Last Thursday, Alan Grigsby’s Introductory Sociology class gave a sociological demonstration titled “The Activity of Doing Nothing”. In this activity, students, including myself, were asked to demonstrate social deviance in the cafeteria at Tinkham Veale University Center during peak lunch hours.
In waves of twenty students every half hour, onlookers at the university center felt a certain unease. Students stood completely still in the middle of the aisle, remained motionless between tables, or leaned against motionless walls. Members of the surrounding community stared at us in confusion, bewilderment, and, believe it or not, frightened. Who knew that doing nothing could cause such a ruckus?
The purpose of this activity was to demonstrate the concept of social norms, or unspoken rules about what is appropriate in social or public situations. The standard highlighted in this situation governs the way people act when they are in public. Even if we don’t do anything, we wiggle, fix our hair or play on our phones. People are so unaccustomed to seeing other people doing nothing in a public place that they don’t know how to react. They do not understand. And when we don’t understand something, we are afraid of it. We consider him suspicious.
When asked repeatedly by random students and faculty, “What are you doing?” The protesters were not allowed to say anything other than the designated response. Specified by the instructor, we were only allowed to respond with “I’m not doing anything”. Unable to fully understand what the group of protesters were doing, onlookers began to wonder. “Are you OK?” “Are you protesting? ” “I’m not doing anything.”
The reluctance to believe that we, the protesters, had no ulterior motive to remain completely still for about ten minutes coincided with the belief that social norms guide our behavior. Social norms require that in order to appear “normal” or “good-natured”, we must not be totally united.
The other part of the demonstration was to see how we, the participants, feel about doing nothing. Try to stay completely still in a public place for ten minutes. You will find, like me, that this is a very difficult thing to do. I constantly struggled with the urge to touch my hair, play with my wristband, or talk to other protesters. I felt the same uneasiness in doing nothing as the spectators, and I was in the process. The experience made me realize how much the social norm affects me and my manners. I now notice that I cannot stand still if my life depended on it.
Social norms are part of the social structure, and knowing these norms helps us understand why we act the way we do. This gives us the opportunity to challenge them. If I am performing in a certain way and I know why, I know I have a sense of will regarding my actions. Will I choose to wear clothes today? I now have the power to know that yes, I will wear clothes, but I will wear them because of how I feel and not because I blindly succumb to societal morality.
With this, I challenge you to challenge a social norm and see how it affects you. Does it make you uncomfortable staying still for ten minutes? Do you feel judged when standing in front of the elevator? Become aware of the social norms that govern your actions. Challenge them. See how he feels. It might empower you. It might give you a feeling of willpower. After all, what are the rules if they are never questioned?
Courtney is a first year psychology student. And maybe sociology. And maybe cognitive science. One of her talents is not being able to decide what she wants to do with a living.