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Hiveminded Social Experiments
February 26, 2010 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I teach a "Writing in the Social and Natural Sciences" course. I want to help my students come up with good ideas for their own personal social experiments... a la Supersize Me kind of thing but without the element of danger. Ideas?

We talked about things like not spending money for a week, introducing themselves to anyone they come in direct contact with, not eating sugar or white flour for a week, not speaking for a week, and a few others. I'm hoping the hivemind can throw out a few more interesting ideas. They are all college freshman and I'm trying to encourage them to come up with ideas that lead to larger questions about the society they live in and the science behind their chosen experiment. They will be keeping a daily journal for a week and then writing a 4-6 page paper on it at the end.
Show me what you've got smartypantses.
posted by madred to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
A sustainability class at my college did a project involving not throwing anything away for three weeks. Everything had to be recycled or composted. (Toilet paper and Kleenex were the only exceptions, I think.) Depending on how eco-friendly your school is, this could work well.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 11:31 AM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


A week without swearing, even including euphemisms.
posted by Etrigan at 11:35 AM on February 26, 2010


Since it seems you're probably on a college campus, maybe you can suggest students look into the various groups/clubs on campus focused on minorities, have them pick one they usually would have nothing to do with (for better or worse) and tell them to go to some meetings. See what they learn being "a minority among minorities." Somebody could sit in on some LGBT group meetings, or perhaps an Asian-American club or something along those lines.

It would give freshman who might not have come from too diverse of an area a chance to dive into the diversity around them.
posted by deacon_blues at 11:36 AM on February 26, 2010


I don't know how dangerous this would be (maybe a little less than introducing yourself to everyone you come into contact with), but I remember learning in some long ago sociology class that there are rules we abide by in social situations, and when people break them, it makes us uncomfortable. These include not taking the seat right next to or across from someone at a table if there are other seats open, not going into the very next bathroom stall if you could take one that was a space apart, etc. Tell them to violate these so-called rules and see if people squirm/get annoyed.

You could also have them try:
Meditating every day for a week.
Avoiding any processed foods for a week.
posted by sallybrown at 11:37 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe not entirely on topic, but you might consider doing a half hour or so on research ethics before this week starts - not that I think you'd haphazardly send a group of freshmen out with no more direction than "Go do social experiments," but go over the basics of participation, informed consent, etc...
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:38 AM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and not talking about themselves (maybe not even using the words "I" or "me") unless asked directly, i.e. How are you?, What would you like to order?, etc.
posted by sallybrown at 11:40 AM on February 26, 2010


I've assigned 48 hours of mass media deprivation to students: no TV, movies, social networking, zines, recorded music, etc. They had to keep a journal of what they were experiencing and when/how/what they found most difficult. At the end of the period they reflected/wrote on what surprised them about the experience, etc. By the way, they were told there was no penalty for being unable to resist media, only that they had to be honest/reflective.. The students loved the assignment, and their reflections were great.
posted by Pineapplicious at 11:46 AM on February 26, 2010


Zen Sociology: The Un-TV Experiment That's a link to the first page of the JSTOR copy of the article.

Run the experiment, then have them read McGrane's paper.

Awesome, since he has written it up for...social sciences! And they can compare the issues they addressed to the issues he addressed.
posted by bilabial at 11:50 AM on February 26, 2010


If you're a guy, every time you use a public restroom, choose the urinal right next to the other guy for a week.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:51 AM on February 26, 2010


Talk to your IRB about what would be acceptable and what wouldn't. I could imagine a fussy IRB objecting to people's plans to behave in mildly odd ways at people who hadn't consented to be experimented upon in order to gauge their reactions.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:04 PM on February 26, 2010


I'm a Sociology student. There are so many areas of the social sciences that you could focus in on:

+ Gender (what happens if a woman acts in a more typically masculine way for a week, or vice versa?)
+ Technology (what is the effect of cell phones on interpersonal communication?
+ Nonverbal Communication (how much personal space do we really need in the U.S.?)

I think the most effective method, one that would excite your students most, would be an ethnomethodological approach. That is, as one person already suggested, breaking the rules of our society. Sometimes, we don't even realize what the norms are until we break them.

In one of my classes, a student's cell phone rang. Instead of turning it off, he took the call. All the other students (myself included) were pretty weirded out/pissed at him. It was pretty rude. Then we found out that he and the professor were in on it, and we discussed the norms he was breaking, etc. It was super interesting.

If you're trying to encourage students to think of their own experiments, have them think about their everyday lives and what norms are involved. Have them think about what they rely on for energy (i.e. coffee, soda, etc) and what they can cut out. Each student is interested in different things, and if something is relevant to his or her life, it will be more interesting for the student rather than something somebody else came up with.

Hope that helps!
posted by too bad you're not me at 12:08 PM on February 26, 2010


I took a linguistics class in which we were assigned to find and visit an event in which there would be linguistic conventions, then analyze them. Things like how it is determined who will speak when, who is or is not supposed to speak, terms of art shared by the group, and nonverbal signals. I went to a meeting of a civic group and it was a really fun experience that turned out to give me a lot to write about.

I've read that the childhood events or experiences that parents think their children remember well or thought were important turn out not to be the ones that actually loom large in the children's memory. That might be a low-risk thing to try, and your students could see if their are consistencies among their findings.
posted by lakeroon at 1:00 PM on February 26, 2010


Tell each person to pick a issue they hate, then have the class discuss about living in that spectrum of life which 1 person hates, make the group and person pick an activity, repeat for everyone else.
Or, try sending a person to sit in a graveyard overnight and write for that.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 1:05 PM on February 26, 2010


When I was taking graduate classes, in a class on experimental design we had to collect data for an experiment we designed. The requirement was that it had to be complicated enough a design to require an non-trivial analysis, and most of the groups seemed to collect social data, some test performance, or some kind of psychometric with convenience samples. The IRB requirement was that we had to not generate "generalizable knowledge" which is pretty easy if you just choose to use a weird sample of students.

You aren't interested in analysis or methods, but there's going to be much more to talk about for experiments which are closer to real experiments (except with a tiny sample, less lit review, little validation of measures) and students will be able to meaningfully fill in the required "boxes" for discussion in real journal articles. I don't know how natural and social scientists could meaningfully write about not spending money for a week. Your previous question indicated that you were using Tufte, so don't you want them to have data where there is a meaningful presentation?

I would require 1) that it be an experiment in that there is a comparison with controls of some kind 2) there must be numeric (including categorical) data generated 3) it must be interesting 4) there must be a testable hypothesis. Assign the design as a project, which gets graded, including the interesting part. People with un-interesting experiments get lower grades. Then, after you've seen all the proposals pick one or two proposals which everybody (or every group) does with some flexibility in how they implement it. That way you get "prompts" which are similar to evaluate people's writing at the end.

This is something where groups are nice, since they can get together and brainstorm experiment ideas.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:57 PM on February 26, 2010


Last fall, four UVA students wrote a blog about their experiments in trying to change their eating habits. I believe it was for a similar kind of class, and it was pretty fascinating. It sounds like you've already thought about food-centric changes, but it might be interesting reading anyway, either for your or for your students.
posted by dizziest at 2:15 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


A friend of a friend had her students stop using forks for a week. Unfortunately she's in the middle of nowhere Minnesota and this caused some serious issues with student's families and exactly what they were learning at that them university.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:17 PM on February 26, 2010


All great suggestions and I used quite a few of them. Food and dietary experiments seemed popular. One kid is going to try meditating every day (not a "social experiment" per se, but I encouraged him to try it). Two or three of them are interested in the "no garbage" idea. And a surprising number of them want to try the world as left-handers. I'm looking forward to reading their papers. My favorite is the kid who's going to try the "say yes to everything" idea. This whole thing was generated by the heated discussion that arose out of reading Catherine Price's "The Anonymity Experiment". I'm not interested in them becoming hard scientists for this exercise, but rather asking questions about how they choose to live their lives and making temporary but interesting changes to their daily lives and ultimately being able to ask larger questions about their society, culture, etc. I want to turn them into curious observers...the best kinds of scientists.

And MeatRobot, your suggestions are good, but that's my other class where I use Tufte, my Technical Writing class, which is upper division and more appropriate for their level. I don't know how natural and social scientists could meaningfully write about not spending money for a week. If scientists can't write about these things, then they propagate the growing divide between the sciences and the general public. Raw data acquired by science must be made relevant through dialogue, one that contains narrative, and one that is accessible to the public.
posted by madred at 7:43 PM on February 26, 2010


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