Ordinary journal sticks out in Springer world

May 26, 2000|By Emily Eakin | Emily Eakin,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Imagine a Martian anthropologist coming to Earth, reading the tabloids, watching a couple of talk shows and taking in a few movies. He might well return to his planet persuaded that human beings are a freak race beset by murder, rape, incest, kinky sex and the like.

This is the scenario proposed by Scott Schaffer, a sociologist at California State University at Fullerton, as a rationale for his Journal of Mundane Behavior, a new scholarly periodical devoted to the banal aspects of everyday life.

Schaffer and a co-editor started the journal in February to counter not only the trend toward sensational news stories but also what they call an unhealthy fixation on the deviant in the social sciences. Rather than studying pornography stars or doomsday cults, they say, why not examine office workers or a suburban Sunday school?

The idea for the journal came from an essay two years ago in sociological theory by Wayne Brekhus, a sociologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Though the humdrum characterizes the bulk of our social experience, Brekhus wrote, sociologists disproportionately favor the outlandish. The result, he argued, is group stereotyping: a tendency to equate, say, gang life with poor urban African-Americans, punk rockers with youth culture, or drag queens with homosexual culture generally. "Although there are many deviance journals to explicitly analyze socially unusual behavior," he lamented, "there is no Journal of Mundane Behavior to explicitly analyze conformity."

After reading Brekhus' essay, Schaffer and his Fullerton colleague Myron Orleans decided there should be such a journal.

Available only online at www.mundanebehavior.org, the journal's inaugural issue features articles on the social implications of male facial hair, the function of casual conversation ("plain talk") in Israeli culture and Japanese elevator etiquette.

In the last of these, Terry Caesar, a professor at Mukogawa Women's University, ponders why Japanese are uncharacteristically friendly in elevators. His conclusion: The close quarters and fleeting duration of the ride encourage passengers to deviate from the rigid social scripts that govern Japanese public life.

"Most of us don't live Jerry Springer lives," Schaffer observes in the journal's introductory essay. "The editors here think that this vast amount of energy, effort and in some cases sheer drudgery deserves some attention."

Yet even the journal's creators admit that the study of the everyday is not, well, so abnormal after all. "There is a long-term foundation for studying everyday life," Orleans concedes.

He cites the groundbreaking work of Erving Goffmann, whose "Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" (1959) encouraged researchers to use natural settings and observational research. While Goffmann's own study of life inside a psychiatric hospital did not take the "normal" as a subject, his naturalistic approach ended up destigmatizing madness by portraying the institution from the inmates' point of view.

More recently, sociologists have applied some of Goffmann's techniques to investigate the largely unconscious verbal and nonverbal conventions of everyday social interactions. Even seemingly banal exchanges -- with the grocery-store cashier, the mail carrier or a passing stranger -- yield insights into how human social life is organized, they say.

"The attention to everyday life in American sociology has surely increased over the past decade," says Mitchell Duneier, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

When Duneier and a colleague analyzed encounters between black panhandlers and middle-class white female pedestrians, they learned something about what causes mistrust in social situations. The women were not only upset by the words the panhandlers used ("Hey pretty" or "I love you, baby") but also by the silences between words and by speech patterns that disregarded the tacit conventions of small talk.

Despite this surge of interest in conversational minutiae, however, the editors of the Journal of Mundane Behavior insist that the sociology of everyday life remains a minor current in the field. "Students are drawn more to study problem areas so they can sell their skills to the government and education," he says. "We're supposed to fix social problems; we're social repairmen."

One objective of the Journal of Mundane Behavior is to convince aspiring sociologists that one can study everyday life and still be a social repairman.

"I've worked in prisons, and people tend to speak of the compelling quality of drugs and crime to account for recidivism," Orleans says. "But it's difficult for former prisoners to conduct themselves in the mundane world. You want to help people recover the ordinary, and perhaps we can be of use to those people."

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