Breaking Societal Norms: The quintessential sociology assignment. Help!
January 24, 2013 9:01 PM   Subscribe

I am taking a very new, unique class this semester at my university, which has a final project related to "breaking social norms." The teacher implied the project should most likely have some videotaping or physical results, and manipulate social norms for a better/more positive outcome. Sky is the limit on this project, there are very few guidelines and boundaries, and I'm not sure where to go with it. Suggestions?

So, this class is, humorously enough, not a sociology class. Most of us know very little about social norms and their implications, beyond the things we don't think about. (I eat with a fork, I don't walk around pants-less in public, etc.) I believe the key here is a "positive outcome" or "doing good" when breaking these norms. As a side note, this is a group project. So we have a bit of manpower. We can also involve family and friends. Some of my ideas include:

1) Possibly getting in touch with a nursing home, interviewing some lonely/older inhabitants, and posting Bios about them around campus. With pre-addressed, stamped envelopes with anonymous notecards and a prompt to write a kind/conversational note or a thank you. (These would be screened by me/my group, not sent straight to the recipient. Similar premise to the Secret Book.) This would break the societal norm we have of not valuing our elderly in Western culture. (Read a NY Times article about this.) These would be provided to the resident after screening, at the end of the project.

2) Going to an airport an encouraging weary travelers to clear the snow off of other people's cars, or a whole parking lot, etc. I feel it would be breaking a societal norm to really ask anyone to do anything selfless, especially without an already existing relationship. (I have ready studies that show that human beings value and/or are more comfortable with selfishness than selflessness.) Problem is, this is weather dependent, and it's been a dry winter.

These are just a few I thought of, and I worry about the red tape associated to #1 and #2. (Getting a foot in the door at a nursing home, the right to release a brief bio on a poster, etc. Standing around at an airport? Super questionable these days.)

Can you guys think of anything that could work for the basic premise? Feel free to ignore mine and go totally off the wall-- I have a tendency to think "inside the box" a lot. I like boundaries, and this project has very few. Thanks for any help you can offer!
posted by unmouton88 to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give us more details of what you're doing? This sounds like benign trolling, and the more specific the norms are the easier it is to subtly break them. Even doing something like setting up a stand offering free samples of veal on a heavely vegatarian college campus or draping yourself in American flags in a heavily left-wing area would work.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:04 PM on January 24, 2013

Two cautions:
-Find out if your institution has an IRB (Institutional Review Board), that has to approve any projects involving outside participants. You may need to run your project by them if it involves eg people at a seniors' home.

-Whatever you choose, be careful not to do something that violates a campus policy. Some students at an institution I know about were disciplined very severely - I believe some were not allowed to graduate - after they did something for a project assignment like this. They saw what they were doing as campus art, but the administration saw it as vandalism and destruction of property. So - choose a project that doesn't risk this kind of repercussion.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:13 PM on January 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

The liability risk of clearing other people's cars is too great for this project--what private lot owner would let you do this? Avoid anything with other people's property. What about pawing through trash cans and eating whatever you find there and/or offering to share with passersby?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:14 PM on January 24, 2013

There are some Burning Man things that might work. For instance, there's a stand that has a couple of people in it who call out (generally non-sexual) compliments at passers-by.

The stricter your local norms are, the easier it is to break them. What would break them in San Francisco would be very different, I suspect, than breaking them in Amarillo, Texas.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:16 PM on January 24, 2013

Response by poster: I apologize for being unable to give more details-- my intent is not to be difficult. The reason I am not providing more details is because he gave us very little to go on. I'd imagine his goal is to receive a very varied group of results and have no two projects be the same. I have given you about as much as I think we are going to be given. We do have "pitch" the idea to him before we do it.

Also, I didn't get the impression that we were supposed to do any kind of "benign trolling", meaning I don't think you just break a societal norm, laugh at the poor people you've just trolled, and show the class a video. He really did stress the intention was to bend/break/twist a societal norm-- but to provide a positive outcome through this social violation.

The two cautions are valid. I was unaware of the first (IRB) but I'm glad I know now. As for the cars, I'd thought of the vandalism aspect also. (Do I plan to vandalize? No. But if someone's mirror breaks off in zero degree weather, or a car gets scratched, YIKES. We'd have to pay.)

I'm looking for a spring board here, and I tried to provide a few myself. I realize ultimately they may not be viable-- I'm struggling, which is why I've shamelessly put it in metafilter's lap for some input.
posted by unmouton88 at 9:23 PM on January 24, 2013

In an intro to sociology class, I learned about how people tend to walk on the street, at least in North America. I've since learned a lot more about sociology and social norms and the like, but the basic gist of it is this:

People in North America, when walking down a sidewalk and they see they will walk into someone shortly, if they maintain the same path, will usually automatically shift to the right to avoid the other person.

Basically, people mirror the traffic rules.

What's always a bit fun for me is stepping LEFT about the same time the other people step right. Then they step left and I step right and voila, you have broken a social norm and had that awkward moment where neither one of you knows which direction to move.

Note that if you plan to do this (or some variation) and you plan to record videos, you'll almost certainly need a waiver/agreement from the person in question for their likeness to be used. (So you can do the sidestepping thing and then say thanks for participating in a research project -- can I get your permission to use your likeness? etc, or something.)

Good luck. :)
posted by juliebug at 9:25 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If this were me, I'd do something like paste up gender neutral signs up over all the gendered bathroom signs on campus.
posted by kylej at 9:34 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

You might think in the vein of "random acts of kindness"... doing something transparently nice for someone, but in an unexpected way, and with just a simple explanation of "we're just doing nice things for people today"

Delivering flowers (or papercraft flowers) to - for example - administrative workers around the university?

Hanging out in a parking lot all afternoon, paying for other people's parking meters?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:36 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

So, many cultures or groups have a strong sense of reciprocity- if someone does something for you or gives you something, many cultures have a strong norm that you should give or do a favor "in return."

You could violate the rule by giving strangers little gifts and not asking or accepting anything in return. I'm thinking something like little hard candies or Hershey's kisses with a note about how you are doing this for class and what reciprocity is and how you are violating the rule, and you would do it maybe for like an hour at a busy intersection with a big sign that said "FREE CANDY."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:39 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

You can hold public boasting contests, like old toasting contests or bragging contests like in Beowulf or rap battles or whatever your preferred reference is for yelling about how great you are in poetic language. It'll break the taboo against talking yourself up and the taboo against public speaking. Try and get the audience to join in!
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:44 PM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

One thing I'll say, based on doing somewhat similar projects in the past (in an artistic context, not an academic one) is that it's pretty hard to get The Public At Large to do some undesirable or illogical activity in a passive way. Any project that involves putting up signs around campus inviting people to do something unusual that doesn't immediately read as fun and cool and exciting is not going to work.

Now, if you stood around and actively asked people to do things (which breaks social norms on its own), that could work. And even if people refuse to perform the task, the very asking and declining transaction on its own could be part of the project.

So you're going to want the project to be organized in a way wherein you guys are in an active role, rather than putting up a sign and waiting for something to happen.
posted by Sara C. at 9:48 PM on January 24, 2013

Smile at everyone you see and record their reactions?

Get real meta with it and just write a research paper (breaking the norm of doing what the instructor says)?
posted by mmmbacon at 9:53 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was channel surfing when I saw this thread, and a What would you do? television show was on. I didn't watch this one, but on the show they have actors stage an interaction on a controversial topic to see how people react. Generally, the interaction breaks a social norm, because it is some kind of bias brought out into the open. The people responding also break a social norm when they choose to get involved.

For example, they'll have a woman breastfeeding in a public place, and have an employee give her a hard time and try to get her to leave (staged). Customers might come to her defense, ignore the interaction, or support the employee.

I have definitely seen some positive results the few times I've watched the show: a gay couple with a child is given a hard time by a waitress, and the diner rises to their defense and takes on the waitress, etc.

I can see you using this technique to good effect for your class assignment. Since this is a group project, if you could have some people in your group stage an interaction, maybe even in your class before it starts or after it is over, and then make sure to get releases from everyone who actually gets involved in some way, that would work.

The potential problem would be, of course, that the reaction might go the wrong way, supporting the bias you're demonstrating. Then again, I suppose you could do this more than once, and only turn in the positive reactions.
posted by misha at 10:04 PM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

You know, now that I think about it, the "It Gets Better" project of Dan Savage's is just this thing.

Oh! And what about all the people who helped gay couples get married when it was legal for about a split second in 2008 in California? I think some of them were providing the services for free or really cheap, even some Mefites got in on that.

So, do you have to actually break a social norm and have video or other evidence as proof, or can you just interview people who did it themselves, and have them on video? Or even use existing video, like the "It Gets Better" videos from different groups?
posted by misha at 10:19 PM on January 24, 2013

I held up a cardboard sign that said "You're Perfect", inspired by this guy. In addition, my friends and I gave out roses (bought from costco for super cheap) to people (mostly women) and stickers to the kids. I wish we had something to give out to the men (or women who didn't want a rose). Perhaps some sort of candy or dessert, or even custom fortune cookies with interesting/funny sayings inside.

Bonus points, if you do this in front of the transit mall (city bus stop downtown) where the poor people are. You will get interesting results around poor people.

You will have to approach people ask if you they want a rose. They will usually say what for, and you can reply with any kind of interesting statement such as "Just Because" or 'Because you're perfect". This definitely threw people off along with the sign.

Or if you are bold enough do something like the Sexy Sax Man and play George Michael - Careless Whisper in shops and at the mall.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 10:26 PM on January 24, 2013

Are the sweatpants that say things like JUICY on the butt still a thing? I always thought it would be fun to turn that on its head. Either costuming women with personality-based words like SMART, BRAVE, or WITTY in place of the appearance-based statements, or guys with things like SLUT, HOT, or CUTE. Then have them wander around campus and see what kind of reactions they get.
posted by MsMolly at 10:30 PM on January 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

I think in your examples, your social norms are far too broad/complicated. The relationship between selfishness, altruism, and societal norms is not clear cut. There are situations where altruism is the norm (giving your seat on the subway to an elderly person--although these days I see that one broken all the time), and situations where selfishness is the norm (boarding a plane, anyone?). I guess what I'm saying is, the "random act of kindness" ideas aren't really all that norm-bending because, as a society, we often DO place value on random acts of kindness.

I think I would try to focus on an extremely specific observable norm. You might even want to focus on a campus-specific norm. Bonus points if it's particularly damaging (althouh, interesting question, by what standard are we judging "beneficial outcome?").

If it were me, I'd ask a group of male friends to wear makeup for a week and a group of women to go without. (Good luck with that!) But anyway, I would do something gender or sexual orientation related, and something that would really get heads turning.
posted by murfed13 at 10:50 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have honest talks with strangers. Not in a creepy annoying way, but set up a confessional or think tank or group therapy tent with signs and invite strangers in.

Or, set up an alternative economy within a dominant one. Like a bartering station near the campus bookshop.

Or, offer unscheduled docent talks (around campus, or in the university art museum) on topics that may or may not be relevant yet educational nonetheless.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 10:51 PM on January 24, 2013

Given the scope of the project - one class, a short video, no IRB to approve actual research on human participants - you're looking for a sound byte of insider participants doing transnormative things in public places where you can record the whole scene. Paying people's parking meters for a day seems lovely in its uncommon kindness. The words-on-butts Juicy takedown sounds promising but it would really need to be played cool.

All these things would be most meaningful when not done explicitly for tape/class. I think it would be awesome to do whatever you pick a few times but only tape one as much as is needed for your assignment. Otherwise, spend your energy experiencing the experience!
posted by SakuraK at 11:31 PM on January 24, 2013

- Wear bathing suits in the city, business suits on the beach, prom outfits to a hockey game, etc.
- Bring your own plates and cutlery to a fast food restaurant
- Sing in a crowded elevator or on the subway (Or talk to people)
- Pass out colouring sheets and crayons to strangers in a cafe
- Put up posters of art prints in public spaces
- Blow bubbles in a shopping mall
- Give out free candy to tired commuters in a train station
- Attempt to form a conga line on a busy sidewalk
- Wear nametags in public, and offer to give them out to people if they want

The idea I think is not to go terribly off the wall -- it's to think about what activities and behaviors normally happen in a certain context, and what would happen if you tried them in other contexts. What kinds of things do you do in a park? What would happen if you tried them in a clothing store? That kind of thing.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:02 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're male, complement other men - strangers - on how they look.

If you're female, try catcalling men or asking them to 'cheer up love'. I still remember the reaction a girl had when, at a gig full of people shouting 'get your tits out' to the female bassist, she screamed 'get your knob out!!!!'
posted by mippy at 2:05 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

The tights-without-pants look already violates a taboo, but having men wear tights but no pants would likely get a much stronger reaction. Codpiece optional.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:58 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yep, you better ask the prof about the IRB requirements. I bet you be doesn't even have that on his radar, especially if he is not in a social science.
posted by yarly at 4:12 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Walk around with a burkha, a hijab or the style of "modest clothing" that some Christian conservatives prefer. Or you could try a project like this, where the "wrong people" try to enter a popular nightclub:
"To see which New York nightclub really lives up to its “exclusive” reputation, The Post hired six models to test the doors at six Meatpacking District clubs — dressing them as classic cool-killing stereotypes. A Jersey girl, a Bill Gates nerd, a square suburban dad, a guido, a Samantha-esque older woman and a geekette all tried their luck against the city’s toughest gatekeepers."
posted by iviken at 4:18 AM on January 25, 2013

A friend did a project like this where they went out to a fancy restaurant and reversed all gender expectations: the women pulled out the men's seat, got their coats, paid the check, ordered for the them, etc.

It was really interesting to see how confused the wait staff and other patrons were.
posted by 3491again at 5:32 AM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

I remember reading about a similar assignment where the student boarded a nearly empty bus and deliberately sat immediately next to another person. Uncomfortable and norm-breaking for sure.
posted by third word on a random page at 5:42 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Go outside a food pantry, head start, WIC office, food stamp office or something with $5 gift cards to say, target, or any other ubiquitous retailer. Have a big sign that says "We know you're trying hard and we're proud of you." I can tell you that they are not having an easy time, and that would probably make their day, week, or month. Usually society just craps on poor people for deserving their fate through laziness. Asking for help sucks and is hard. A tiny gift of kindness would be wonderful.
posted by kpht at 7:30 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd tie a friendly guy up in a chair and put a nametag saying "Norm" on him. Then I would pretend to torture him.
posted by srboisvert at 8:21 AM on January 25, 2013

If you go to most craft stores, you can buy some cheap glass plates and Mod Podge, which is like a fixative/glue substance for putting pictures on solid backings.

Print out some photos of Norm from Cheers, and stick each one to the back of a plate, so you can see his face through the glass plate. Use the Mod Podge to completely coat it, and let dry.

You now have a nice collection of plates with Norm on each one. Now, set them up someplace where you can clean up easily, and shatter each plate with a rock, or maybe even a crossbow, if you have one. Videotape the whole thing.

When you show this tape to your class, you must look as straight-faced as possible as you explain that Norm from cheers is the most Social Norm you could think of, though maybe Norm MacDonald would also make sense. At any rate, you say, this is how to break Social Norms.

Do NOT, under ANY circumstances, pretend like you have ever heard any other definition of the word "norm".
posted by Greg Nog at 8:26 AM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

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