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Latest Word on Everyday Life

Cal State Fullerton sociologists launch serious online journal dedicated to the ordinary aspects of living. First topics; Shaving, small talk and elevator rides.

March 22, 2000|MATTHEW FORDAHL | Associated Press SCIENCE WRITER

Studies in a new academic journal shed light on the mysterious silence of passengers in office elevators, the political significance of a morning shave and cultural impact of plain talk among friends.

Sound boring? Not to the editors of the Journal of Mundane Behavior, which tries to elevate the dull and fill a void in social science research with scholarly analyses of the ordinary, earthy and just plain normal.

"We're trying to make it so that we look at everyday life as something that's valuable and to understand how it gets constructed," said Scott Schaffer, the journal's managing editor and a sociology instructor at Cal State Fullerton.

Schaffer and co-editor Myron Orleans started the online publication in response to what they believe is sociology's emphasis on deviance, sort of a Jerry Springer takeover of their field. Instead, Mundane Behavior's theme mirrors "Seinfeld."

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Like the popular sitcom, the journal seemingly about nothing strives to find something deeper: Perhaps all the little things in ordinary lives add up to more than all the extreme behaviors being studied so intently at the fringe of society.

"Most of us don't live Jerry Springer lives," Schaffer said. "We get up at some ungodly hour, live in a 6-by-6-foot cubicle for eight or more hours, reverse the insane commute and go home to our lives.

"This amounts to probably 60% or more of our lives," he said. "And the editors here think that this vast amount of energy, effort and, in some cases, sheer drudgery deserves some attention."

In the first edition, an article on shaving analyzes how facial hair defines masculinity. Another report shows how small talk promulgates a culture. And a third reviews how the Japanese see an elevator ride as a "respite from a norm-governed society."

Schaffer and Orleans received a handful of e-mails wondering whether their journal is a hoax. They also received three times more submissions than they could use for the debut of the peer-reviewed journal. The next issue will be posted in June.

Sociologists say that the study of mundane behavior is nothing new, that mainstream journals devote many pages to such analysis.

"The idea is to sort of step back from everything that we take for granted and say, 'What's really going on here anyway?' " said William Roy of UCLA. "A fish is the last creature to ever notice water."

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But Schaffer and Orleans want to expand the journal's scope beyond sociology, the study of interaction among people, to include history, political science, literature, art and anything else touched by normalcy.

The idea sprang from a 1998 article published in the journal Sociological Theory. Wayne Brekhus of the University of Missouri complained that there were many journals devoted to extreme behavior but nothing concentrating on the mundane.

Brekhus, who studied the lives of suburban gay men, said many of his subjects suggested he talk to gays in New York.

"They saw little in their lives that would be of interest to a social scientist and attempted to direct me to where I might find the 'type of gays' that social scientists write about," he said.

Brekhus' half-joking call for a journal to study the mundane caught the attention of Schaffer and Orleans. The Cal State Fullerton sociologists sent out e-mail notices requesting papers and launched the Web site. Six months and $500 later, the 112-page journal was posted on the Internet at http://www.mundanebehavior.org.

Though the journal may eventually be printed, the online version will remain so that the publication remains accessible to the people it studies.

"We figured since we're talking about mundane behavior, then the people who live the mundane lives that we're studying should be able to read it, rather than just making it the province of academia," Schaffer said.

But what is mundane in a world where everything appears dysfunctional? Schaffer says definitions of the mundane will change as the journal evolves.

"What's mundane in one aspect becomes completely bizarre in another one," he said. "So we wanted to kind of stray away from having an idea of what mundane was and talk about conceptions of the mundane."

Still, there's a risk of becoming boring, Brekhus warns.

"It's not simply enough that we study the mundane," he said. "The purpose to studying the mundane is to find something interesting about ordinary social life, not just to present the mundane."

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