Breaching Experiments

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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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)