Friday, March 14, 2008

Where to sit in the classroom

One of the fun things to do in sociology is to make empirical generalizations. Sometimes in research we start with an idea or a theory, make a hypothesis, and then collect data to test if our idea is correct. This is deductive research, going from large (abstract idea) to small (collecting data about specific people or situations). Deductive research can be very interesting, because we learn if our ideas hold up in the real world, but I don’t think that it’s as fun as inductive research (and as I am aging—about a year annually—I am placing more weight on research being fun).

Sometimes when we enter a situation, even if we don’t know anything about it, we start noticing things. We notice if there are patterns to peoples’ behavior. From these patterns, we create larger explanations about how the social world works. This is inductive because we start with the smaller observation, and from it we build explanations about the larger social world.

Here’s a simple example of how to create empirical generalizations. In my social research methods class, I asked my students why they sat where they did. It clip_image002[5]was a reasonable question because the class itself has about 100 chairs, but there are only 50 students, so they had some choice in where they sat.

After talking for about it for about 10 minutes, we came up with the following ways that students decided where to sit.

1) Look for a friend. When you walk into the classroom, first look for someone that you know reasonably well and feel positively toward and sit next to them if there’s an available seat nearby. Or, if you’re really close, see if they’ll move so that you can sit next to them. Don’t sit next to them if you know them well but feel negatively toward them (e.g., an enemy). Also, don’t sit next to them, at least too conspicuously, if you feel positively but don’t know them (e.g., you’re attracted to a stranger).

2) Figure out how close to the front of the room you like to be. If you’re right up front, you catch everything that is going on, but it does make it difficult to sleep, text message, or talk with your friends. If you want to goof around a bit, maybe sit in the back.

3) Find a comfortable seat. Classroom seating is usually pretty tight, with the seats being crammed together—just like economy seating on an airplane. The best seats are those on the aisle. Once class starts, students in the aisle seats can stretch out their legs more than those in the interior seats. The first students to arrive in the class tend to take the aisle seats, and as a result the students arriving later have to step past them to get to the middle seats.

clip_image0044) Keep an empty seat between you and others (unless you know them). When at all possible, pick a seat that has empty seats on both sides. Seating directly next to someone invades their personal space, and it gives you less room as well.

5) Sit in same area each time. Once you find a suitable seat, try to sit in it, or near it, every class period. This way you get the best seat for you each time, and you don’t really have to think about it. Of course, you may have to change if someone is sitting too close to that seat.

We came up with some other factors that might be incorporated, such as left-handed desks for left-handed students and not sitting directly behind people, especially if they are tall, but the five criteria listed above represented the main decisions made by the students.

Because students follow these criteria, when I as a professor look out on a classroom, I see alternate seating with only friends sitting next to each other. The aisle seats are always taken. Also, since students tend to sit in the same area each time, I learn to recognize them in


part by where they sit. In fact, on test days, when I assign random seating, I have trouble recognizing all of my students.

These seating rules are strong enough that they represent social norms, and it can be considered deviant to violate them. For example, if you have friends in a class, but you go sit by yourself, they would probably be upset. Likewise, if there are plenty of empty seats, but you pick one right next to someone, they may take offense.

Obviously where to sit in classrooms is a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Still, it represents a highly structured social interaction, demonstrating the reach of social norms into every aspect of our lives.

Originally posted on


Anonymous said...

Very interesting Brad. Have you ever thought about how people sit in a church during worship? At my church you have those that sit in the same place every week, others who move around with a pattern they are probably not aware of, and the random ones.
I had people get up and move once for a sermon illustration and it was amazing to watch how people responded. It ranged from anger to laughter. Amazing how strong some of these social patterns and routines can be!


Brad Wright said...

What an interesting idea for a study Derek. I liked your sermon illustration--people are so set in their ways (myself included).

S.S.STONE said...

Derek, the priest at my church had us change seats once during the homily which caused quite the disturbance.
I'm one that sits in the same spot every Sunday...the Triduum is always a challenge when you have people attending services that never come during the year and they take "your" seat! :)