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Breaching Experiment: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 What is a Breaching…
  • 1:43 Breaching Experiment as a Tool
  • 2:38 Conducting a Breaching…
  • 4:23 Breaching Experiment Examples
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terry Haru

Terry has worked in mental health and has taught college social science courses. He has a doctorate in sociology and a master’s degree in counseling.

In this lesson, you will learn what a breaching experiment is, why it is an important research tool, and how it is done. The lesson also offers examples of social situations in which this research tool is often used.

What Is a Breaching Experiment?

Let's say you board a bus that is nearly empty, with only a few strangers seated separately throughout the bus. Where do you sit? If you're like virtually everyone else, you'll find an open seat not too close to the other passengers. Why would you do this? It's not illegal to sit next to one of them, and no one formally taught you not to sit next to someone if the bus is nearly empty. Yet you did learn not to do this.

You know that if you sat next to one of them you will breach, or violate, a common taken-for-granted understanding of expected behavior, and in all likelihood, will make the person you sit next to feel uncomfortable.

A breaching experiment is an activity used in social science to breach or violate common, taken-for-granted understandings and practices of everyday life to better understand it.

Many social scientists believe that by studying people's verbal and nonverbal reactions to breaching experiments, they can shed light on how people construct and maintain the orderliness of their everyday life. After all, people usually take this for granted and don't question or become conscious of it until someone disrupts it.

What would happen if you were in a public restroom and started a conversation with a stranger in the adjoining stall? What if you tried to negotiate the prices of the products you wanted to buy with a store cashier? Would people react with bewilderment, irritation, confusion, surprise, or anger? Any reaction tells us something about the importance and power of taken-for-granted expectations and sheds light on how they regulate and give meaning to everyday behavior.

An Important Research Tool

In the 1950s, sociologist Harold Garfinkle developed the breaching experiment as part of an overall research strategy he called ethnomethodology. It's a way of studying the everyday, commonsense, mundane, and small units of social behavior in contrast to larger social structures, systems, and processes of key social phenomena, such as trends, large scale conflict, impact of technology on society, etc.

Garfinkle believed social scientists paid insufficient attention to small-scale levels of analysis, to the importance of everyday life, and to how people construct the orderliness of their everyday lives to navigate their way through it. The use of the breaching experiment was one way to compensate for this lack of attention to what he believed was a fruitful body of barely tapped and poorly understood social phenomena.

Conducting a Breaching Experiment

Social scientists aren't the only ones who use breaching experiments. In fact, they are one of the most popular assignments in many social science college courses because they can bridge the gap between what students learn in the classroom and their everyday lives.

Let's examine how college instructors often ask their students to do this exercise. The basic steps are:

1) Identify the social norm being breached (including the public circumstance in which they will do it and the way it will be breached).

2) Form small groups (pairs at a minimum) so that some can conduct the breach while others can observe and document the experiment.

3) Hypothesize (predict) how the public will react to the breach.

4) Conduct the breach experiment multiple times to collect a body of data (some will come from observing and interviewing those directly affected by the breach, while some will come from observing and interviewing any witnesses to the breach).

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