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Social experiments welcome abnormal behavior

By Shannon McInnis
posted April 20, 2011

Publicly bursting out into song and dance, like performers in the internet-popular ‘flash mob’ videos, may seem like a harmless or amusing act, but it is in fact a punishable crime. Behaviors like these shatter unofficial, unspoken rules called social norms that Jessica Carwardine’s sociology students were recently assigned to break in a public setting in order to observe the reactions of unsuspecting on-lookers.

“This project helped students understand how norms govern our behavior in the real world,” she said, “and the variety of sanctions people encounter when they break even the most harmless norms.”

Carwardine explained that social norms tell society appropriate ways to behave and are constantly enforced by sanctions. Sanctions are rewards and punishments for adhering to social norms and can range from ‘tisk tisk’ to social rejection.

“I hope students realized the importance and impact of norms and sanctions in our society,” she said.

Carwardine explained that the most recent sociology project involved surveying fellow students and for the social norm assignment, application in the community was required.

“Real reactions from people of all ages are a more accurate representation of society than just our school,” she said. “Past students have tried paying for an item with only change, trying to buy something using monopoly money, and tailgating in the Walmart parking lot.”

If students’ norms disrupted customers, permission from a store manager was required and junior Caitlin Graf’s group sang a merry song of social disruption.

“My group,” she said, “was [junior] Ariel Marx and [freshman] Megan Diermeier. We chose to carol at the Outlet Mall, specifically songs pertaining to snow. The reactions were varied depending on how we acted.”

Graf explained shoppers were generally confused, directing astounded glares and convicting fingers in their direction, and a few patrons were provoked to profanity.

“At first we chose Vanity Fair and a customer swore at us,” she said. “Some reactions weren’t as extreme; some said Merry Christmas, others just smiled.”

A colorful assortment of reactions can be expected, says Carwardine, and past students experienced a wide spectrum of social disdain.

“No violent reactions, but lots of dirty looks and parents pulling their children closer to them as if to protect them from the norm breakers,” she said.

Senior Josh Papenfuss and junior Andrew Wrege received much of this type of reaction as Wrege, adorned in rain jacket and rain pants, carried an umbrella through Shopko on a particularly sunny day.

“There were two reactions that really stuck out to me. The first was a guy behind us who turned a corner and started laughing and then we saw him following us again, trying to figure out what we were doing,” said Papenfuss. “[Another] person complained to the manager at the customer service desk saying that there were suspicious people walking around in rain gear.”

Careful planning and brainstorming were necessary when groups chose their social norms to ensure legality and safety, but still be noticeable by an average person.

“We chose our norm to break because we thought we would get a lot of different reactions,” said Papenfuss.

Senior Arta Hajdini, assigned to observe the repercussions of junior Sam Lennon and senior Sam Larson’s superhero outfits, enjoyed being on the ‘inside of the joke’.

“I thought it was fun, I didn’t dress up but seeing the reactions was enough,” she said. “I just feel like breaking the norm made me realize how people looked at others who don’t follow them.”

Carwardine was pleased with students’ willingness to apply what they’ve learned in class to the social norm project.

“Overall, this project is one of the most memorable things that students do in sociology,” she said. “They got to practice their research methods, observation skills, and writing skills, and even have a little fun doing it! It’s always good to apply the things that you’re learning about in class into the real world.”

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Though protected from the possibilties of indoor storms, junior Andrew Wrege was not safe from staring and laughter in regards to his disobedience of social norms.

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