Learning Sociological Lessons from Party Crashers
I recently had the pleasure of attending a major decade birthday party (40!) at a winery. The party was up a hill in an area separate from the winery’s general tasting/party area. There was a sign at the bottom of the hill that said “Private Party.”
Well into the party, two men came up the hill, looked around, and headed toward the table with the wine bottles. They were engaged in conversation by one of the guests who was not aware that they were not invited. They were both well into their wine drinking and not very logical in their conversational abilities. Some other guests encountered them and let them know that we were aware that they were there and that they were crashing a private party.
An individualistic or psychological view would focus on their personal motivations to crash someone else’s party. Adventure seekers, they just wanted a drink, so many things we might speculate on about their choices. But, as we know, using sociology to see what’s up can show us even more about our culture and society.
So, how could we explain party crashers with a sociological perspectives?
The most obvious concept is that they are breaking social norms. Encountering a private party like a wedding or birthday party and joining in is certainly a breach in social norms. Events that are labeled private are intended to be just that, even if they are in an area that is approachable by others. To join uninvited is an intrusion to those in the event, breaking the invisible barrier that made the event personal and private.
How do we react?
As we do when other social norms are broken. We look. We give looks in case they look at us. We say something like, “Oh, party crashers” if we walk nearby. I went over, joined the chat, and eventually said, “You know this is a private birthday party, right?” One man responded with “Oh, yes, Happy Birthday!”
I said, “No it’s not my birthday, do you know whose it is?” to which he responded, “Oh, you don’t know whose it is either?” After some back and forth like that, just letting him know we knew who they were (or were not), I left the conversation. Our response could have included more formal social controls by calling security but we just used informal social controls. After more interactions with other party guests, they did leave, going back down the hill to join the others.
Understanding the dynamics of gender and power could shed some light on this since the two men did not react when challenged by the women who approached them, but they did leave after speaking to some of the men.
We could apply Robert Merton’s strain theory and focus on how deviance is created through responses to social pressures in a time of anomie. As the theory states, in periods of anomie, people may respond to that “normlessness” or societal confusion in five different ways. Each of the five relate to reaching accepted social goals through normative means. Conformists accept the means and the goals. Ritualists accept the means but reject the goals, thus they just go through the motions but not for a specific purpose. Innovators reject the means (and replace them with others) in the process of reaching accepted goals. Retreatists reject both the means and goals, often retreating from society in symbolic and/or physical ways, thus not participating in society. Rebels also reject the means and goals but invent new means to new goals.
Where would party crashers fit here? First, we need to identify which goals and what means are being used.
What are the goals here? The function of social gatherings includes building social networks and reinforcing social bonds and relationships through interactions focused on food. Are crashers accepting these societal goals?
If they were crashing to experience some sense of social interaction, as the characters in the film Wedding Crashers were, then we would say yes. If they were crashing to see if they could take some food, drink, or something else, then would we say they are rejecting that goal even though they are interacting for the purposes of obtaining food?
What about the means? The normative ways to gain social bonds include meeting people and socializing with them as well as attending social functions and behaving appropriately. Are the crashers are rejecting those normative means? They are breaking the norms of social gatherings since they do not know these individuals and are unlikely to have future encounters with them but they are interacting. Are they giving their real names and histories as they chat with the invited guests?
My impression is that they were not there to find a date, they were there to find something that wasn’t ordinarily available to them.
What do you think? Do they represent rebels, retreatists, innovators, ritualists or conformists?
The irony of this situation is that one of them said he had a sociology degree. Perhaps this was just a norm-breaking experiment?
(I do not recommend norm-breaking experiments in which people can get hurt or into trouble.)