Friday, January 27, 2012

Ideas for Breaching Experiments

I can't stop thinking about breaching experiments. I don't know why. Well, maybe I just want to have fun. I won't go into a long description of breaching experiments--that's already been handled in a classic post on Everyday Sociology Blog. Basically, it boils down to intentionally breaking norms to see what kind of reaction you get.

I started obsessing about breaching experiments earlier this week at the grocery store. I felt like people were giving me weird looks. I'm not a paranoid type, but it really did seem that people were looking at me. Maybe it's my beard (Yesterday I ran into a colleague who said I look like Franco Harris. Highlight of my year). Anyway, feeling like people were looking at me for no good reason, a thought popped into my head: it would be fun to say "Got a problem, boss?" to the next person who looked at me. Keep in mind I am small, far away from physically imposing. The reactions would be so interesting. Of course I didn't do it, but it's an idea for a breaching experiment.

Since then, I came up with two more ideas for breaching experiments. The first is to sing a song at a public library and see what happens. A long and dramatic song might work well, like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," or a song with adult content would garner interesting reactions, like Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me." I heard that one on satellite radio yesterday, brought me back to the mid-1990s!

My other idea is to reply to all texts with a rude text, like STOP TEXTING ME. Friends and family surely would be confused. You might burn a few bridges and have a lonely weekend, but sometimes you have to suffer for sociology!

Update 2/17/2013:

I just got home after a pleasant dinner with my family at a decent restaurant. Nicer than an Applebee's chain type restaurant, but not a fine dining establishment. A place where folks were quietly enjoying a pretty good meal in a pretty nice place. I felt the urge to yell "Welcomes to Moe's!" Sadly, I didn't follow through. But there you have it; another simple idea for a breaching experiment. Next time you're in a coffee shop, or a bar, or a house party, or really anywhere except Moe's, shout "Welcome to Moe's" whenever somebody enters.

As for the next time you visit Moe's, be sure to greet customers by hollering "Touch your toes!" or "Hug your foes!"

Update 7/8/2013:

Took my kids to the town pool today. While my 5-year-old was getting a swim lesson in the "big pool," I watched my 2-year-old play in the baby pool. There was a bunch of parents hanging around the pool, supervising their kids. I had the urge to knock out some push-ups on the concrete surrounding the pool. I'm not in great shape, but not in terrible shape either. I'm sure I could have impressed with a quick set of twenty. Can you imagine the reaction to a middle-aged guy doing push-ups for no apparent reason? But, as always, I resisted doing something out of the norm. Had I done those push-ups to intentionally generate a reaction from onlookers, it would have been a fine breaching experiment.

Note 3/4/2014:

If you are going to do any kind of breaching experiment, please give serious consideration to the effect it might have on people. In this post I am only imagining experiments; I have never done any of these and I have never assigned breaching experiments in my Sociology courses. But I realize that students in other courses find their way to my blog when they search for breaching experiment ideas. This post actually gets a lot of page views. Common search terms include "ideas for breaching experiments" and "fun breaching experiments." The spirit of this post is to have fun thinking about breaching experiments that could be done. It's important for me to recognize that students actually carry out breaching experiments. We need to consider the possible effects on innocent bystanders who have not asked to be involved in an experiment. Those who enact a breaching experiment should proceed with caution. There are ethical issues to consider. Do the ends of breaching experiments justify the means? Is it ethical to treat strangers in a discourteous way? Is it ethical to inconvenience them or make them uncomfortable? Upon reflection, I don't think my example of singing a song in a public library is a good idea. I admit that thinking about it remains humorous to me. But to actually do it would be discourteous to library patrons. I'm reflecting on breaching experiments after reading a well-written article in Teaching Sociology by Matthew Braswell. As he writes, “The subjects of a breaching experiment, it must be remembered, have places to go, schedules to meet, and no knowledge of the fact that they have just walked into a sociological exercise. They deserve a modicum of care and consideration.” He poses an important question: “does the breaching experiment truly hold the potential to reveal otherwise unattainable insights?” If I think about my idea to sing a song in a public library, I think the answer is no. Honestly, I don't think that is an experiment worth doing. Fun to think about, yes, but sociologically valuable, probably not. He thinks that breaching experiments should be designed in a thoughtful and ethical manner. I agree with him. I think the only breaching experiment I might ever do is my idea about doing push-ups at the public pool where I live. It wouldn't put myself or others in harm's way. It wouldn't inconvenience anyone, I don't think. It seems harmless, silly, and has a bit of sociological value. 

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