Breaching Experiment Essay

The breaching experiment is a simple yet ingenious social psychology technique that explores people’s adherence to the unwritten social norms of society. The experiment was developed by sociologist Harold Garfinkel and has become a favorite tool in teaching sociology and psychology students about the strength of social norms and social conformity.

Breaching experiments are planned and deliberate breaks of a commonly accepted social norm. The researcher or the student, after performing the break, observes and records the reactions of the people who witnessed the break. The reaction to the breach is the crucial point of the experiment. If a breach is done correctly and the social norm is compromised, the reaction that people exhibit is the mechanism by which they try to make sense of the odd behavior or how they combat the behavior. Lighthearted breaches can induce laughter, confusion, and curiosity. More serious breaches can actually cause anxiety and anger.

In order to demonstrate the concept of the breaching experiment, Garfinkel famously instructed his sociology students to act as lodgers when they went home to their parents. Students were excessively polite to their parents, asked permission to use the restroom, and pretended to be ignorant of the comings and goings of the household. Parents were reported to be distraught and generally bewildered, some were even angry at their children’s behavior.

Although breaching experiments essentially break the rules of society, they do not make a traumatic mark on the witnesses. The reactions that they exhibit are part of a repairing process. Unconsciously, the witnesses rationalize the breach in order to maintain the sense of a stable social order. As easily as the social norm is broken, it is repairable. It is this precariousness and maintainability of social reality that Garfinkel highlights. The breaching experiment also tests what behavior is accepted as a social norm. Since social norms are culturally dependent a breach done successfully in one country may not have any effect in another.

Breaching experiments can be easily conducted by anyone with a healthy curiosity in the social psychological workings of society. Breaches are characteristically low budget and do not require much time and planning to carry out. Popular examples of breaching experiments have been to stand backwards in the elevator, negotiating the price of food at the grocery store, starting a conversation at a public bathroom, and ordering something not on the menu of a restaurant. The first step in conducting a breaching experiment is to identify a social norm to break.

It is important to not confuse breaching experiments with crimes. Although they both work under the concept of breaking social norms, proper breaches are harmless and generally good-natured. They are commonly aimed at etiquette norms concerning how one should act in public.

Breaching experiments are an appropriate and fun way for teachers and professors to get their students involved with social and psychological theories and concepts. The methodology of the breaching experiment may be simple and basic, but it teaches a rich lesson about social norms, social order, and the unwritten rules of society that people take for granted.

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Posted in:Social Sciences ⋅ Tagged:Consciousness, Psychology, Social psychology, Social Sciences, Sociology

Ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkle pioneered the use of what he called “breaching experiments” designed to break the rules of unstated social rôles as a way of studying them.

Here are a few examples of breaching experiments I’ve found here-and-there:

  • “One example is volunteering to pay more than the posted price for an item. Another is shopping from others’ carts in a grocery store. The taken-for-granted routine is that once you have placed an item in your cart, it belongs to you. The students who performed this ‘breach’ matter-of-factly took items from the carts of others. When questioned, they responded simply that the item in the cart had been more convenient to reach than the one on the shelf. When assumptions are breached, people look for a ‘reasonable’ explanation — something that reaffirms the underlying assumptions. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that was my cart’ is an example of a reasonable explanation… But to act as if there is nothing wrong with doing so confuses the other person and makes her or him question, just for a moment, the reality of the situation.”
  • “[A] student cheerfully asked a McDonald’s clerk for a Whopper, a menu item at rival Burger King. Rather than say, ‘We don’t carry that,’ the McDonald’s clerk asked the student to repeat the order. When the request for a Whopper was repeated, the clerk looked around to see if fellow employees had heard this ‘bizarre’ request. In other words, he searched for interactional corroboration of his reality that ‘everyone knows’ McDonald’s menu and anyone who doesn’t is obviously weird. Something as simple as a sideways glance and raised eyebrows from a co-worker can indicate that one’s reality is intact and that the momentary experience is merely an aberration that can be ignored. In this case, however, the students were particularly tenacious in testing reactions to breaching. After the first person breached the fast food order routine, another classmate stepped up and ordered a slice of pizza, which, of course, McDonald’s restaurants don’t serve.”
  • A game of tic-tac-toe where the experimenter would ask the subject to make the first move, then would erase that mark and move it to another square before making the responding move.
  • “[S]tanding very, very close to a person while otherwise maintaining an innocuous conversation… saying ‘hello’ at the termination of a conversation.”
  • “Another of the procedures Garfinkel developed was to send student experimenters into stores and restaurants where they were told to ‘mistake’ customers for salespersons and waiters…”
  • “In a now classic experiment, Garfinkel instructed a class of students to return to their parental homes and to act as lodgers. To the parents, the behaviour of their children was bizarre and disturbing, as the taken for granted (and unnoticed) conventions of how children behave in their home (and thus how parents behave to their children) were unravelled.”
  • “If you were to ‘tip’ your friends, parents or strangers for small kindnesses…”
  • “For example, you might try to haggle with the bus driver over the fare or eat with your fingers in a fancy restaurant and then carefully note the confused and angry responses around you.”

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