Together alone


Personal relationships in public places

Irvine, Calif., July 25, 2005 When sociologists Calvin Morrill and David Snow dispatched a research team to a local strip club, the last thing they expected to find were men at bar tables developing meaningful personal relationships with partially-clad dancers. But while examining social interactions in public places from strip clubs to softball fields, the UCI professors discovered that people enjoy emotional closeness with practical strangers.

The result of this research is in the forthcoming book edited by Morrill, Snow and Cindy White (University of Colorado) "Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places."

Morrill and Snow oversaw nine teams of researchers who examined social encounters in public settings -- a college recreation center, softball field, singles dances, fast food restaurants, city streets, bus stops, a post-divorce support group, bars and a strip club. Their goal was to investigate the depth and meaning of these relationships, often dismissed as passing or uneventful encounters.

"Many people believe American public places are bereft of meaningful social relationships and reflect community decline," said Morrill, professor and chair of the UCI Department of Sociology. "Our research challenges this view. Public spaces are not only places of passing strangers; they are also places where people can and do find real connections. Some of these are fleeting, while others evolve into more enduring relationships."

In this work, Morrill and Snow have expanded what constitutes a personal relationship by taking a fresh look at two types of encounters: anchored and fleeting. Anchored relationships develop over time through recurring interactions between people, but are tied to a particular place or a narrow range of activities that rarely spill over into private settings like the household. Fleeting relationships are one-time occurrences, where an emotional connection -- sometimes intense -- is shared in a compressed period of time, such as with the talkative person sitting in the next seat on an airplane.

One researcher examined anchored relationships among fans following an amateur men's softball team where, over the course of the season, ties between the fans strengthened and began taking on characteristics commonly associated with relatives or close friends. Fans shared food and blankets, confided intimate feelings and personal information, and trusted each other to watch each other's children -- even though in some cases they didn't know the others' last names or interact beyond the bleachers.

"People can invest enormous amounts of energy into anchored relationships, and under some conditions these relationships can compete with and even replace people's relationships with family members, friends or co-workers," Snow said.

In strip clubs where clients pay for table dances from erotic dancers, a research team found that dancers, through their costumes and conversation, created fictive fleeting relationships. The more successful dancers were not necessarily those who were most attractive or the sexiest, but those who recognized the importance of establishing the semblance of a relationship during their interactions with customers. This research team found that customers were as much motivated by simulated social intimacy as by a dancer's sexuality.

"Some people can become quite attached to a fleeting relational partner for momentary emotional and cognitive support, without an extended commitment," Morrill said.

According to Morrill and Snow, the type of place itself can influence whether people highlight or diminish aspects of their identities, which in turn can influence the possibilities for them to create relationships. Public places such as banks, libraries and airplanes are more restrictive of social behavior, while others such as parks, streets and bus stops are less restrictive; and quasi-public places such as restaurants, bars, recreation centers and public transportation are in between.

One team looked at how teenagers use public spaces for "hanging out." Public hangouts provided a little island of escape for teens, suspending the routines of their adult-controlled everyday life. Rather than encouraging delinquent behavior as is often thought by adults, hanging out was a core activity allowing teens to connect with others. It is where teenagers constructed and maintained personal relationships, acted out their gender identities, developed competencies in romantic relationships. But it is also where teens could show resistance to adults and society, because usually the places where teens often hang out -- fast food restaurants, shopping malls, bus stations, sidewalks -- have some type of restrictions or curfew controlled by adult authority figures.

Another research team looked at parents' strategies for controlling their children in public places, and how the place -- its physical attributes and accompanying expectations of social behavior -- influenced parents' approach. This study suggests that parents respond differently depending on the context of the interaction, and that the same child behaviors that receive severe sanctions in one public place can be treated very differently in another.

Morrill and Snow believe this research will raise new questions about the nature and importance of social behavior in public places. "So many of the personal relationships and social encounters that unfold in public are overlooked by most researchers," Morrill explained. "But such behavior can be very significant to both individuals and groups, as well as providing some of the basic building blocks of public order in urban contexts."

About the study: The research teams used a blend of participant observation and interviews over a period of months or sometimes years, in which they spent considerable time in the field, sometimes undercover, collecting data and getting to know the people they studied. In all, researchers studied fleeting relationships in a university recreation center, at singles dances and strip clubs. They looked at anchored relationships among fans of an adult softball league; teenagers who hang out at bus stops, in the streets and at fast food restaurants; members of a post-divorce discussion group; and patrons of gay, lesbian and straight bars.

The teams all originated from a graduate seminar in qualitative field research at the University of Arizona Department of Sociology, where Morrill and Snow taught before coming to UCI.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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