, he resists taking drugs as a way of questioning authority. It is through this tactic that he is able to bring change for the benefit of others. Accordingly, we can see that political transformation can be instituted and championed by those who are determined to overcome entrenched political structures.

Moreover, the political climate in the film is based on the idea of brainwashing people so that they can conform to norms that only benefit the political class (Frantzich, 2012). In analyzing this theory, political scientists argue that the political class uses this strategy to continue ruling. The role played by the nurse in this film almost matches a similar role undertaken by Dr. Josef Mengele in the Nazi concentration camps. Indeed, Dr. Mengele earned himself the name “Angel of Death” (Richards, 2003, p. 99), whose role in the Nazi concentration camps was to perfect the notion of mind control. The conformist agenda pushed by the nurse in this film only adds fear to the patients, just as it was the case of the Nazi regime. As a result, the oppressed give power to the oppressor, while the oppressor gains more influence and control. The power amassed by the elite in society is never used for the benefit of society, but for the ruling class. This is what motivates McMurphy to institute reforms from the asylum.

According to the way they were suppressed, McMurphy was more than willing to make self-sacrifice for the sake of their freedom. More so, the nurse Ratched seems to mishandle him when he resists taking any form of medicine. McMurphy had made a personal resolve not to take medication, whose origin was unknown to him. He was a threat to the resultant society and so some force was employed over him. At this point, we note some dictatorship being applied to enforce the rule of the law in this society. People like McMurphy and other asylum patients are seen to have no freedom of expression, and must adhere to set rules, which might not resonate with their feelings. However, he is seen provoking other inmates in an effort to do against the will of the current authorities. To him, he found it a duty to fight until the end for the liberation of those he felt were suffering. According to McMurphy, all the inmates were prisoners of conscience, and had to be liberated. There is some political superiority and suppression in this system of government and this is the reason why the asylum inmates are always fighting the authorities. The inmates are seen at one time being denied their medical prescription, showing a lack of individuality. The asylum here was just a sample representation of the outside world.

A lot of hypocrisy is seen being exercised in the asylum and that is a true representation of what is happening in the outside world where people are deprived their rights by poorly governed societies. McMurphy is a self-conscious person. Indeed, he is privy to what he is doing. He is after change and can be seen wearing different cloths than the other patients. The patients in the asylum accept McMurphy as their liberator as they accept his zeal to question the authorities. He is continuously seen fighting the authorities in the asylum. The asylum here is like a system of government representing the true government of any society, while the inmates or patients are the citizens. The different type of characters as those used by the author here are the same type we expect to see in the real life situations especially in forms of government were the citizens have no freedom of expressing freely their views and ideologies. The citizens are merely passively involved in the decision-making of any form of government. They may feel oppressed and consequently turn to be rebellious. The author is also seen to bring the character of patriotism in this film. This is evident when the inmates are encouraged by McMurphy to vote to welcome changes. It is evident that the asylum inmates were denied there democratic rights of voting and deciding on their own. Decision-making was left to only those in power. For example, nurse Ratched is seen to enjoy having power over the patients by dictating what they had to do. She is merely a true picture of the government that will just say and have things done. She enjoys having power and control over McMurphy while here in hospital because it was the only place she could fully exercise her powers on him.

The Cultural Context

Culture is evolutionary, and its dynamism is recreated through interaction between person in society as well as by a person’s behavior (Schein, 2010, p. 3). Indeed, when a person is successful in influencing behavior change in others, this becomes a good example of leadership. In essence, culture implies that people’s perception of issues result from interaction between individuals. Accordingly, social order is build on this foundation (Schein, 2010. P. 3).

The cultural context in this book is demonstrated by how the inmates are confined together in a common place. There is a mix up of various characters from different racial and social backgrounds. For example, there is chief Bomden, who is a tall and big Indian, and the resident guards who are blacks. Racial discrimination is prevalent and seems as an acceptable way of life by a certain section of society. Culture is exhibited in many ways. One element is social collectiveness. Social collectiveness embodies groups of people in a society, as well as social classifications (Kahneman & Schwarz, 2003). In the film, blacks are relegated to be guards. In addition, their role and status shows that they were ill-treated and maligned in society.

The other element that defines culture is language. Culture and language are interrelated in numerous ways. Indeed, the two are unique in human interactions. Culture and language have attracted intense interest in several fields including sociology, memetics, and anthropology (Jan, 2007). For instance, anthropologists have found that language and structure have a significant effect on the cultural context (Haviland, Prins & Walrath, 2010, p. 13). In this film, there is a strong influence on the use of language by the author. The language is actually distorted on the way the characteristics of various characters are described here. The guards also try to exercise their powers on the asylum inmates, a sign of racial discrimination. There is also the case of cultural influence bought by kesley in the case of drugs, which is in relation to era of the content. The cultural values of different personalities seem to be on conflict, since they do not embrace diversity. This is evident from the case of the blacks who are underrated, in spite of the role that they evidently play in their area of jurisdiction. Indeed, they are taken as inferiors in their society. The inference to them as black boys is meant as an insult because of their cultural orientation. However, their work is beneficial to those who embrace racial bigotry. The whites seem to take the superior positions in the society since from the context there is the racial imbalance. The imbalances tend to bring cultural erosion of the minor racial groups. It only for self-admitted characters like McMurphy who only survive in poorly governed societies, since he can bring a revolution in society. The author cites how morals have been degraded, since sexual oppression is inherent.

Social Context in the Film

The social problems in the film can be understood clearly, when attention is glared towards the protagonist, Mc Murphy. He faces several social challenges, which can be classified into three aspects. These include conformity to group values, compliance, and obedience to those in authority. Conformity, compliance, and obedience are critical in any society as they help people to move together. Without the three aspects working together, it is impractical for any society to advance. Conformity for instance means adhering to expected norms of behavior within the given community (Kassim, Fein, Marus, 2012, p. 254). Specifically, when psychologist espouse of conformity, they explicitly address the propensity of an individual to change their dispositions or views in ways that reflects the norms championed by society (Kassim, Fein, Marus, 2012, p. 254). Norms refers to those aspects of behavior that are implicit and influence how people act and interact with one another. Indeed, it is expected that, whether in a group or in society as a whole, people must have common values as well as those unwritten rules that regulate conduct. However, as one looks at the context of this film, it is explicit that the protagonist has issues when it comes to conformity to group norms. Murphy does what he deems fit and not what other might expect of him or any other member in society. For instance, he does not want to wear uniform like others in the hospital. In addition, he opposed to medication. This goes against the expectation of the society as sick people are expected to take medication. Doing what one wants, instead of what others want or expect is a clear indication of nonconformity and disobedience to social values. These are evident on the part of Murphy.

Ironically, it is though nonconformity that Murphy comes helps his friends from oppression. His actions are supported by the social learning theory, which holds that social behaviors are learned from others. As the other inmates try to adapt to Murphy’s ways through changing their behavior, they eventually find their freedom. Although Murphy does not adhere to the norms of society, he is in essence helping others through his disobedience.

The other social aspect in the film is the lack of humanity and respect for others. Society ought to respect the ideas that people have at any given time. However, in this case we see normal people bundled into an asylum under mere speculation concerning their mental status. It is through this lack of respect that they are branded nonconformist. However, by his normal demeanor, Murphy is able to glean that most patients are self-inflicted. Social deprivation can only lead to disharmony or lack of order in society. Indeed, it reflects the moral rot among the leaders since they deprive normal people their freedom of expression.

Another social context that can be gleaned from this film is also ironical in nature. Although scenes of social disintegration pop up every now and then, there are also moments that elicit sympathy in the film. This might as well try to show that the film is more of a reality since life is full of paradoxes (Weiten, Dunn & Hammer, 2011). In life, individuals might be alienated because of the values that they hold dear. However in death, those who oppressed them become the very first to appreciate them. This caring and humane way of showing concern and respect is reflected in the death of Murphy. Indeed, it is surprising to see how people are touched by his death, showing that the element of love and understanding are still part of humanity.


As has been discussed in this paper, the contexts in which film directors can greatly shape society in various ways. This film has addressed both the social, cultural, and political contexts within which the film is made. The issue of discrimination, especially on the blacks, reveals the cultural disposition of this group at that time. In addition, language is used to in describing the roles of the people, such as guards, and inmates in the films. For instance, the guards are described as black boys. The political context is revealed through the amalgamation of various approaches that appeal to mind control initiatives as well as oppressions as it is practiced by most regimes. The asylum is used to depict the wide society in which politicians operate. Here, citizens are treated as patients, who must be taught conformity. In essence, they are just being brainwashed. However, the story also brings about the love and warmth that go with social values. A repressive society, paradoxically, understands the core values of humanity: love, understanding, and sympathy. Overall, the film is a masterpiece by its standard and helps readers connect with realities of life.



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Jan, B. S. (2007). The Memetics of Music: A Neo-Darwinian View of Mussical Structure and Culture. London: Ashgate Publishing

Kahneman, D. & Schwarz,  N. (2003).  Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Rsussell Sage Foundation.

Kassim, M. S., Fein, S. & Marus, H. R. (2012). Social Psychology. New York: Cengage  Learning.

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Wolin, S. S. (1981). Max Weber: Legitimation, Method, and the Politics of Theory.  Retrieved from


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