The Laboratory on Wheels
My latest Slate column is up — a survey of the various psychology experiments that have been conducted on subway systems (particularly NYC’s) throughout the years.
Here’s a fragment:
Although subway studies had their heyday in the ’70s, they’re as old as public transit itself. The seminal urban sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Melanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided. “Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another.”
By 1971, Erving Goffman, in his book Relations in Public, was noting that a ritual of what he called “civil inattention” had taken hold on the subway as in other spheres of city life: We acknowledge another person’s presence, but not enough to make them “a target of special curiosity or design.” Or, as the authors of the essay “Subway Behavior,” (in the book People and Places: Sociology of the Familiar) put it, “subway behavior is regulated by certain societal rules and regulations that serve to protect personal rights and to sustain proper social distance between unacquainted people who are temporarily placed together in unfocused and focused interaction.”
What much subway psychology seeks to understand, however, is what holds these rules in place, and what happens when they are violated. In one of the most well-known studies, social psychologist Stanley Milgram had students spontaneously ask subway riders to give up their seats. As Thomas Blass recounts in The Man Who Shocked the World, this experiment arose from the seeming erosion of a subway norm. As Milgram’s mother-in-law had posed it to him: “Why don’t young people get up anymore in a bus or a subway train to give their seat to a gray-haired elderly woman?”
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 at 9:11 am and is filed under Etc., Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.