The unwritten rules of social life as illustrated by a baseball interchange

Our daily social lives contain a number of interchanges that follow unwritten social rules. (Here is one that I recently wrote about: saying “thanks for your service” to military personnel.) The same thing happens in sports, as illustrated by this well-reported interchange between the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers:

In his obviously genius book, “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” sociologist Duncan J. Watts explains the notion that our lives are dictated by thousands of unwritten rules that we rarely, if ever, stop to examine…

The problem with the sport’s unwritten rules is that …

“They’re unwritten,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said with a laugh.

Exactly. And Verlander and the Tigers were involved in a game with the Angels here at Comerica Park the other day that showcased the silliness of living by an unwritten rulebook very much open to interpretation. It was a game so steeped in indecipherable, unwritten language that it ought to have been sponsored by Rosetta Stone.

This interchange led to a lot of debate among sports pundits: was it justified or not?

I think there are two better, and more sociological, questions to ask: where exactly do players learn to follow this code and how could the whole process be stopped? The first question refers to the socialization process. At some point, players must be instructed or at least observe this code. They also learn how they might be punished by other players if they do not follow it. It would be interesting to ask individual players whether they really feel that this is acceptable behavior or if they follow along because of peer pressure.

The second question refers to how baseball could make this behavior deviant. One way would be to increase the sanctions so that the code becomes very unattractive. Such sanctions could include punishments for managers and perhaps even teams. To this point, baseball has instituted some punishments but they clearly aren’t enough to stop such incidents. Another way would be to start teaching a new code at the lower levels of baseball, minor leagues or even below. In response, players might say that they still need ways to deal with showboating (done by Carlos Guillen in this incident) but I think baseball would find it hard to determine what exactly counts and what doesn’t.

This may just be a good example of social norms to use in an Introduction to Sociology class.

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