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You are to conduct a “breaching experiment.” This “experiment” will require you to violate a social norm and to record what happens in response to your norm violation. You will need to collect data, describe your data collection process and discuss your findings. This assignment is designed to stimulate your sociological perspective and deepen your understanding of culture, norms, and sanctions.
 

Breaking Societal Norms Through a Breaching Experiment

In every society, there exist some expectations on how personal space should be given to people we interact with in our daily activities. In every society, personal space is valued, the personal space that should be given to someone mainly depend on the degree or the closeness of their relationship. For instance, in a public setting like eating establishments and restaurants people who sit together in a table are often comfortable and familiar with each other hence having close proximity to each other. The people who sit together possibly are either friends, family members or people who are enthusiastic to know each other.  It is very hard for a person to sit voluntarily near someone who is a stranger. The act of providing a personal space was so captivating to me; hence I decided to do research on the importance of personal space (Brinkmann and Svend 520-533). In order to carry out my research, I decided to break this social normative in a public restaurant in Toronto.

I carried out the research when I was at The St. George Campus of the University of Toronto at the Chestnut Dining Hall where many of the students have their meals throughout the day.  The normative of the cafeteria was that people sat near other people that they were familiar with and hence they were ready to open their personal space to them. But in case someone did not find anyone he/she was familiar with, then he/she would prefer sitting by herself/himself. I decided to break this norm by intentionally sitting around people who did not recognize me. I experimented with a young female student and a man in his early fifties. The young female was an African-American who had her headphones on and sat by herself. I finally dropped my plate of the meal on the table and sat facing at her side, on noticing my action she looked and I could tell by her facial expression that she seemed to be surprised at what I did. Judging from her facial expression, I recognized that she was very shocked at my action and probably wondered how a stranger could sit next to her.  I continued to talk to her and asked her how her day was, at first she hesitated to answer, but finally she replied and answered that it was fine and continued to eat her meal and look down. 

The Role of Societal Norms in Regulating Personal Space


During the evening I also went and sat around a man who was sitting around with his five colleagues who seemed of similar age, I went and sat beside the man who was an American when they were having their meal.  I sat at close proximity with the man, and I could tell from looks of the other colleagues that they were shocked at my behavior.  The man with a lot of shocks looked at me directly into my eyes and said, “Do you mind giving me my personal space?” and I hesitated but I finally replied “sure!” and then stood up as the man was watching me and he replied and said, “thank you.” I went and sat on another table and had my meal (Felipe et al 458-468).

In almost every society people abide by the culture and many unwritten rules that govern how people interrelate and interact with each other. Culture involves the social behavior, ideas, and customs of a particular society or people. For instance, according to American ‘s the act of respecting the other people personal space is a social normative while in Chinese it is acceptable to break a personal space or they don’t care about respecting other people personal space. The unwritten rules usually involve the behaviors, folkway and culture that society upholds and are usually understood but not specifically recorded (Mondada and Lorenza 1-5).  One should specifically keep a standard distance when in public or even when around friends with respect to the other people. Almost every person dislike when his/her personal space is invaded, and hence every person reacts in his/ her way depending on the approach used in invasion and person’s preference (Taylor et al).    


When conducting the destruction experiment, I had a feeling that I was violating the social norm of other people.  I felt skeptical and awkward and had a lot of thoughts on how other people could react to my behavior. I sometimes felt that invading other personal space especially a stranger in a public place was so rude. Even thou I did not receive any sanction for my actions, I felt like apologizing to the man I invaded his personal space with his friends (Reinharz and Shulamit). We are all expected by society to carry ourselves and act in a definite way by observing the societal norms.  Violating people’s space mostly indicates something unwanted or negative.  The fact that norms help in exercising social control by aiding people to avoid unnecessary conflict and also help in teaching people consideration, hence violating norms is something unwanted (Turowetz et al 387-410.).  

Negative Emotions and Consequences Associated with Personal Space Intrusion

Understanding the concept of personal space is vital since it helps in giving people a sense of security because nobody will easily violate it.  I felt so uncomfortable while invading the personal space of people especially the stranger and since it was in a public setting. A society without rules would be characterized by a lot of chaos and destructive actions hence not able to function properly. People may cause a lot of harm to others if they continuously deviate from the society rules (Von Sivers, Isabella, and Gerta Köster 104-117).  Some of the importance of rules in society include; they have a tendency to protect the weak since they are more likely to be disadvantaged if rules are broken, they help in maintaining order in society and also rules help in the provision of a stable human coexistent and environment hence leading to development and peace. Some rules in society come alongside with punishment in order for people to adhere to them hence because of fear punishment many people tend to obey the rules (Pillay and Rona 269-283). 

When conducting the breaching experiment, I experienced a lot of difficulties.  The task of intruding into someone personal space is accompanied by a high degree of negative emotion. The negative emotions that I experienced were due to the fact that I was not used to such kind of actions, the ordinarily of some actions help individuals to avoid breaking some social norms.  The restraints from internal factors like fear, anxious and tension help against interfering with personal space of others hence play a vital role in ensuring the integrity of the other people personal space (Rafalovich and Adam 156-163)

A person of another class, gender or class would also have the same experience of experiencing some difficulty while intruding other people personal space. This is because in a society where people do not easily invade with other people personal space at first when doing so everybody will feel anxious, tensed and embarrassed when carrying out the experiment. Violation of personal spaces can have a lot of destructive consequences (Nilsson et al, par 1903.01831).  Violation of expectations of personal space cause arousal and can force the recipient of the violation to start a number of cognitive and physical arousal against the violation.  The cognitive and physical arousal cause distractions to the social order since some can even respond by fighting or shouting to the distractor (Szpak et al 45-54). The breaching experiment distracts the social order because it involves the destruction of societal norms and rules that help in shaping the social order.   

Breaching Experiments as a Method to Uncover Unwritten Social Rules


At some instances, some people cannot respond when their personal space is intruded.  Some factors that can lead to no outcome when there is an invasion of a personal space include; when the intruder and the recipient know each other well and hence even interfering with each other personal space will not be a big deal and when the interfering with the personal space of the opposite gender. For instance, when a male interfere with the personal space of a female, the female may just assume that the male counterpart may be interested in her. Some other factors that determine a comfortable personal space include; female to female, male to male, professional relationship, culture and country, and platonic versus romantic relationship (Stanley et al).  The breaching experiment on personal space invasion help in shedding light on what the society expects from us and also helps us know how to conform to the society normative.  The responses of the recipient when conducting this experiment help in showcasing the intensity or importance of social norm. When conducting the experiment the female was not comfortable and was more pressured to respond rudely and the man felt not comfortable, and he requested me to stop interfering with his personal space. The discomfort and pressure to respond demonstrate how we greatly depend on social norms. Breaching experiments are essential since they help in exploring and uncovering the several unwritten social rules that we live by (Corti et al 288-308). 

Brinkmann, Svend. "Methodological breaching experiments: Steps toward theorizing the qualitative interview." Culture & Psychology 22.4 (2016): 520-533.

Corti, Kevin, et al. "The researcher as experimental subject: using self-experimentation to access experiences, understand social phenomena, and stimulate reflexivity." Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science 49.2 (2015): 288-308.

Felipe, Nancy Jo, and Robert Sommer. "Invasions of personal space." Sociological Methods. Routledge, 2017. 458-468.

Mondada, Lorenza. "Ethnomethodology." The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction (2015): 1-5.

Nilsson, Tommy, et al. "Breaching the Future: Understanding Human Challenges of Autonomous Systems for the Home." arXiv preprint arXiv:1903.01831 (2019).

Pillay, Rona. "Ethnomethodology." Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences (2019): 269-283.

Rafalovich, Adam. "Making sociology relevant: the assignment and application of breaching experiments." Teaching Sociology 34.2 (2006): 156-163.

Reinharz, Shulamit. On Becoming a Social Scientist: from survey research and participant observation to Experimental Analysis. Routledge, 2017.

Stanley, Steven, et al. Awakening psychology: Investigating everyday life with social mindfulness. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2018.

Szpak, Ancrêt, et al. "“No man is an island”: Effects of interpersonal proximity on spatial attention." Cognitive neuroscience 7.1-4 (2016): 45-54.

Taylor, Jennyfer Lawrence, et al. "Situational when: designing for time across cultures." Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2017.

Turowetz, Jason, Matthew M. Hollander, and Douglas W. Maynard. "Ethnomethodology and social phenomenology." Handbook of contemporary sociological theory. Springer, Cham, 2016. 387-410.

Von Sivers, Isabella, and Gerta Köster. "Dynamic stride length adaptation according to utility and personal space." Transportation Research Part B: Methodological 74 (2015): 104-117.

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