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. I hope to have more on this in a later 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.

Another Round of Cosmopolitans

November 11, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good journalism and sociology. One obvious difference is in the data. Social science data has to be thorough and sysematic. A journalist can merely talk to a cab driver or report on how a friend reacted to a sandwich menu that offered a “Padrino” or “soppresssata.”

If you’re a journalist, you also don’t have to worry much about antecedents. You can put your ideas on display as something totally new, like fidget spinners. But if you want to pass as a scholar, you have to do your homework.

British journalist David Goodhart in his recent book on populism and politics in the UK has created two types he calls Somewheres and Anywheres to explain what’s happening. David Brooks yesterday borrowed the terms and applied them to US politics.

Somewheres are rooted in their towns and have “ascribed” identities — Virginia farmer, West Virginia coal miner, Pennsylvania steelworker. Anywheres are at home in the global economy. They derive their identity from portable traits, like education or job skills, and are more likely to move to areas of opportunity.

Somewheres value staying put; they feel uncomfortable with many aspects of cultural and economic change, like mass immigration. Anywheres make educational attainment the gold standard of status and are cheerleaders for restless change.


Pardon me, but this sounds awfully similar to a typology offered sixty years ago by sociologist Alvin Gouldner in his Administrative Sciecne Quarterly article. “Cosmopolitans and Locals.” The terms give a fairly good picture of these two types, the one more mobile and oriented towards a profession, the other rooted to a place or a company. Here’s a quick version:


    Locals:
        high on loyalty to the employing organization,
        low on commitment to specialized role skills
        likely to use an inner reference group orientation.

     Cosmopolitans:
        low on loyalty to the employing organization
        high on commitment to specialized role skills
        likely to use an outer reference group orientation

I haven’t read Goodhart’s book; maybe he does credit Gouldner. In a Financial Times article (here) he describes himself as a “post-liberal,” and perhaps he avoids cosmopolitan because he is familiar with the alt-right and their use of cosmopolitan as a pejorative synonym for Jew. (See my earlier post on this.)

I had the impression that David Brooks took some sociology courses at Chicago, but I guess cosmopolitans and locals never came up.