Grocery Shopping, Ordering Whoppers, and Borat
Every once in awhile sociologists go bad—but for a good purpose. We call it a “breaching experiment.”
There are some things in life that everyone knows are wrong, such as murder, arson, robbery, etc… (Well, just about everyone. There are a few exceptions who we call psychopaths). Society outlaws these activities and pays people to enforce these laws.
There are a lot of other things, however, that society considers wrong but are not officially illegal (though they can get you into trouble). Defining these wrong things are countless unwritten rules about what we should and shouldn’t do in everyday life, and violating these rules might get us laughed at or punched in the nose. These unwritten rules are social norms, and they guide just about every possible activity a human being can do.
Unwritten rules guide every social situation. For example, let’s take a simple behavior—a student walking into class. What are you supposed to do? Enter somewhat quietly, maybe talk with someone else. Keep a relatively neutral look on your face. Walk to your seat, keeping a mostly even pace, and sit down.
There are a lot of things that you should not do. You shouldn’t run as fast as you can, skip like a little kid on the playground, walk backwards, or crawl (unless you’re begging for something from the professor).
You shouldn’t yell at people across the room, bark like dog, or pretend to be a train steaming down the track. You shouldn’t stick your tongue out at the professor, sob loudly, or have a maniacal “I’m an axe murderer” grin on your face. If you violate these rules, you’ll probably get laughed at.
At this point you’re probably thinking “duh”—you already know all these rules and you’re beginning to wonder why sociologists get paid to spell out the obvious. (We sometimes wonder the same thing ourselves). The fact that you already know these rules is an important point. Society trains people (via parents and teachers and friends and strangers on the street) to do the “right” thing in every situation so that not long past our toddler days we’re all walking encyclopedias of the rules of every day life. Do you think the rules of hockey are complicated? The laws of quantum mechanics? They are nothing compared to everyday social situations.
Now, let’s have some fun. An easy way to demonstrate the prevalence and power of social norms is to do a “breaching” experiment in which you intentionally break social norms and see how strongly people react. (This methodology was developed by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s and 70s.)
A classic “breaching” experiment involved shopping. Researchers would go to a grocery store, and then instead of pulling the items off the shelf, they would pull them out of other people’s carts. When other shoppers noticed this behavior, they would expect the researcher to say something like “oh, I thought that was my cart,” but instead the researcher just explained that it was easier to reach the items in the other person’s cart. While grocery stores do not post signs forbidding this behavior, it clearly violated the unwritten rules of shopping and the shoppers reacted with anger.
In another experiment, the researcher would go into McDonalds, step up to the counter, and order a Whopper (the hamburger made by McDonalds’ rival Burger King). The clerk behind the register would explain that it’s McDonalds, and then the researcher would again order a Whopper. At this point the clerk would look around to see if anyone else heard this breach, and they would start trying to figure out what was happening. Maybe the customer was joking? Maybe they were deluded? Either way, it was breaking norms.
Have you seen the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan? In addition to being side-splittingly funny (and rather gross), it is one, long breaching experiment. The character Borat is from Kazakhstan, and he travels around the United States pretending that he doesn’t know our social norms, and he breaks many of them. In one scene he walks the streets of New York City and starts talking to strangers. Some of the strangers get so unnerved that they literally run away from him. Then—as passersby gasp in horror--he squats down in the bushes in front of Trump Tower to go to the bathroom.
What’s the take home message of this line of research? Norms are as much a part of social life as air and water are of physical life—they are everywhere, and we can’t live without them.
In fact, I can’t think of any social behavior that is not guided by norms. Can you? That’s why there will always be room for sociologists and our breaching experiments.