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.
Here’s a nice little post about rethinking homelessness in Toronto Canada by Daniel Little. Given my interest in the sociology of the mundane, the title obviously caught my eye. Little’s photograph above depicts a lone homeless person asleep on the street. This may be a sight so routine to some people living in large cities that they do not stop to think about how their experience shapes their understanding of homelessness. Little muses over how a social worker, a street activist, or a policeman might interpret the scene. It’s especially interesting to consider how social activists from different causes accommodate homeless people in Toronto. Little spoke to two young homeless men in their 20s (given the pseudonyms G1 and G2):
G1 said that he sleeps there too sometimes. I asked why not in the park. He says because Mayor Ford has ordered that people be ticketed for sleeping in the park. He himself has been banned from City Hall grounds because of panhandling. And if you go near the Marriott entrance just down the block, Marriott security make you move. I asked why they don’t choose more secluded spots. G2 says you need to sleep near a vent for the warmth. The good secluded spots are taken. Sometimes these two guys find a spot under a structure down the street.
I ask about Occupy Toronto. G1 is enthusiastic. He says he was welcomed into the biggest tent, the Communist tent, and slept there while Occupy was going on. It was a 12-person tent. But the guys say the demonstration that I heard yesterday wasn’t Occupy, it was a demo about Syria. G1 says, why demonstrate against Syria when people here are suffering?
I ask if it is safe sleeping on the street. G1 says he’d been robbed recently. The thief ripped his inside pocket out and took a bag with 35 cents, a tooth brush and toothpaste. G1 says indignantly, “You’re going to rob a man for his toothpaste?” They say people have been killed down the street a ways.
I ask about the city shelters. Neither of them wanted to go there: they refer to bedbugs, diseases, and seriously crazy people who might hurt you.
These are two of my favourite protest signs from the Funny or Die post celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender human rights justice in the USA. The first one elevates what heterosexual people take to be routine (“spend time with my family”) and mundane (“buy milk”) as well what is taken for granted: “be treated equally”.
The second one points out how the power behind the fundamentalist Christian reading of the bible can be simultaneously: ridiculous, out-dated and taken out of context. Fundamentalists often defend the exclusive sanctity of heterosexual marriage by quoting the bible. This sign reads:
We can quote the bible too: A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21.)
The other photos are also amusing; I just love the sociological impact of these two.
My Tumblr series on The Sociology of the Mundane will pick up where the wonderful Journal of Mundane Behaviour left off. This journal took its name from sociologist Wayne Brekhus, who argued that sociologists were overly concerned with deeply political issues, but that we spend little effort on the everyday matters that are often dismissed as trivial, such as humour, friendship, watching TV, and even the boring aspects of everyday sex. Brekhus writes: ‘The unmarked generally remains unnamed and unaccented even in social research.’