“What are you doing?”
“No, really. What are you doing?”
“I’m. Doing. Nothing”.
While breaking social norms is always a fun and interesting way to get students to think sociologically about the world in which they live and generally take-for-granted, it’s not always something that’s easy to do / demonstrate in a safe and secure way.
People, for example, tend to get upset and unpredictable if you mess around with their normative expectations and while this, somewhat perversely, is precisely the effect you want to see and study it’s not always possible or desirable to take the risk.
Unless, of course, you get your students to “Do Nothing”.
While this, in my vast experience, is a suggestion most students are generally open and amenable to doing, there is a catch.
For this sociological experiment your students must actively “Do Nothing” for 10 – 15 minutes…
What You Need To Do…
When you think about it, “doing nothing” in a public place is actually very rare. People in such spaces are usually “doing something” (even if it’s just “hanging around” or “waiting for someone”). So what happens when you literally “Do Nothing” in public?
That’s what your students are going to discover in a simple sociological experiment that requires little or no preparation, costs nothing (except 10 minutes or so of your time) and can be carried-out anywhere there’s a reasonable level of foot traffic (such as a school or college grounds).
Keep in mind that this probably isn’t something you want to do out in the big wide world – such as a busy shopping mall – because you need to be able to observe and control the behaviour of your students. In this respect, the optimum place to create the experiment is in school or college grounds if you have reasonable access to such a space.
When you’ve chosen the space you’re going to use, get your students to chose somewhere where they can stand completely still. This should preferably be somewhere they don’t cause undue obstruction to people passing by (for reasons you can profitably discuss if you want when you debrief the experimenters).
Ask them to maintain complete stillness for around 10 – 15 minutes. The only exception to this rule is if anyone approaches them and asks them what they’re doing. They should always reply to any question with the phrase “I’m doing nothing” (again, the reason for this standard response is something you might want to discuss later in the context of experimental research methodology in terms of variable control).
For the purpose of the experiment it might be useful, if you can, to split your class into participants and observers. While the former are “doing nothing” it would be helpful for the later to record their observations about how passers-by behave when they see students “doing nothing” (take pictures of their facial expressions, make notes of what they say and so forth).
And if this process isn’t clear, perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to show it being done…
And After You’ve Done it…
Back in the classroom there are numerous opportunities to reference this simple experiment right across the Sociology Specification – from a simple introduction to norms and normative disruption, to the social construction of reality, research methodology (particularly but not exclusively, experiments – including Goffman’s breeching experiments), concepts of crime, deviance, conformity, social order and the like.
In terms of the latter, for example, an obvious question to ask is why might standing still and “doing nothing” be seen as deviant behaviour whereas if the students had been sitting down “doing nothing” it probably wouldn’t?
Halnon, Karen Bettez (2001) “The Sociology of Doing Nothing: A Model “Adopt a Stigma in a Public Place” Exercise”