We live our lives according to rules. Most of us are not even aware of this fact for the rules of our society - the norms and mores and cultural traditions - have surrounded us since our birth so that we have come to see them as inevitable and even inviolable. They are almost as necessary to our well-being as the air around us, but they are at the same time as invisible as the air. Of course, like all general statements, this one can be amended and refined: Most of us living in the United States are aware of the fact that there are laws prohibiting certain kinds of behavior. Laws are formal and almost always written forms of norms - which are both subjective models of behavior or belief that should be followed by members of a particular group as well as objective summaries of average (for a given group) behaviors or beliefs. Because of their formality, laws are generally known and understood by all of the members of a group: If an American murders someone then he or she will (in most cases) quickly understand that he or she has broken a norm of the group by being arresting and tried.
However, most norms are not spelled out formally with specific sanctions as is true in the legal system: In the case of such typical, informally proscribed patterns of behavior and belief we may only be aware of social norms when we break them - either intentionally or not. A man who carries a purse, anyone who in 2003 wears an anti-war button, a woman who asks for equal pay for equal work - each of these will find that he or she has broken one of the unspoken but powerful codes of behavior (or norms) for Americans in the early 21st century and will experience some form of negative sanction as a result. The strength of this negative reaction will be commensurate with how important the norm is that is broken and the presence or absence of subcultural norms. Wearing an anti-war button is relatively acceptable on a college campus, absolutely acceptable in a Quaker meetinghouse, and might result in harm to oneself at an NRA meeting. Norms exist for society as a whole, but in a society as large and as diverse as the United States, different groups will subscribe to different norms to a greater or lesser degree. Members of certain groups may even refuse entirely to acknowledge the importance of some norms at all (vegetarians refuse to acknowledge the American norm that dictates that meat is food) while still maintaining membership in the group. Because so many norms exist to govern the beliefs and behaviors of the members of a society, an individual may violate some of them at any given time without losing his or her standing in or identity with that group.
This paper describes an intentional breaching of norms of behavior for American adults and the reactions that this minor breach of norms for behavior. The particular behavior was for a small group of students to go to a nearby chopping mall (the Moreno Valley mall) and to play with some legos on the floor. This behavior breached a number of social norms (while keeping intact a number of other ones). The first norm that was broken was that adults do not sit on the ground in public (unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as being in a long, slow-moving line, being in a place in which all of the chairs are taken, or being sick). Another norm that was broken (and this was probably the most serious one) was that adults are not supposed to play with children's toys (unless they are playing with a child). It is permissible in American culture for adults to engage in some forms of play, such as organized sports (being on an intramural soccer team, for example) or semi-organized sports, such as a pick-up basketball game at a gym. It is also permissible for adults to perform some activities that are similar to children's playing, such as painting or working in clay, but such activities have to be pursued either privately or in a sanctioned arena such as a museum. But it is not the norm for adults without children to play with toys in public.
A third norm that was broken was the fact that while malls tout themselves as places to go and hang out and have fun with one's friends, in fact they are commercial spaces. People who use such spaces for activities that do not contribute to the financial gain of the storeowners and the mall managers are breaking a norm (although this is one of those norms that is certainly not universally held: Environmentalists would see this behavior as following the norm of not buying things that one does not need and so thereby not using up resources that one doesn't need.
Finally, the action undertaken for this experiment breached norms about how social groups should be constituted: Mixed-race, mixed-sex groups are not the norm for American society (even if for many they are the ideal) and so the fact that a group of people were clearly using untraditional rules to form their group was also a breach of norms.
Even as we broke a number of social conventions with our behavior, we upheld a number of more important norms: We wore clothing appropriate to our gender, class and generation, we were not violent, we spoke English, we did not attempt to "convert" others to our norm-breaking behavior.
The reactions that the group received to our intentionally broken norms were much as we expected them to be. Most of the reactions that we got came in the form of being stared at. Nearly everyone who walked by us stared at us, although they usually looked away again fairly quickly. (Their own behavior in this regard was certainly norm-governed: We have all been taught not to stare at people who are acting oddly, mostly because they may be disabled in some way and so to stare at them would be to make implicit comments about their lack of fitting in.)
People of different ages and races and both sexes seemed equally inclined to stare at us: This implies that each of them understand that we were violating social norms. (It also demonstrates the fact that each of us was violating social norms that are believed in across gender, race, age and class lines.
However, while everyone stared at us, there were differences in how much time and attention people spent on us. Teenagers were the most likely to stare at us for a long time: Perhaps they were envious of our being able to break rules that they themselves had so recently been immune too. Teenagers (for all the talk of teenage rebellion) often want very desperately to fit in, even though abiding by all of the norms has its own costs.
Along these same lines, older white men were the most likely to smile at us as if they recognized a sense of kindred spirit in us. While white men are certainly privileged in our society, they are also constrained by it, and our ability to throw off rules may well have appealed to those who were least likely to throw off social rules in their own lives.
Finally, we noticed that young children (under the age of about eight) pointed to us and tried to come over to join in playing with us. They seemed to understand that playing on the floor with Legos was a perfectly acceptable thing to do for them and had not yet understood that at some point in their lives (and in the lives of others) such behavior would be denied to them.
A security guard put an end to the experiment by telling us that we had to play at a table: This was an interesting acknowledgement that we had the right to break some social norms (i.e. playing in public) as long as we abided by others (i.e. not sitting on the ground).
This breaking of social rules was actually quite a bit of fun. Although we were treated as odd by most of those who walked by us, this level of negative sanctioning didn't feel punitive. There were a number of reasons for this. The first, most important one was that we were not breaking rules on our own: We had a group of our own with the norm "do well on this assignment." It is always easier to break one rule when another, more important one contradicts it (i.e. It is more important to do well in a college class than to care about strangers' staring at one), especially if one is not alone. A similar experiment done by oneself would have been much harder alone - even though one would still know that it was for a class.