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Breaching experiments are practical thought experiments, or practical jokes, depending on one's perspective, in which a person deliberately violates a social rule in order to reveal how other people rely upon this rule for a sense of security. The term was invented by the sociologist Harold Garfinkel as a way to illustrate his approach to studying everyday social interaction (Weber 2011). Breaching experiments also resemble several other thought experiments and illustrations from psychology and sociology, although they are different in important ways.
There's a classic prank from the TV show, Candid Camera which you can see on YouTube and has been reproduced widely on sociology and psychology sites. In the prank, a group of people have been planted in an elevator and face the rear, an uncommon way to ride an elevator with one entrance. A hidden camera is placed outside the elevator aimed squarely at the door so people's movements into and within the car can be seen. The victim of the prank enters, and the audience sees him get visibly anxious and then conform to the group pattern and face the rear as well.
It has even been updated by on the US ABC network show, What Would You Do?. They dwell even more on the implications for people's personality. Most people, whether they know it or not, just go along with the group and “fall for” the set-up.
In this segment, “Would you fall for that?”, the announcer refers to the set-up as an “Asch experiment,” after experiments conducted by Solomon Asch which tested whether or not people's perceptions on reality were influenced by what they say as the majority opinion.
The videos are funny, and seem to be self-evident examples of “conformity.” Are there more ways to read these? Look at the facial expression of the victims. Look at their own body language as the body language of the group starts to appear as a majority opinion.
One of my favorite anecdotes is a story about a sociologist who wanted to demonstrate the way that social norms influence people's behavior in public, even at a minute level of posture and gesture, and how uncomfortable people feel when they or others fail to meet these expectations. In this story, Erving Goffman supposedly enters an elevator and stands facing the back. The rest of the passengers struggle to maintain their composure, but find themselves fidgeting and inching away from Goffman, the violator of an implicit social norm.
Actually, it turns out that this is a bit of anthropological lore. Erving Goffman wrote about elevators as an example of how people in American society, and what he would call “modern” societies, strive to respect other individuals' personal space. In elevators, people wordlessly and without difficulty distribute themselves in the car so that everyone has personal space, and everyone has a roughly equal amount of space. When someone enters or leaves, people reshuffle themselves (Goffman 2009 : 32). It is as though the space around a person is sacred, and indeed that's what Goffman argues. The rules of respect for personal space are so ingrained that they are rarely articulated, and when they are violated, people become very anxious and even angry.
Goffman's student, Harold Garfinkel, took these ideas of the unstated norms of a group and their connections to people sense of security and developed them with breaching experiments (Rawls 2002: 32). Imagine, he asked his students, if you went home to visit your parents but you behaved as though you were a paying guest at their bed-and-breakfast hotel. Imagine if you said “What do you mean?” in reply to anything anyone said, no matter how simple. In these breaching experiments, a person deliberately violates the sacred zones of interaction between people, and exposes the presence of the unstated social rules, and also how crucial these rules are for people to feel like they are fitting in, they are normal, and they are respected by others.
So apparently over years of anthropology classes, and many times to discuss breaching experiments, as a student and as a teacher, the long history of breaching experiments was shortened to “Erving Goffman walks on to an elevator…”
Also, we can see a difference between the Asch experiments parodied in Candid Camera and Garfinkel's breaching experiments. Instead of the group pressuring the aberrant individual, for Goffman and Garfinkel, many social situations involve a delicate dance in which everyone carefully interacts in ways that do not touch upon the sense that other people have of fitting in. They all avoid personal space, eye contact, and even asking for clarification or evidence for another person's personal truth. When these are violated, intentionally or not, people become anxious and worried that the other person will lose face, and that they will appear insensitive, too.
Psych may teach students about conformity, but anthropologists and sociologists both know that social life is a world of symbols, and if you go “off script” then you are bound to get a reaction! Here's a YouTube video from a sociology student's class project from 2011 (at what appears to be one of the last remaining suburban shopping malls in the United States).
Goffman, Erving. 2009 . Relations in Public. New York: Transaction Publishers.
Rawls, Anne. 2002. Editor's Introduction. In Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism, by Harold Garfinkel with Anne Rawls. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
Weber, Bruce. 2011. “Harold Garfinkel, a Common-Sense Sociologist, Dies at 93.” The New York Times, May 3, sec. U.S. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/us/04garfinkel.html.