Sociology of Managing the Self in Public Spaces

The Atlantic has featured the work of an American sociology postgrad, Esther Kim, who rode Greyhound buses for two years. Kim’s ethnographic research focuses on how passengers adhere to unspoken rules of public behaviour: remain quiet, don’t make eye contact, and don’t sit next to undesirable people who are “crazy”, “smelly”, overweight or loud. The article discusses Kim’s application of Erving Goffman’s theory of symbolic interactionism. This is a framework to understand the way in which people convey social meaning through verbal or unspoken visual cues or rituals. In this case, by positioning one’s body so as to exude a message of “don’t talk to me”, Greyhound passengers actively try to create a measure of privacy for themselves within a confined public space. People who break these unspoken social norms of behaviour are confronted by other passengers.

Kim’s work studies this form of long-distance public transportation as a place for social isolation. The management of public space is interesting to understand, because it is a facet of everyday life that often goes on unexamined.  Our behaviour in public spaces rests on unspoken assumptions and interpersonal policing of social norms that are not enshrined formally by law. Most of us learn the rules for public behaviour at a young age and we don’t necessarily question why these rules exist or their social consequences. In the case of Kim’s work, social isolation leads to disengagement with others.

Via: The Atlantic.