Wednesday, 10 August 2011

doing nothing

Inspired by a 'sociological experiment' by Nathan Palmer at Georgia Southern University in the States, Raphael, Bob and I decided to do the same experiment with our first year sociology students today.

The experiment involves doing nothing for five minutes in a public place. No checking phones, no reading, no talking, no fidgeting, just looking around. The idea was to feel the pressure of the many norms that shape our everyday lives, and to highlight one of the most common performative folkways: doing something. Even when we're waiting for a bus or a flight or a class to start, we often busy ourselves with something, even if it's just leaning on a window and doing some people-watching. So what would it feel like to stand in a public place with a bunch of other people and do nothing for five minutes?

These aren't great pictures - didn't want to use any where students were obviously identifiable - but you get the idea. See Palmer's documented experiment for a much better record along with some student reactions and thoughts. 

Next year I might plan things a little better and make a small-scale learning and teaching project out of it. Too much on at the moment though! Still, it was a fun exercise, and it certainly produced some good conversations about norms, deviance and the invisible social forces that shape us. 

The reactions of the from the the other people sharing the space (non-participants) are worth a mention. Many already in the space were initially surprised and curious when we filed out and then froze. Some expected a flash mob, with a dance routine only moments away, while others just went silent and walked through us. Surprisingly, some actually joined us. That they stopped in their tracks and stood alongside us - even if for a moment - was a great examples of how a group of people can modify the norms of a social context. Sociology!

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