BREAKING NORMS Introduction Norms are an important part of

Norms are an important part of culture. They help us decide what behaviors
are proper and improper in various settings. In many cases, you may have
internalized society’s norms and are following them without even realizing it.
Given that, how can sociologists determine exactly what these norms are? In
the late 1960’s, sociologists Harold Garfinkel came up with an interesting technique
to find out. He coined the term ethnomethodology, which means “the study of how
people do things.” More specifically, ethnomethodology is a technique for studying
norms by breaking them. The premise is that social interaction is based on norms
that most people accept and follow. You cannot just walk up to people and ask what
norms they follow, because they will not be able to explain what the norms are and
to may not even be aware of them. Instead, ethnomethologists deliberately violate
social norms to reveal peoples’ expectations about how social interaction is
supposed to occur.
In this experiment, you will choose a norm to break in order to experience
the effect of violating and established norm. We will also observe and record other
peoples’ responses to your deviation to our expected behavior. Finally you will
share your experience and discuss your observations with the class.
Choosing a norm
Identify a social norm or expectation that you can break in order to study the
reaction of others. The main requirement is that breaking the norm must result in
unique but harmless behavior that is atypical for you. Do not choose behavior that is
dangerous or you will get in trouble with the school administration, the police, your
family, or other authority figures. Also, avoid behavior a teacher would consider
disruptive in the classroom. Remember that the behavior must be something
that you don’t typically do. Some examples are listed below.
Give away flowers at the shopping center
Wear formal attire at a informal event or setting
Using the furniture in a store to eat, socialize, or workout
Breaking traditional gender norms (football players going to a ballet class)
Begin singing on a street corner
Answer your phone with goodbye for an entire day
Bring your own plates and flatware out to dinner
Once you have chosen your norm, violate it. Then while you are breaking your
norm, observe the people around you and their reactions. If possible, and
depending on your project, repeat your norm violation in a few different settings
among different groups of witnesses. This will allow you to experience and
compare a wide variety of reactions. In each case jot down some notes as soon
as possible after violating your norm so you don’t forget important details that
will help you write your report.
Record your observations
Using your notes write a one page report describing how people reacted to
your norm violating behavior. Elaborate with as many details as you can recall.
The questions below will help you focus and shape our report.
What norm did you choose to violate?
What was the setting of your norm violation?
What kinds of people saw you break your chosen norm?
How did people respond to your behavior?
Why do you think people reacted as they did?
How did you feel while breaking your norm?
What emotions were experiencing?
Was your behavior observed by anyone in the position of authority? If so,
what was their reaction?
Do you think ethnomethodologists are right in their belief that this kind of
experiment is the most affective way to uncover social norms?
Did you experience any type of sanction (response ex: punishment or
cheering) for your behavior and describe how your sanction was enforced?
Was it positive or negative? Was it formal or informal?
If you experienced a sanction, did you think it was the most affective means
of controlling your behaviors? Might of a different type of sanction have been
more effective?
While you were violating your norm did you think of yourself as a deviant?
Why or why not??
Why do you think the people observing you responded as they did?
What do you think the consequences would be for you personally if you
continued the behavior? How would continuing this behavior would affect
What social norm has changed in the past 20 years? Do you think this change
was for the best? Are there any norms that haven’t changed that should? Are
there any norms that changed that you wished had not?
Grade: 25 points
Grade is partially based on how creative/elaborate your project is. Calling your
parent by their first name once would receive a low score, while spending an hour at
dinner testing norms would get a higher score.
Videotape or document your project in some way.
Write up and sharing.