Classroom Mores

Classroom Mores: Why It’s Easy to Deviate in College

My deviant act developed entirely by accident, which not only makes for a fun story to tell, but also reinforces how breaking even the smallest expectations is a form of deviance: One Tuesday in history class, I sat a few seats up from where I normally sit.

My intentions were in themselves fueled by ulterior motives (I wanted to sit closer to a classmate I found attractive), and I deviated further to keep my true intentions unknown. When the girl I normally sit in front of asked why I moved away, I did not want to reveal myself, so I instead said I wanted to switch things up for the day, maybe see if our teacher would notice.

That did it. My classmate grinned and had a great idea—we would all switch seats today! She changed seats, as did a couple others, and after they had all moved, everyone else moved as well until no one was sitting in their usual seats.

The reactions this incited were far from what I might have initially expected. First were the reactions from the students: One by one, as they came in, they stopped in the doorway and looked around, confused by what they saw. One person remarked that he thought he’d stepped into the wrong classroom till he recognized the people inside. Our teacher’s reaction was so contrary to our expectations it was almost disappointing: It took him nearly twenty minutes of class time to realize we had switched seats, and when he finally noticed, he asked, “What, did all of you decide to switch seats today?” Needless to say, we all laughed for quite a bit then.

The moral of the story is that deviance bears no fruit: I never did get to sit next to the guy I’d intended to sit beside the entire time. (Ironically, it’s because he was absent that day.)

It’s almost hard to imagine that secondary groups such as college classes can become as ingrained in their habits and expectations for an act like this to yield such drastic results, but such folkways can develop so deeply they in effect become classroom mores. In each of my classes this semester, after only the first two or three days, everyone kept to their own “assigned” seats. The only times when such norms were deviated from were when a student dropped the course and, after remaining empty numerous days, someone else claimed the new territory as their own.

The assignment asked us to intentionally commit a deviant act and then describe how the theories of deviance might apply under normal circumstances, but I was fortunate enough to deviate unintentionally, and that spontaneity allowed me to observe the natural progression and real-time illustration of many theories of deviance in a short period of time.

From a structural-functionalist approach, my deviance showed how much the students in my class value their chosen seats; it was also intended to function as a means to meeting new people and (hopefully) starting new relationships, but such latent functions were instead absent functions. One could also relate the instance to Merton’s strain theory by saying that although I accepted the goal of meeting a new person, I rejected the means of just introducing myself by deciding to be an innovator and move next to his usual seat instead. (That he decided to deviate and skip class that day, choosing instead to be a rebel rather than a conformant, is irrelevant.)

The symbolic-interactionist theories of deviance were especially evident, and even seemed to lead from one into another as the event progressed. Labeling theory even applies to the situation not once, but twice: My primary deviance was sitting in a different seat, and after having gone so far, I committed secondary deviance by concealing my intentions with an outright lie: I hadn’t changed seats to switch things up, but to sit closer to a specific person. However, when I labeled my switching seats as something fun to do, it was no longer deviance in the eyes of others. Speaking of those others specifically, my one classmate who knows me pretty well and took up the cry to have everyone change seats brings to mind the theory of differential association; furthermore, when she encouraged all the people she knew to join us, the circle of association spread even further. What clinched the deal was without a doubt a pristine example of control theory in action: Everyone had the opportunity to join us, and with no foreseeable negative consequences, all of them did so until the entire class was deviating.

In such a small-scale act of deviance as this, there was little room for social-conflict theories to take precedence, but without a doubt, larger acts could easily lead to such ends.

After this experience, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the importance of societal norms and how fast they can be crossed under the right circumstances. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that small secondary groups such as these can create their own respected mores, but it’s just as startling to imagine how quickly the group mind could be swayed into doing horrible acts far more terrible than just switching seats to sit closer to an attractive guy.

Class: SOC 210 Intro. to Sociology
Topic: Deviance
Assignment: Do something deviant (don’t get arrested) and write about it from a sociological perspective.
Grade: 125/125
Date: November, 2009

Comment: This is easily one of the strongest essays I’ve written in school. In fact, my teacher was so pleased by it that she tried to convince me to become a sociology major solely on account of this essay. Sad to say, she couldn’t convince me to do it.

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