Suppose there is a game in which you are not allowed to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and have to answer only with another question. Using up the entire range of ‘wh-questions’, you can think of how entertaining this game can get. Social norm breaching is nothing different than this.
No Suggestions Implied!
While a Superman costume flaunting an underwear is taken well, someone wearing undergarments over normal clothes (that too at a fancy dress party) becomes an act of breach! Unfair, isn’t it!
Eating with your hands while dining at a fancy restaurant, wearing your bathrobe to college one day, sending a reply via email when someone had called you on your cell phone, or talking to a stranger by getting very close to him/her, and such similar deeds are ones that a normal human being would usually avoid doing.
If you have tried any of these, you can be called a researcher who was engaged in studying social norm breaching experiments. Such kind acts of nonsense, which you may call bizarre, are not solely meant for entertainment purposes. This testing of socially accepted rules are mainly a part of the fields of sociology and social psychology. Yes, academics can get very interesting at times!
What are Breaching Experiments in Sociology?
Breaching experiments try to study the reactions of people when a social norm is broken or violated.
There are some unwritten rules that all of us follow in our day-to-day conduct. How one would (rather should) behave in a given situation is predefined and based on a lot of assumptions. These experiments try to break these ‘taken for granted’ social norms. Reactions of others to such tricks are also fun to look at. This concept is associated with the ethnomethodology theory of sociology, put forth by Harold Garfinkel.
An unexpected behavior or comment leaves the respondent completely puzzled, making the experiment successful. The approach behind such experiments highlights that, people continue to make a number of such rules everyday, and do not even realize it.
Clearly, a breaching experiment is like asking for trouble. When the action is troublesome, it makes it visible that practices leading to social stability are so much ingrained into our minds. Breaching of norms has to be a deliberate act though; it is not an issue of conflicting opinions leading to disobedience of a given norm. You can try troubling others with the following ideas.
– To a casual question like ‘what’s up?’, you can say ‘the sky’. ‘How’s it going?’ can be replied to in an exhilarating manner, like ‘I didn’t see any ‘it’ going’. When people are not really interested in knowing about you, and they still ask those questions, you may actually stop them and really explain to them some random event going on in your life. (Be very sure about who you want to experiment with this though!)
– Some tests that college students were asked to take, involved behaving like a stranger or renter in one’s home. Talking only when asked about something, or being very polite, are some things their parents reacted to quite strongly.
– In the tic-tac-toe game, ask a person to play first. When he/she places an ‘X’ in a square, you place an ‘O’ on a line forming the matrix, and not in any square space. That person might get confused, or would exclaim, “Have you gone crazy?” Behaving according to the established practices of following given rules is so important here, even if it is a game. This exemplifies an established social order.
– At a decently crowded public place, get one of your friends to stand opposite you. You act like both of you are talking about something important. Then, act as if the both of you are holding a very thin and delicate cotton string in your fingertips, each one of you holding one end of it. Now, start to move away, very slowly, so that people feel that you are holding something very precious. Shout out words like, ‘easy’, ‘be careful’, or ‘watch out’. You may find a few people actually believing you and ducking while they pass through. Someone might even go around you, so as to not break that string. You would notice, it is very easy to create social norms.
Here are some examples of interpersonal conversations, mentioned in ethnomethodology literature as case studies of experimentation given by Garfinkel. These have been sourced from books like ‘Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology’ by John Heritage, and ‘Sociology in Perspective’ by Mark Kirby.
– The subject was telling the experimenter―a member of the subject’s car pool―about having had a flat tire while going to work the previous day.
S: I had a flat tire.
E: What do you mean, you had a flat tire?
She appeared momentarily stunned. Then she answered in a hostile way: ‘What do you mean? What do you mean? A flat tire is a flat tire. That is what I a meant. Nothing special. What a crazy question!’
– By asking ‘What do you mean?’, as a response to every statement, students were asked to continue the conversation.
S: Hi, Ray. How is your girlfriend feeling?
E: What do you mean ‘How is she feeling?’. Do you mean physically or mentally?
S: I mean how is she feeling? What’s the matter with you? (He looked peeved.)
E: Nothing. Just explain a little clearer as to what you mean.
S: Skip it. How are your Med School applications coming?
E: What do you mean ‘How are they going?’
S: You know what I mean.
E: I really don’t.
S: What’s the matter with you? Are you sick?
– On Friday night, my husband and I were watching television. He remarked that he was tired. I asked, ‘How are you tired? Physically, mentally, or just bored?’
S: I don’t know, I guess physically, mainly.
E: You mean that your muscles ache, or your bones?
S: I guess so. Don’t be so technical.
(After more watching)
S: All these old movies have the same kind of old iron bedstead in them.
E: What do you mean? Do you mean all old movies, or some of them, or just the ones you have seen?
S: What’s the matter with you? You know what I mean.
E: I wish you would be more specific.
S: You know what I mean! Drop dead!
– The victim waived his hand cheerily.
S: How are you?
E: How am I in regard to what? My health, my finance, my school work, my peace of mind, my …
S: (Red in the face and suddenly out of control.) Look! I was just trying to be polite! Frankly, I don’t give a damn how you are.
The results from these cases proved that the experimenters could successfully break the norms. It was possible because of the fact that, any given conversation (or communication) takes place smoothly, ‘assuming the background knowledge’, which helps two people make sense of what the other means.
Well, if you’ve got the point now, you can be real ‘innovative and original’ with this act of breaching. Oh, but just be sure that you don’t mess with the wrong people at the wrong time.