Measuring The Social Norms With A Breaching Social Experiment

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Social norms take place every day with every person whether we are conscious of it or not. As a matter of fact, almost every single thing we do in life is assessed by a particular set of guidelines. When we are growing up, we learn what actions are acceptable and unacceptable through our caretakers. Naturally, each household follows different ideals and beliefs. Norms can be influenced by factors such as religion, environment, and even the kind of government a person would abide by. Social norms are simply behavioral guidelines, or the rules that regulate a person’s behavior in any relationships.

There are multiple guidelines for social norms that are set and followed by a particular culture or community. Norms are necessary to a society because it keeps each citizen of that society in check with their behavior and themselves. Almost every people will love their lives following social norms, but how does someone react when they find themselves in a situation that violates any of the social guidelines people may be used too?

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Harold Garfinkel, an american sociologist and UCLA professor, proposed a method for studying society as reflected in our typical, day-to-day interactions that he called ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967). Ethnomethodology is a theoretical understanding of the linkages between the individual and society. It is also an organized approach to studying the relationship between an individual and society. One way to study social norms through ethnomethodology is by imploring breaching experiments. A breaching experiment is any method of violating social order in order to assess how people construct social reality (Ritzer 1996). Harold Garfinkel was famous for asking his students to perform breaching experiments and report any reactions they might receive in return. An example of something he would have his students do is simply to engage in a conversation and ask the person they are speaking with to explain a common remark. These interactions shows that there are certain rules that people expect not to be questioned during a simple exchange. When these rules get broken, there is an emotional reaction (usually confusion), followed by an attempt to restore order and to explain the interruption. Breaching experiments provide a way a way of finding and assessing norms and values.

For this assignment, I have conducted a small breaching experiment that puts outsiders in a minimally distressing, yet highly unusual situation in order to get an idea of how Lakeland students’ might react or change their behavior to conform to the event. The setting for this experiment took place inside of an elevator where a close friend and I just simply played cards and quietly observed the reactions of about 25 people. Normally, when two or more people that do not know each other will either pretend the other is not there and keep their head down for the duration, or will attempt to make small talk in order to occupy the awkward silence. In other words, they will put on a front-stage performance, which is a display meant for the public’s consumption. Front stage is acting in a way that is farther from the real self in order to make oneself look good in the eyes of groups or communities. If two people that know each other well enter an elevator, they are more likely to chat and joke with one another. If comfortable or extraverted enough, they may even carry on their conversation if other strangers are in the elevator with them. This is known as a back-stage performance. In other words, they will act more like themselves because the two feel like they are in a more relaxed environment and are not being watched as closely by their society. My hypothesis for this experiment was that the subjects we are familiar with will feel more relaxed and will most likely be able to give us there back-stage performance post-confusion. The people we were unfamiliar with, however, will be more likely to maintain a front-stage performance to avoid the situation.

There were multiple factors to take in when doing this small experiment. Factors such as personality, attitude, gender, and ethnicity. There is not a single person who was born and/or raised the exact same way, therefore, nobody acts the exact same way either. Another factor to take into account was how the society of Lakeland University would affect people's reactions as well. Society exists as the network of interactions between people. On the scale between micro-level (individuals) to macro-level societies (economy), Lakeland’s society is right between the two and sets a prime example of a meso-level society. about 1000 people live on campus. Having said that, the elevator we were located at houses roughly 100 of those people. For the most part, the community is a tight knit group where most people are usually familiar with others at the very least. Lakeland’s on campus students are also generally friendly with one another regardless of knowing them or not. So, I knew the odds of my friend and I encountering someone we were familiar with were fairly high.

With so many factors to take in during the experiment, I did my best to simplify the subjects into four categories in order to achieve a base level understanding of how Lakeland residents may react. The categories and number of people we encountered are as follows: Male students we are familiar with (8), female students we are familiar with (2), Male students that are unfamiliar(11), and female students that are unfamiliar (4). Of the 8 familiar male students, 6 of them gave us more of a back-stage performance and even joked with us or asked to join. Both of the female students we were familiar with gave us a back-stage performance as well. Out of the 11 unfamiliar male students, all but two of them gave us a front-stage performance and attempted to pretend like nothing unusual was occurring. Finally, all four unfamiliar female students gave us a front-stage performance as well. All 25 of the subjects gave us the initial emotional reaction of confusion.

Given the results of the experiment, it is safe to say that my hypothesis on people familiar with my friend and I would feel more relaxed during the situation than those who we are unfamiliar with was proved to be correct. It was incredible to see how stunned each subject was in the beginning. It’s as if any witnessed norm violation can throw someone’s entire day off. Every single person is unique in the way they are raised, as well as the genetics they are given; however, when it comes to trends, social norms, and basic guidelines for how one should act in public, each person is influenced by the society they find themselves in. It’s fairly safe to say that playing cards in an elevator is most likely a norm violation in all societies. Having said that, it’s imperative to be conscious of other social norms when you find yourself outside of your own society. People must adapt and conform in order to fit in and be a positive member of a new community.

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