Esther Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology who conducted a study on people who create a private space in a public setting, a behavior which she terms “nonsocial transient behavior.” Her findings are based on personal experiences riding Greyhound buses from 2009-’11 and gathering anecdotal data from passengers in keeping with the naturalistic ethnography methodology. She spoke to the News about the role of technology in creating behavior and the pitfalls of being a Yale sociologist.
Q What is naturalistic ethnography?
A Why I say it’s naturalistic is because we try to kind of blend in with the people whom we study. So ehtnograph, some people say it’s participant observation but it’s become kind of wider to mean interviews and asking interview-like questions to informants, but naturalistic ethnography is more just kind of hanging out. Like the “hang out” method.
Q Is there a particular reason why you chose the Greyhound, as opposed to the train or the plane, as the setting of your study?
A The frustrations of being a bus for a very long time in an enclosed space, where you can’t really move around much, those are the characteristics of how people create nonsocial spaces. So I would imagine that on an Amtrak, which is much roomier and people can walk up and down the train, it might be a similar setting, so someone might build this kind of nonsocial transient space around them; it could be the same. But I think what a lot of people have missed about my article is that you build the space around you. It could happen anywhere, in a large public space, such as the park, or a bookstore, or even in a classroom; you can be sitting among 400 other students, but if you are making that nonsocial space around you that’s what creates this nonsocial transient behavior.
Q Did you see any sort of hostility from any particular groups of people, such as younger people or women or children?
A I didn’t see any hostility, actually. This is all about civility in a really weird form. People are being civil to one another by completely avoiding them or pretending that people around them don’t exist. There isn’t much hostility or aggression going on in these spaces.
Q Do you think that technology has increased our need to privatize our social space?
A I haven’t read anything about this, but personally I do specifically remember back when I was living in Philadelphia when the iPod first came out, the first generation iPod and it was that standard white headphones. And I remember going to New York and everybody had them on in the subway and that was not common at all before. Now you get on the subway and you don’t really see that many people with headphones anymore so I guess it was that one time when the iPod became a really huge thing. But I think that did initiate that nonsocial transient behavior. If someone were to accidentally touch you or push you, people would react in a way like to be annoyed but now that you prefer this antisocial bubble around you and I would say that it is technology that initiated or ignited this type of behavior.
Q That sounds so sad.
A I think that’s what interesting to me about sociology. Some people who have picked up on the news media about that was written about my article, (it’s funny because they read the article about my article), and my article is actually not that long but then they were commenting on how this is so common sense or “I can get a Yale Ph.D. if she’s writing about stuff like this.” I feel like they were missing the point. There is this societal change that is more intruding, the fact that people are actually engaging in these nonactive modes of behavior. It is kind of sad but it’s not only sad because there are situations where you need to put your defenses up. So I don’t recommend that you should avoid other people or you shouldn’t because I think it depends on the situation.
Q You said you got reactions from readers who thought it was too simple a study and joked that they could all get a Ph.D.?
A I was thinking of writing a rebuttal short essay about this article’s reception to the public media because I think the way the original first article’s written on this article, it was listing the various ways to avoid strangers from a Yale sociologist. So immediately people were thinking, “Oh my gosh this Yale person,” which a lot of Americans kind of mythologize in a way. They think, “Those Yalies are rich snobby people and they’re going to to teach me how to avoid strangers on a bus, like I mean has a Yalie ever even been on a bus?” I think if I was connected to another university, like a third-tier university, it would not receive the same reaction that it did. So you say, “If I can make these common sense [findings] and I can get a Ph.D.,” I would say the first step would be to read the original article and that would maybe get you halfway through Yale’s door. But I think people were just going off on this article about my article.
That’s why it’s kind of tricky and I think that’s why sociologists get a lot of bad publicity because the only thing that gets picked up is whatever might seem interesting to the general public. But then there is a lot of science that goes behind it, like that’s why I keep emphasizing the systematic study part, it’s not just random observation but actually making sense of what’s going on.
Q Do you plan to expand on this study or do research in other settings?
A Right now I live in Beijing, and I’ll be here for the next two years. I’ve been here for a few months before, and what I notice is the way that people kind of flock towards white people, like Chinese people are very obsessed … they’re very fascinated by white people and I think regular Beijingers might see white people here and there, but then you have a lot of migrants who come from Beijing to visit the historic places in Beijing, and they’ll want to take pictures of white people. I would want to, if I were to extend on this research project, I would see how people actively engage, so it would be an active engagement, a social engagement. I think a lot of foreigners … a lot of white people are very disturbed that they’re being taken pictures of by random Chinese people or Chinese people on the subway will pick at your hair; they’ll want to touch it, and if there is some loose blonde hair on your sweater then they’ll want to take it. It’s really bizarre so this is a really weird form of active engagement. They’ll want you to be their friend, they’ll want you to teach them English, so I think that’s kind of interesting to see the flip side of active engagement with complete strangers.