How Culture Works

November 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some sociology profs give an assignment that requires students to go out and prank someone. It’s called a “breaching experiment,” but basically, it’s pranking, and as I said in the two previous posts (here and here), it doesn’t offer a lot of insight into the process of norm breaking and social control.

In the real world, culture and social control are much subtler and more powerful. Look at the experience of journalist Alif Batuman. Her parents are Turkish, but she grew up mostly in the U.S. She goes back to Turkey, and true to her Western ways, she does not wear a head scarf. That’s OK, sort of. Turkey is not Iran. There are no religious police enforcing some law about head scarves. But . . .

Because I spoke Turkish imperfectly, smiled a lot, and often travelled alone, I got a lot of lectures from men, particularly taxi-drivers. Some were secularists; others, those with the most religious paraphernalia in their cars, didn't try to make conversation. That still left many outgoing, casually Muslim drivers who took the time to explain to me how great the head scarf was — how it was “actually a beautiful thing.” For a woman to cover her head, they said, was in fact a feminist gesture, because it made clear she was demanding respect. There weren't the same misunderstandings as with a woman whose head was uncovered.
    I usually didn’t reply. . . But once, when a driver pressed me particularly jovially for an opinion, I said something like “I think all women should be respected. It shouldn’t depend on their hair.”
    The driver replied that I was absolutely right, that of course women should be respected, and that the head scarf was the best way for women to remind men of this necessity for respect. Men, after all, were worse than women: they could sometimes forget themselves, and then unfortunate things could happen, “even”—he said in a hushed voice, adding that he didn’t like to mention such things in front of me—“even rape.”


The driver probably does not see himself as an agent of social control, a head-scarf cop. He’s just offering – along with his view of what the scarf means – a bit of advice. She is breaking a cultural norm, and he is advising her about the ways of the local culture.

Batuman continued to go without the headscarf, mostly because of her feelings about the Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, and his religious anti-feminism. “Patriarchy — I could never forgive Erdoğan for saying those things about women. And, because he said them in the name of Islam, I couldn’t forgive Islam, either.”

Later, Batuman goes to an archeological site in Urfa. Again she encounters those little questions and comments that let her know she is breaking the norms.

I seemed to be the only unaccompanied woman at my hotel. When I told the clerk I was staying for six days, he almost had a heart attack. “Six days?” he repeated. “All by yourself?” . . . All the time I was in Urfa, whenever I saw any member of the hotel staff in the halls or the lobby, I always received the same greeting: “Oh, you’re still here?”


She is a walking insult to the local culture. It’s not a huge insult, but it’s more than a “micro-aggression.” Her intent is not to insult; she just wants to be herself. The local people for their part are tolerant – or at least not repressive. But they are also not helpful, warm, and accommodating to this stranger. (Sort of like Parisians back in the 20th century.) In the gender-segregated restaurant, the waiter watches the TV and seems to ignore her. When she smiles and waves to the women at another table, they do not wave back.

But culture is not just a matter of negative sanctions. A smile too is a form of social control, positive and pleasant. It tells us we’re doing the right thing. And because it is pleasant, it nudges us to want to continue doing right things. 

One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.

This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned — it was a wonderful gift.

This is how culture works. And we are all its agents, gently steering people into doing things the right way.

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The quoted passages are from Batuman’s article “Cover Story” in The New Yorker, Feb. 8 and 15, 2016.

Once More Unto the Breach

November 19, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about those “breaching” experiments some instructors assign their students. Here’s an example:

For this assignment, you will hypothesize the existence of a rule or expectation . . . and then break it in the presence of at least one naïve subject. You may do your breaching in cooperation with classmates.

Possible topics of the breaching exercise include clothing, grooming, conversational topics/styles, shopping behavior, and romantic behavior. The breaching activity must be something you do not regularly do. Possible naïve subject(s) include parents, siblings, roommates, boy/girlfriend, and strangers.

Describe the reaction of the naïve subject(s) to your breaching exercise and any interaction you had with them.

My point was that they’d chosen the wrong “naïve subject.” Forget about how other people react.  Students would learn a lot more about norms if they thought about their own reactions as deliberate norm-breakers. Lesson #1 in that post was that the norms are very powerful. When we think about it in the abstract, breaking a norm doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But in the specific situation, it becomes something much larger. But why?

Lesson #2: When we think about breaking a norm, our anticipatory anxiety is highly exaggerated and not rational. When you ask people why they can’t, just can’t, break the norm, they imagine consequences far out of proportion to what might happen. When Stanley Milgram (see the previous post) told his students to go into the NYC subway and ask people for their seats, one student said, “You want to get us killed?”  When I’ve asked students about doing the breaching experiment, they imagine offended strangers raining mayhem upon them. But even as they say it, they know that it’s preposterous. Which leads to . . . 

Lesson #3: We follow the norms not out of some rational cost-benefit calculation. We follow them because we have internalized them. Society is not just “out there”; it’s “in here” as well.

Lesson #4: Because reactions are so mild (a puzzled look, a question), with each incident, breaking the norm becomes easier. Norm-breakers therefore can eventually arrive at a rational, cost-benefit perspective. The student whose breaching consisted of offering to pay less than the price of an item might find that in some stores, you can actually bargain down the price. She then decides to try it as a general practice, not just something for sociology class.

Lesson #5. Norms are not absolute. No behavior is always and essentially a breach of the norms. Harold Garfinkle, who invented the breaching experiment, found that his students, no matter what the behavior, could come up with some story or invent some context that “normalized it.”

For the breaching exercises, the simplest, all-purpose normalization is “This is an experiment.” As one of my professors once put it: If you go up to someone and say, “Lie down,” they’ll look at you funny and probably demand an explanation, and if they don’t get one, they might refuse. But if you say, “This is an experiment. Lie down,” down they go.            

All this is about social control – how a society gets people to do what they’re supposed to do. Even these mild reactions to norm-breaking are forms of social control. The raised eyebrow, the questioning look, or an actual question (“Why are you wearing that?”) tip the person off that they are breaking a norm. These are sanctions – negative sanctions. If that’s all we say about social control, we’re missing at least half of the story – positive sanctions as a form of social control. These may be even less noticeable than negative sanctions, but they may also be more important, as I try to show in the next post.

Gimme a Breach

November 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

For the unit on norms, some sociology teachers have their students do “breaching” experiments – those exercises where you break some norm, observe how people react, and write up your results. (Nowadays, you add a video.) The norms broken vary widely. Stand too close to strangers, face the wrong way in an elevator, wear the wrong clothes (street clothes in the gym). In this one a girl goes up to random boys and kisses them. (So much for her career in the Senate.)

Some are more elaborate.  A guy wears football pads to the super market and do push-ups in the middle of the canned vegetable aisle. A student dresses up in a mascot costume and dances through the quad. Some of these scenarios get into Candid Camera territory, like this girl who, wearing her bathrobe and carrying a basket of laundry, went to the washing machine section in the appliance store.



It’s all good  fun, but I’m not a big fan. I don’t ask students to breach. My impression is that the intended lessons are fairly obvious
  • All situations are governed by norms. In any situation you can imagine, there’s a way to do something that breaks a norm.
  • The variety of reactions is narrow and predictable. Some people ignore, some look quizzically, some guess correctly that it’s some kind of stunt, a few ask the norm-breaker what she’s doing.
The trouble with these breaching exercises is that the assignment and camera are pointed at the people who are reacting. If you want more interesting findings, focus instead on the reactions of the person doing the breaching.

Lesson #1: Norms are powerful – a lot more powerful than you think.

Few people realize how hard it is to deliberately break a norm. It’s so hard that ome students cheat on the assignment. They turn in a paper describing their breach and the reactions, but it’s fiction; they never really did the experiment. It was lack of lack of time or imagination that prevented them. It was lack of courage.

When Stanley Milgram assigned his seminar to ask strangers on the New York City subway for their seats, he was disappointed at how few students completed the task. Wen they explained how nerve-wracking it was, Milgram decided to show them. He, along with clipboard-bearing student who would do the observing, went down into the subway, and got on the train. And Milgram couldn’t do it. He couldn’t ask a stranger for their seat. The student had to give him a pep talk, boost his courage. Meanwhile, the train had gone several stops. Finally, Milgram picked out the most unthreatening looking person in the subway car and approached. What he felt was akin to panic – the sudden warmth at the neck and head, the sweat, the tightening of the throat. Finally, he mumbled, “ExcusemecanIhaveyourseat?” “What?” said the woman. “Excuse me, but could I have your seat?”

The woman got up. But it’s not her reaction that’s interesting or unexpected; it’s Milgram’s. And those of his students. As one man said later, “I was afraid I was going to throw up.” None of them foresaw how difficult it would be.*

(For more lessons drawn from breaching experiments, see the next post.)


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* Milgram, of all people, should have foreseen the power everyday norms. Only a few years earlier, he had shown that people would choose to electrocute a stranger rather than break the norm, tell the man in the lab coat he was wrong, and ruin one trial of the experiment.                                            

Still Funny After All These Years. . . and News Stories?

November 11, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s the celebrities and politicians that we hear about – all these stories of men behaving badly, sometimes very badly. More troubling is that far too many non-celebrities – men without the power of a studio head or highly successful comedian or office holder – do the same things. The very powerful can make or break careers, lives. Director James Toback would tell an aspiring actress who he had more or less forced to undress that he had mob connections and that if she reported the incident, he would have her killed. It sounds like yet another male fantasy, but how could she be sure it wasn’t true?
                               
Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, as we well know, often don’t report the offense. Surveys provide some alternative data, but those surveys too may be inaccurate. What about less dramatic sexual piggishness? It’s less serious, but probably far more common. Here’s a tweet I saw today (HT: Gwen Sharp).



Asking for retweets can’t even be called methodology. Still, nearly 200,000 in two days is a lot. I was reminded of this Seinfeld episode from 1994 and wondered if, in the current climate, it’s still funny.


I do think it’s still funny. The writer of this episode (“The Stand In”) was Larry David, though Carol Leifer is listed as story consultant. I just wonder whose idea it was. Who would know that this is the sort of thing that can easily happen, and often does happen, on a date.*
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* Some incidents of exposure are not sexual; they are purely for the purpose of aggression and intimidation. When Janis Hirsch, a TV comedy writer, was working on Garry Shandling’s show, the other writers, all male, began to exclude her, possibly because her work was better than theirs.

The guys started excluding me from meetings: Oh, we couldnt find you”...at my desk. Then they started excluding me from the table, instead assigning me “the slit scenes” to write. Even though these scenes were the ones that featured the only female cast member, it didnt occur to me exactly what slit they were referring to until one day in the ladies room.

One day, I was sitting in Garrys office across the desk from him. A few of the writers and one of the actors were in the room, too. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned, and there was that actors flaccid penis draped on it like a pirates dead parrot. Riotous laughter ensued from all but one of us. [The full story is in The Hollywood Reporter ]

This happened in 1986. The term microaggression had not yet become current. Too bad. She would have had a great comeback line.