The Atlantic has featured the work of an American sociology postgrad, Esther Kim, who rode Greyhound buses for two years. Kim’s ethnographic research focuses on how passengers adhere to unspoken rules of public behaviour: remain quiet, don’t make eye contact, and don’t sit next to undesirable people who are “crazy”, “smelly”, overweight or loud. The article discusses Kim’s application of Erving Goffman’s theory of symbolic interactionism. This is a framework to understand the way in which people convey social meaning through verbal or unspoken visual cues or rituals. In this case, by positioning one’s body so as to exude a message of “don’t talk to me”, Greyhound passengers actively try to create a measure of privacy for themselves within a confined public space. People who break these unspoken social norms of behaviour are confronted by other passengers. This short article does not focus on a critique of what makes these so-called undesirable companions, but I hope the published journal article in Symbolic Interaction will take this up.

Kim’s work studies this form of long-distance public transportation as a place for social isolation. The management of public space is interesting to understand, because it is a facet of everyday life that often goes on unexamined.  Our behaviour in public spaces rests on unspoken assumptions and interpersonal policing of social norms that are not enshrined formally by law. Most of us learn the rules for public behaviour at a young age and we don’t necessarily question why these rules exist or their social consequences. In the case of Kim’s work, social isolation leads to disengagement with others.

Via: The Atlantic.

Hunter S. Thompson Instructs Us on the Correct way to Write a Job Application

Below is Hunter S. Thompson’s 1958 cover letter for a newspaper job with the Vancouver Sun. I can’t tell you the many ways in which I love every single line. It is an iridescent example of  breaking the social norms of job applications on every level. Thompson’s application letter shows a lack of regard for his prospective employer. Thompson says he hasn’t bothered to read the newspaper to which he is applying. He positions himself as the authority with power, when usually the relationship to a prospective employer is constructed the other way. Rather than deferring to his would-be boss, Thompson ‘offers his services’. He is honest about his megalomania, which was the cause of his abysmal relationship with his past employer. He promises to break rules should he be hired. He signals his disdain for the profession of journalism. This is my favourite line: 

I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham.

I’ve always wondered how I could best reference Marquis de Sade in a job application. Now I know the way. Read the rest for yourself. It is pure Thompson gold. I love this letter as an example for inverting the mundane experience of cover letter writing.

Vancouver Sun  

TO JACK SCOTT, VANCOUVER SUN  

October 1, 1958 57 Perry Street New York City  

Sir,  

I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services.  Since I haven’t seen a copy of the “new” Sun yet, I’ll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.  

By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.  

I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m “not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.” (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)  

Nothing beats having good references.  

Of course if you asked some of the other people I’ve worked for, you’d get a different set of answers.

If you’re interested enough to answer this letter, I’ll be glad to furnish you with a list of references — including the lad I work for now.  

The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It’s a year old, however, and I’ve changed a bit since it was written. I’ve taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.  

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.  

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.  

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.  

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.  

It’s a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I’d enjoy the trip.  

If you think you can use me, drop me a line.  

If not, good luck anyway.  

Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson

Source: The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (The Fear and Loathing Letters, Vol. 1). Boing Boing via @quackademic.

Here’s a nice little post about rethinking homelessness in Toronto Canada by Daniel Little. Given my interest in the sociology of the mundane, the title obviously caught my eye. Little’s photograph above depicts a lone homeless person asleep on the street. This may be a sight so routine to some people living in large cities that they do not stop to think about how their experience shapes their understanding of homelessness. Little muses over how a social worker, a street activist, or a policeman might interpret the scene. It’s especially interesting to consider how social activists from different causes accommodate homeless people in Toronto. Little spoke to two young homeless men in their 20s (given the pseudonyms G1 and G2):

G1 said that he sleeps there too sometimes. I asked why not in the park. He says because Mayor Ford has ordered that people be ticketed for sleeping in the park. He himself has been banned from City Hall grounds because of panhandling. And if you go near the Marriott entrance just down the block, Marriott security make you move. I asked why they don’t choose more secluded spots. G2 says you need to sleep near a vent for the warmth. The good secluded spots are taken. Sometimes these two guys find a spot under a structure down the street.

I ask about Occupy Toronto. G1 is enthusiastic. He says he was welcomed into the biggest tent, the Communist tent, and slept there while Occupy was going on. It was a 12-person tent. But the guys say the demonstration that I heard yesterday wasn’t Occupy, it was a demo about Syria. G1 says, why demonstrate against Syria when people here are suffering?

I ask if it is safe sleeping on the street. G1 says he’d been robbed recently. The thief ripped his inside pocket out and took a bag with 35 cents, a tooth brush and toothpaste. G1 says indignantly, “You’re going to rob a man for his toothpaste?” They say people have been killed down the street a ways.

I ask about the city shelters. Neither of them wanted to go there: they refer to bedbugs, diseases, and seriously crazy people who might hurt you.

Read the rest via the link.

Currently being haunted by my own writing… Duncan Watts wrote a wonderful piece on the myth of common sense for Freakonomics.com. Here’s part of what I wrote about that last year:

—-

What resonated most for me [about Watts’ argument] was the challenge that sociology faces in making our public contribution valued. Watts points out that sociologists deal with everyday social experiences that are familiar to many people – such as family, gender, social networks, fame and success, popular culture and so on. Due to the familiarity of these topics, most people think they can explain sociological phenomena using their common sense. Watts argues that common sense is problematic because the people we have around us have similar worldviews and this does not necessarily make informal observations valid. The problem with sociology is that unlike other sciences, such as physics or mathematics, sociologists do not offer up concrete answers or predictions…

Nevertheless, Duncan includes some great examples about the strengths of sociology being its methodological tools, which provide a way to understand the complexity of social behaviour and social change. Duncan writes:

"Clearly we’re a long way from a world in which cause and effect in social and economic systems can be established with the level of certainty we’ve come to expect from the physical sciences. In fact, the world of human behavior is sufficiently complicated and unpredictable that no matter how long or hard we try, we will always be stuck with some level of uncertainty, in which case leaders will have to do what they’ve always done and make the best decisions they can under the circumstances.

It sounds like a lot of effort for an uncertain payoff, but curing cancer has also proven to be an enormously complex undertaking, far more resistant to medical science than was once thought, yet no one is throwing up their hands on that one. It is time to apply the same admirable resolve to understand the world—no matter how long it takes—that we display in our struggles to address the important problems of physical and medical science to social problems as well”.

—-

Duncan’s words remain all too relevant for those of us working outside academia. Proving sociology’s relevance in the face of ‘common sense’ is no easy feat.

Sociology, of course, has its own conflicted history with common sense. For almost as long as it has existed, that is, sociology has had to confront the criticism that it has “discovered” little that an intelligent person couldn’t have figured out on his or her own.

Duncan Watts: Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer.

Via: Making Sociology Relevant When Common Sense Isn’t Enough « The Other Sociologist

These are two of my favourite protest signs from the Funny or Die post celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender human rights justice in the USA. The first one elevates what heterosexual people take to be routine (“spend time with my family”) and mundane (“buy milk”) as well what is taken for granted: “be treated equally”.


The second one points out how the power behind the fundamentalist Christian reading of the bible can be simultaneously: ridiculous, out-dated and taken out of context. Fundamentalists often defend the exclusive sanctity of heterosexual marriage by quoting the bible. This sign reads:

We can quote the bible too: A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21.)


The other photos are also amusing; I just love the sociological impact of these two.

Images source: Funny or Die (originally from Happy Place).

Prelude to a Sociology of Tattooing: The First Tattoo… Or is it?

I’m about to launch my next theme in the sociology of the mundane. Thought I would preface it with what was at first thought to be one of the oldest evidence of tattooing. The marks in the photo above were found on Otzi The Iceman’s back. Ötzti was found in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps bordering Italy and Austria. Ötzti is Europe’s oldest 'naturally' preserved mummy. He lived over 5,000 years a go.

Mike, a business owner and blogger on Quarter Year got Ötzti’s marks as a tattoo:

Carl Zimmer had bad news for Mike: “the New York Times notes that the marks on Otzi’s back may have actually been acupuncture rather than some kind of display”.

No matter, it’s still good, it’s still good.

Photo credits

Blogger Lauren Felton took this photograph of a teapot. This was a way for her to rethink ‘the mundane’. She wrote in Literary Lens in 2009:

The subject of photographing the mundane reminded me of Irving Penn and his idea that “photographing cake can be art,” speaking to the way we photograph images rather than what we photograph. An artist can capture anything and make it worthwhile or beautiful, regardless of whether they are photographing some sort of decisive moment or a simple piece of cake.

I like it - the mundane is beautiful. High-res

Blogger Lauren Felton took this photograph of a teapot. This was a way for her to rethink ‘the mundane’. She wrote in Literary Lens in 2009:

The subject of photographing the mundane reminded me of Irving Penn and his idea that “photographing cake can be art,” speaking to the way we photograph images rather than what we photograph. An artist can capture anything and make it worthwhile or beautiful, regardless of whether they are photographing some sort of decisive moment or a simple piece of cake.

I like it - the mundane is beautiful.

Sociology of the Mundane

Part of my Tumblr blog will be used to pick up where the wonderful Journal of Mundane Behaviour left off. This journal took its name from sociologist Wayne Brekhus, who argued that sociologists were overly concerned with deeply political issues, but that we spend little effort on the everyday matters that are often dismissed as trivial, such as humour, friendship, watching TV, and even the boring aspects of everyday sex. Brekhus writes:

The unmarked generally remains unnamed and unaccented even in social research. … Investigations of social life often begin with that which is already visible and named because of its ‘exoticness’ or its heavily articulated moral and political significance. Although there are many deviance journals to analyze socially unusual behavior there is no Journal of Mundane Behavior to explicitly analyze conformity.


The editors of the Journal of Mundane Behaviour picked up Brekhus’ phrase and dedicated their sociological inquiry to routine pastimes, frivolous habits and everything that society generally classifies as unremarkable. Their journal shed critical light on everyday rituals that might otherwise be considered dull and not worthy of scientific attention. They published papers on riding in elevators, shaving, applying for jobs, the cultural appeal of trashy TV shows, shopping, superstitions, the meaning accorded to The Beatles’ song lyrics, thanking God in sports speeches, shopping, going on holidays, the use of calendars, the way Japanese women walk, the art of ‘bullshitting’, wedding rings, cinema, and even the use of toilets. The editors write:

All around us are ordinary phenomena that can astound us if only we attend to them with the seriousness they do not typically receive: letters and letter-writing, street scenes, routine family life, artistic and cinematic depictions of how we live our lives, everyday work and commercial situations, sociable occasions, nonprofessional sports activities, transportation contexts, venues of legal and political action, viewing televised entertainment, consuming information from various media, and so on. The study of the extreme, outlandish, and “profane” aspects of late 20th century existence has been well-developed and has given rise to many useful theoretical and research tools. Here, we want to turn these analytic tools to the level of everyday life, to examine in microscopic and graphic detail the more mundane, habitual, and quotidian aspects of our existence - including how we define what is “mundane”. These unnoticed, unmarked aspects of our lives are often the most political and yet depoliticized, and it is one of the goals of this journal to expose these processes.

Sadly, this journal folded in 2005. I miss it. There is a place in sociology for the critical study of things that are common, unexciting or ‘humdrum’ (otherwise known as ‘blah’ and ‘meh’), as well as the fun, silly and irreverent aspects of social life. I believe that place is Tumblr.

I will begin my series on The Sociology of the Mundane by looking at some of my favourite animated shows, focusing mostly on cartoons from the 1990s. The sociological significance of this topic will become clearer as I present some clips and case studies of different shows, building up to a broader study of the sociology of humour.

Forthcoming posts on The Sociology of the Mundane will include: blogging, tattoos, kissing, rap videos, horror movies, hetero fangirls, food and whatever I feel like I wanna do, gosh!

Enjoy and let me know what you think. If anyone in Tumblr Land is doing research that might fall into the rubric of the mundane, please get in touch and let us know!

Peruse through my Sociology of the Mundane series by clicking here.

Gif source.