Durkheim on the basketball court

Princeton's nearly empty gym

Princeton’s nearly empty gym

I sometimes sit in Princeton’s steamy, ancient-feeling gym and watch as a handful of individuals organized from strangers scattered across the five full basketball courts in one large room, into two teams for one full court game in a matter of minutes. This is a phenomenon that has fascinated me since, as an undergrad at North Carolina, I would sit outside at picnic tables and watched as an empty basketball court would fill with a 5 on 5 game and a number of guys “waiting for next” on the sidelines in a matter of minutes. My  now-husband called it the “bat signal” — there were guys all over campus ready to play at a moment’s notice, and the echoing dribble of a basketball summoned them to the court.

Strangers, bound together only by the knowledge of a common game and the serendipity of being in the same place in the same moment, become teammates. They assess each others strengths and weaknesses, develop a system of nicknames and draw on a common language of the game that helps them adapt, organize, and generate order out of what appears to be chaos.

As I watch this process, I’m often in awe of how rapidly it unfolds. I have thought a lot about sociology as it relates to sports in the conventional ways: collective effervescence and mega events, the conspicuous leisure of country clubs, and the associated refinement of tastes.

But how do we make sense of the transition of strangers into a team and then back to strangers- a process  that lasts from thirty minutes to a few hours. I was reading Robert Bellah’s introduction to Durkheim on morality right before I got to the gym which offered me a specific set of lenses for my post-run observations on the basketball court.

First, for collectives to emerge, how important is a shared moral order? Durkheim discussed a shared moral order not necessarily as a normative phenomenon but rather as the underlying assumptions and orientations that make the social fabric of a society. Durkheim himself advocated a moral order based in discipline, commitment to social groups, and individualism. We can see through the lens of Durkheim how these concepts apply to the seemingly random coalescence of players into teams in pick-up-basketball.

Teammates playing basketball together

Teammates playing basketball together


The role of physical discipline in athletics is overt – success requires practice, which can be monotonous, the extending of one’s physical and mental limits. But what of social discipline? There exists a code: there are well known rules of the game, shared knowledge that allows the participants to respect and defer to the authority of the game. Even with no referees the players self regulate, immediately accepting blame for illegal plays by raising a single hand in the air, often placing the other hand over his chest (of course, what counts as an illegal play draws on the bank of shared knowledge and past experience and intimate familiarity with the rules.)

Those who call fouls too often though are also considered undisciplined, unable to concede to the intrinsically physically tough game or prioritize the good of the game — i.e., maintaining the flow of play  — over their own individual-level discomfort of being fouled.

Finally, as someone who didn’t play sports growing up, I had little appreciation for the level of discipline involved in team sports. This year, my first year of grad school, I played on an intramural flag football team, during which time I learned quickly how difficult it is to remain level headed in moments in which your physical and emotional senses are heightened. The amount of interdependence and cooperation required for team sports inevitably leads to conflict within teams or between them — during which individuals must self-censure and self-regulate in an especially conscious way to maintain the good of the team, the game, and the social group generally.

Players gather to begin forming teams

Players gather to begin forming teams

Commitment to social groups

This commitment to the social group is particularly interesting in a spontaneously-emerging team of pick-up basketball because the group usually has no ties to one another before or after the game. Here on the basketball court, the team is the salient group. The individuals who come together are undergrads, graduate students, spouses, faculty, staff, and spouses of any of those groups (and, rarely, members of the Princeton public or alumni). Often, friends in pairs of two will come to the gym in pairs and form the basis of the teams.

For teams to emerge, one person usually has to take charge. He’ll perhaps approach a player or pair of players “just shooting around” on another court and ask if they’re up to play. This is a pretty visible ritual in the open gym, and other individuals or pairs are usually on the lookout; if someone initiates this conversation, generally others will begin wandering — dribbling the basketball — toward the newly formed small group.

Once a quorum has been met — usually a minimum of four willing players — teams are generated. First, usually, pairs that came together are placed on the same team. Then, often teams are arbitrarily divided, sometimes based on some fortuitous coincidence of markers (for example: white shirts, team A, every other colored shirt, team B) but otherwise just more or less randomly assigned.

What is interesting is that, despite random or quasi-random assignment to teams, the individual begins to associate himself with that team; the in-group/out-group dynamic is immediately established and salient. The players demonstrate pride and excitement when they contribute positively to the team’s effort and frustration when performing poorly, hurting the team. However, when another player seems to struggle they are reassuring; gestures such as high-fives, pats on the back or butt are common, as are the “it’s all right, man” -type comments. Individuals fill themselves into niches based on the team’s needs, not their own preferences, because someone has to play the less-fun positions of defense if the team is going to be successful. The team success, rather than individual excellence, is the goal: performing otherwise leads to sanctions such as being thought of as a ball-hog or stats-padder.


While the team is the salient group, individual skill and player identity is important to the game. Players assess and diagnose each other individual — on their own team and the opposing team — for strengths and weaknesses. This has a predictive function; the players can strategize about which shots to “let” the other player take based on his odds of making it, determining which teammate to pass to for maximum likelihood of a basket, etc.

The individualism also creates a distance; there is the team (again, commitment to the team) or nothing. Players rarely bother learning each other’s names or details of each other’s lives. As an observer, this has always been striking to me. If I’m assigned to a group, my first instinct is to get to know my new group-mates: I’d want to know his or her name, department, how long they’ve been at this particular hobby, other hobbies, etc. This, I’ve been told, would be considered weird — even inappropriate — on the basketball court.

In the game I was observing, nicknames emerged such as “shorts,” “buckets,” “red,” and “blue.” Only one player’s name was routinely used — Sam — and he was easily the best player on the court; perhaps his name was known to all because of the frequency of his play or, because of his skill, the others made a point to recognize him by name.

This distance, while contributing to the group commitment by making it the more salient (indeed, the only relevant) identity, maintains an air of individualism. This isn’t, for example, a game of old friends or a time for generating new friendships. The space between the individuals is closed by participating on the same team, but returns to normal — a number of strangers who once shared the same court — once the game or series of games ends.

Over the course of the game, individual discipline enables the game to proceed smoothly, while commitment to the team encourages self-sacrifice, pride, and strategizing based on contextual experience and tacit knowledge. However it is the individualism — the anonymity of the team before and after the game — that is particularly interesting. The groups cooperate within teams and engage in explicit conflict against the other team, and then dissolve again into individuals as they leave the gym without expecting to ever play together again.

Dumpster diving and the tragedy of the commons

As I was completing a draft of a paper on dumpster divers in 2012, Emmanuel Guerisoli, a friend at the New School urged me that my case really was about the tragedy of the commons. While at the time I didn’t think too much about it, recently while reading Garrett Hardin his comment was pressed back to me.

The tragedy of the commons is a theory of collective human behavior that poses that without state regulation or privatization, people will maximize their short-term self interests and will inevitably overexploit commonly shared resources. An example is the risk of overfishing our oceans or the problem of collectively acting to tackle climate change. Garrett Hardin concluded: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all” (1968: 1244)

How is the tragedy of the commons applicable to dumpster diving? 

Dumpster divers are people who collect and eat food from retail trash as a lifestyle choice, rather than being driven by necessity. Some retail establishment donate food that is about to expire – such as packaged freshly made salads and sandwiches – to charity organizations like City Harvest. The bulk of expired or about to expired food, ranging from day old bagels to vegetarian sushi, from bags full of fair trade chocolate bars to Dunkin’ donuts, however, ends up in the trash. In the United States an estimated 40% of all food goes to waste at some point of the production and consumption cycle.

In New York City, where I did fieldwork on dumpster divers in 2012-2013, retail trash is put in trash bags on the sidewalk six nights a week. As trash bags are put in public space, trash temporarily becomes a common good, not officially subject to police restrictions. The trash landscape in New York City can be seen as a common available for anyone to exploit.

Inline afbeelding 1

While some dumpster divers are secretive about their best spots, they don’t really have to worry about the issue of over-diving. The commons of dumpster divers in New York City get replenished 6 days a week, with stores seemingly endlessly throwing out wasted food.

Also, not everyone is as eager to stick both hands into unknown trash bags, especially not in public. Most people find the idea of eating food from the trash disgusting and the idea of doing so voluntarily rather crazy. Once at an alumni event in New York, after I told a middle-aged Dutch expat about my research, he gravely asked me how widespread mental illness was among dumpster divers.

The “tragedy of the commons” in the case of dumpster divers, rather, seems to be expressed in a shared commitment to responsibly managing the commons. For instance, I was dumpster diving alone at the Trader Joe’s on Union Square in Manhattan on a Wednesday night in September 2012:

As I am looking into another trash bin, moving white trash bags around to look one layer beneath the trash bags on top, I see an Asian, perhaps Japanese looking woman in her late thirties, bend over to close a trash bag full with packaged boxes of breaded, roasted chicken. She must be around 1.60 m and is wearing a cotton dark blue cap, her shoulder-long hair in a tiny pony tail. She is not carrying a handbag or other bag and is dressed in a grey hoodie with the name of a bar on it. I approach her and she introduces herself to me as Rachel, telling me somewhat later that she is a jewelry maker and sells her jewelry online. 

She tells me that she is closing the bag in front because otherwise the Trader Joe’s may get a fine. When I ask her whether she works for the Trader Joe’s she says hat she used to but not anymore. I tell her that I left the bag open intentionally, hoping that other people may find it and take some of the breaded chicken. She answers: “The people that come here know where to find it” (Field notes, September 19. 2012)

She is probably right in pointing out my naive idea that random New Yorkers would casually “stop by and take some chicken” upon seeing an open trash bag on the street. More interesting is that she takes the stand of Trader Joe’s and enacts the norm of closing bags and not leaving behind a mess: even going as far as cleaning up after people who neglect to do so. This norm was enacted and expressed by all the dumpster divers I followed – and evidenced by how unknown others ‘left behind’ trash they had just dived at, leaving behind legible signs such as an occasional lost glove or loosely retied knots.

Why did they do so? What can we draw from this short example? I think it is quite interesting that without formal regulations, with vague group boundaries and a weakly developed sense of ‘groupness,’ most dumpster divers in New York shared a normative commitment to the responsible self-management of the commons. Rather than “bringing ruin,” as Garrett Hardin’s model might have predicted, they work together with many anonymous others to maintain ‘their’ commons.

Becoming an academic: on hummus and crudites

“I’m trying to figure out what food to get for the party tonight. A few people suggested hummus and vegetables but I feel like that’s all grad students ever eat.”

“Yeah, I actually just had some hummus for lunch”

“…so did I.”

Why do we eat so much hummus? One of the most salient things I learned in my first semester of graduate school was, precisely, how to look like a graduate student — being socialized into a discipline that we enthusiastically claim as our vocation. At orientation, I remember admiring wide-eyed the poise of the more senior students, their penetrating questions, and their concise summaries of their research projects. It felt like they were on display, and I was window shopping for my future demeanor.

This is why we go to job talks. Of course, it is an exciting opportunity to become familiar with the research of our colleagues and of other graduate students or faculty in our discipline and others and offer feedback. But beyond that, we learn how to perform sociology. That includes demeanor and comportment, but also audience interaction: how to ask good questions, and how to answer them. In this informal way, I’ve developed a running list of successful practices and also what not to do; I’ve ruled out possibilities for what “good sociology” looks like and narrowed down the approaches I consider appropriate moving forward. In fact, I recently transferred this running list from a mental note into paper form that I keep in my desk!

  • When an audience member asks you a multi-point question, make notes of the question and answer it in order.
  • So… don’t forget to bring a pen and paper when giving a presentation!
  • Include a road map of the presentation in the first few slides
  • Theoretical framing comes up front! Classical and contemporary theorists if possible!
  • Mixed methods > single method

In our daily encounters with faculty — at the coffee pot, in the mail room, or in our excruciatingly long hallway (a breeding ground for awkward encounters) — we learn to see our academic idols not as daunting figures behind closed doors but as friendly colleagues, insightful and brilliant though they are. We learn how they carry themselves but also develop confidence in our own interactions with the leaders in our fields.

Similarly, in our contact with our more senior graduate colleagues, we are inducted into the academic life — but more specifically, the life of our department. We learn about the prestige of the different journals — tacit knowledge that is invisible to the casual observer. We also learn how to dress the part: we see the degree to which casual attire is acceptable in the office, the more looks they adopt when precepting a class, and how nicely they clean up for a presentation or interview. In a recent seminar with the politics graduate students, I was really struck by how differently the sociologists and the political scientists in the room dressed. It drew my attention to the culture of our department, and perhaps our discipline more broadly: while we are serious and professional,  we’re not overly formalistic.

While I’ve spent hours reading classical theory and learning statistical programming, I’ve spent even more hours chatting with my office-mates, sitting in a writing group with my cohort, and taking notes at job talks; I’ve gone to more wine-and-cheese receptions than I could count and volunteered to show a visiting lecturer around. All of these experiences have shaped how I think, act, and understand what it means to be an academic.

This is — I hypothesize — why we eat so much hummus. If I were planning a party for undergrads, the obvious choice would have been to order pizza for the group. As an undergrad, I ate a lot of free pizza. As a graduate student, I eat a lot of free hummus and crudites. However, as sociologists, we are also being socialized into more professorial preferences. While pizza is still Mediterranean food, it doesn’t quite signal “I’ve spent a lot of time in graduate school” like a strong taste for wine and antipasto.