Our day-to-day lives are filled with seemingly mundane rituals and tasks that are inherently governed by a set of spoken and unspoken norms and rules of use. These social norms, e.g., such those presiding over the etiquette of standing in a retail line, are enforced through the implied social codes followed by the majority of individuals performing those rituals and tasks. Stepping outside of those norms can bring social shaming, anger, and even in some cases violence. Riding the subway is one such ritual that, like the Christmas ritual in Theodore Caplow’s “Rule Enforcement without Visible Means” essay, comes with a set of unspoken rules and approved social behaviors.
For many individuals living in a big city such as New York City, riding the subway is very much a part of everyday life. In this activity, the subway rider must search out the proper subway entrance, typically labelled by letters or numbers, i.e., the “A-train” or the “6.” The rider must also be aware of the direction, in Manhattan, for example, predominately distinguished as “uptown” (north and the Bronx) or “downtown” (south and Brooklyn). Once the rider finds the proper entrance, her or she descends into the bowels of the city, navigating through the throngs of other hopeful passengers en route to their various destinations. Eventually, the rider will come to a subway platform, often filled with hundreds of other passengers checking their phones or craning their necks down the tracks to hopefully catch a glimpse of the approaching train. When the train comes, individuals jostle for position by the nearest door, creating a narrow walkway to allow other passengers to disembark. When the last passenger has dismounted, or perhaps sooner, the influx of new riders pushes their way onto the train, jockeying for the least uncomfortable spot with access to a handhold.

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Inside, the space of the train car is nearly always cramped and claustrophobic, especially during rush hours. The normal above-ground rules that prevent individuals from violating others’ personal space do not and cannot apply underground on the subway. It is typical to find oneself embarrassingly close to a fellow rider, but one does not feel the embarrassment in the same way as one would above ground. Here, the proximity and congestion is implied, understood, and sanctioned by the majority of riders who together perpetuate and enforce the implied norms. In fact, one who acts out in frustration at having his or her personal space violated is often scorned and ridiculed beneath the ground.

While certain norms, like invading others’ personal space and privacy are sanctioned on the subway, certain acts are not. Sexual acts, like groping or inappropriate rubbing or touching are strictly prohibited and enforced by law. However, other norms are not exactly illegal per se, but are certainly socially enforced. For example, eye contact on the subway is strongly frowned upon, and those who purposefully make eye contact are thought of as a danger to the rest of the unassuming travellers. Nothing good can come of making eye contact on the subway. Those who do are first ignored, then socially shamed, and finally reported to MTA officials if it gets that far. Another subway norm is keeping to oneself. Like eye contact, steps should be taken to strictly avoid speaking to anyone on the subway, unless one knows the person. Striking up a random conversation with a stranger on a New York City subway can be an invitation for disaster.

Most individuals in a structured society follow repetitive activities and rituals that each come with their own set of spoken and unspoken norms. These norms are often enforced by the outright majority, and those who transgress those norms are socially shamed, ostracized, and stigmatized. Riding the subway is one such ritual that comes with its own set of implied norms and rules that govern “acceptable” behavior.

  • Caplow, T. 1984. Rule enforcement without visible means: Christmas gift giving in
    Middletown. AJS. (89)6, pp. 1306-1323.
  • Assignment #1: Stranging The Normal. The Social World class. 2017. Assignment handout.