Norms and Negotiations

January 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena links to Tom Chiarella’s 2005 essay, “Haggling for Hot Dogs,” placing it in the context of Harold Garfinkle’s ethnomethodology and the “breaching” (i.e., norm-breaking) assignment often used in intro sociology course. In one frequently used version, the instructor tells students to go buy something but offer to pay less than the posted price. (The item must be the kind where price is not negotiated -- a bottle of soda, not a car.)

Chiarella starts out asking a hot dog vendor for a $1 discount. He gets nowhere.
The hot-dog man looked at me then and slapped closed the lid to his cart. "No deals!" he snarled. [See a longer description of this exchange in the full article here.]
Clearly, Chiarella was breaking a norm.

I don’t use the norm-breaking assignment, and I’m not sure what instructors who do use it want students to learn. It seems that there are four obvious lessons:
  • All situations are governed by norms.
  • A norm is usually invisible until someone breaks it.
  • It’s not easy to deliberately break a norm (a lot of students cheat on the assignment), but . . .
  • . . . our anticipatory anxiety about breaking a norm is way out of proportion to the actual response of other people.
Garfinkle has at least one more important point to make: norms are flexible, not absolute. No matter what the assignment he gave students – no matter how bizarre the action – once they were in the field, they were able to create a context in which that action seemed normal, even unremarkable.

The simplest strategy is to frame it as “an experiment.” Tell a stranger, “Hop up and down three times on your left leg,” and you’ll get some weird looks and not much co-operation. But if you say, “Excuse me, this is an experiment for my sociology class. Would you mind hopping three times on your left leg?” you’ll get a more polite response and probably a lot of hopping. But even without resorting to the experiment frame, Garfinkle’s students were able to create normalizing contexts.

Chiarella ends his article with another hot dog vendor.
Last week I was walking my dog in the large city near my town. . . .on the marble steps of a war memorial. . . . There was a man selling hot dogs on the sidewalk below. . . .
This time, without even trying, Chiarella has created a context for a free hot dog. The key is his own dog.
I approached and offered my money. He handed me my hot dog.
For one moment, I thought about making an offer on a second one. But I . . .let it go. “Is screwing a working guy out of seventy-five cents really worth the time?” . . . So I started slathering on the mustard instead.
“I've got something for you,” the vendor said, and when I turned to look, he was holding a hot dog.
I smiled and shook my head. “I'm good,” I said. “No thanks.”
But he was holding it out for my dog, who wolfed it out of his hands without pause. I laughed. The man seemed happy; the dog, ecstatic. Why not? It’s what I had been saying from the start. A free hot dog? That’s a good deal for all.

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