Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Stanley Milgram

Committee Members

Stephen P. Cohen

Michael E. Brown

Subject Categories



How members of a social unit acquire their shared knowledge about the social world was approached in Sherif's (1935, 1936) writings on norm formation and in the phenomenological descriptions of Schutz (1971, 1973) and Berger and Luckmann (1967). Both traditions presume that shared understandings originate in face-to-face encounters, but they diverge in that the phenomenologists argue that talk, and the construction of "typifications," plays a prominent role in the acquisition of shared knowledge. For the phenomenologists, a "typification" enables members to categorize behavior as a known event and permits individuals to consider disparate behaviors as belonging to the same class of events. Furthermore, "types" are presumed to be known to, and useable by, any other member of the social unit even though the details of the original encounter are masked by the "typification."

The research reported here is an attempt to explore the formation of "types," and examine the role that everyday conversation may have in the construction of shared understandings. By varying how members come to acquire their knowledge about the social world–through direct participation or through the words and deeds of others–a series of four studies was conducted. The first part of each study always begins in the same manner: participants are requested to judge how far in front of the screen a figure from a Julesz stereogram appears to be. The later part of each study always has one member who continues to see, or has been told about, the extended figure while (s)he interacts with a partner who views, unbeknownst to the other, a recessed figure. The task to be solved remains the same as that in the first part: to reach a decision about extension. This alteration in perspective was to provide a challenge to the knowledge formed during the first part of the encounter and to make visible any taken-for-granted assumptions that may have been acquired.

Contrary to expectations, in the majority of the interactions, 60.71%, the alteration in perspective was never uncovered. An analysis of the members' talk revealed that during the first part of the study the participants constructed a vocabulary and exchanged a set of expressions with each other that took the meaning and reference of those terms for granted. As there was no challenge to this usage, in the later parts of the study the partner who saw or was told about an extended figure continued to presume that these words can be re-used unproblematically, and the task was presented to the partner with a vocabulary that masked the exact reference of the expressions. With this vagueness as to reference, the individual who saw recession used the "meaning" of these words to describe the recessed display (s)he saw and successfully concealed the disparity. It is argued that these expressions presumed useable by any other be considered "typifications."

By examining what is concealed and by understanding the role talk plays in this masking, the issue of what members are presumed to "share" is addressed. As the notion of "sharedness" is also at the heart of the concept of norm, some of the implications of this examination for the concept of norm are examined.


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