February 7, 2015

Sociological experiment

The Apple Store—a place where middle class civilians congregate to peruse and purchase the most exalted consumer electronics. The Lehigh Valley Mall hosts one of these stores, and within it, a social-norm-breech experiment was conducted on February 7th 2015 at 3:30pm Eastern Time.

Preliminarily and throughout the experiment, the store retained a familiar ambiance of cleanliness and attention to detail. Every item had its place and employees were stationed systematically to maintain an efficient commercial attitude towards customer service. All employees wore the same uniform: A t-shirt and white necklace. One employee stood at the entrance to greet potential buyers and answer any questions about Apple products. Families, couples, and young individuals clustered around devices on display. They interacted with the technology in a manner that attested to prior experience with the devices. Many customers could be overheard asking employees about pricing, availability, and differences between devices. Other customers inquired about technical difficulties.

Dan, the actor in this experiment, entered the Apple Store dressed to match other customers. He wore clothes that were casual yet hinted at higher-class status, e.g. a collared button down shirt. Upon entering the store, Dan was approached by an employee, Lucas, who immediately and unknowingly assumed the responsibility of the test subject. Dan utilized his Israeli accent and asked questions about Apple products as if he had no idea what they were or how they functioned.

It is normative of the middle class to be familiar with this expensive technology. The juxtaposition of being well dressed in an Apple store yet not knowing anything about the products breached a social expectation. Lucas had to remain professional and answer Dan’s questions due to the social contract of employee-customer relations. Lucas, when interviewed after the experiment, noted that he did feel strange about the situation yet rationalized Dan’s naivety because of his foreign accent. This is an example of sociologist Jodi O’Briens concept of secondary elaboration.1

Lucas’s rationalization compelled him to answer Dan’s questions in a way that did not assume total naivety of the subject. When asked What is this iPhone?” Lucas proceeded to answer using terms such as smartphone, digital phone, texts, and apps. Lucas assumed that even if Dan was unaware of Apple technology he would still know what these terms meant. Dan continued with What is an app?” and received an answer with even more jargon, including terms such as programming code and software package. This demonstrates how breaking down the social normative understandings of middle class technical and consumer knowledge takes ample time—it did not immediately register with the employee that someone might deviate. Once Lucas understood that Dan was legitimately unknowledgeable of Apple products, Lucas attempted to repair the breach by asserting the ideologies of the Apple company, thus imposing certain cultural capital upon Dan. To accomplish this, Lucas dropped phrases such as iPhones are the best phones on the market.”

Until this moment, other customers throughout the store had not been involved in the contained social breach between Dan and Lucas. The shift in passive bystander behavior occurred when Dan’s breach changed from verbal to physical. When Dan assumed that the iPhone camera hole was the microphone and began to talk to the top of the phone, observers looked puzzled. Observers then searched for interactional corroboration2 among their parties and surrounding parties. When Dan had the spotlit attention of surrounding customers, he brought Lucas down to his level by asking a question Lucas could not answer: What is the meaning of the apple?”

According to O’Brien, Humans are meaning makers.”3 Lucas had failed to recognize the meaning of the company he was representing and resorted to Google for the answer. Once on the topic of Google, Dan asked Lucas how he was accessing such a large database of knowledge. Lucas explained that it was accessible through Safari. It was implied that Dan knew Safari to be the branded browser rather than the African expedition.

Lucas stepped off the social class ladder with the next question thrown at him by Dan: What is this Guinness Bar? Can I get drink?” Lucas started to question reality and wonder whether Dan was acting with comedic intent. He maintained professionalism and explained the Genius Bar, yet air quoted the word genius. In Lucas’s transference of cultural capital, he took liberties in degrading his fellow associates which effectively took down the curtain between Apple’s ostensible air of high class and Dan’s representational facade of lower class.

The previously-described occurrences played out over the course of around twenty minutes. The experiment concluded after this time and Lucas was approached and interviewed about his experience. He admitted that he started to question the reality of the situation about ten minutes into the encounter. He said that Dan’s dress did not affect initial judgement and treatment of Dan as a customer, however, had Dan been in his sixties or older, Lucas would have attempted to speak in a more simple manner. The social norm of assumed knowledge in economic class levels functions as a trapeze net. If an encounter between individuals of similar social class fails to entertain the knowledge of either party, there is certain assumed knowledge to fall back on. In this case, Lucas recognized that Dan did not know about Apple products and explained the products using vocabulary he assumed persons of his similar social class would know. A consequence of these trapeze nets is that they promote separatism. A person of lower class has less to fall back on in terms of cultural capital.

An interesting aspect of this experiment was the age Lucas mentioned at which he would simplify the communication between employee and customer—the visible appearance of sixty years or older. From this derives the notion of cultural capital as a bell curve. Experience is gained in adolescence and lost in seniority. Is the Apple Store sustaining the ideologies of the middle class by assuming prior knowledge of its customers? Employees like Lucas certainly seem to be doing so, however, at certain points he took his own liberties in explanation and deviated momentarily from the norm. All it took was the initiative provided by Dan—a catalyst for social change.

Written for a college class.

  1. O’Brien, Jodi. Building and Breaching Reality.” The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings on Social Interaction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006. 338-58. Print.↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

  3. Ibid.↩︎


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