A study of symbolic relations in public transport

AuthorAndrei Balan
PositionPh.D. candidate, National School of Political and Administrative Studies, Bucharest
332 Lex ET Scientia. Administrative Series
Andrei B;LAN
This paper presents an anthropological, exploratory study of the microsocial world of
public transport. Our research focuses on the symbolic relations that are being established
(verbally or nonverbally) between urban transport travellers that do not know each other and the
consequences these relations create. Modern urban configuration forces large numbers of
individuals to share public space every day. When this space becomes restrictive, symbolic
relations and interpersonal behaviors such as territoriality and personal space management
become clearer. Due to overcrowding, public transport is the scene of one of the most restrictive
public spaces in a city. The challenge was to observe and interpret daily, casual behaviors
through a sociological and psychological scheme, following the methodological tradition
established by Erving Goffman and the other symbolic interactionists. Finally, our study generates
a number of hypotheses and explanatory models for common practices and behaviors in trams and
metros regarded from a symbolic perspective.
Keywords: public transport, symbolic relations, symbolic interactionism, observation,
interpretative scheme
As Marc Auge stated, we live in an era of scale reversals1. Along with the other social
sciences, anthropology enrolls in this logic, practicing with ever-more perseverance the attention
for present and proximity. The accent increasingly falls on daily and contemporary in all the
aggressive and disturbing aspects of reality at its most immediate”2. The scale overturn that leads
to the emphasis of the daily is interpreted by Michel de Certeau as distancing from the hegemonic
and generalizing3 discourse that used to dominate the social sciences. Vintil Mihilescu regards
the rediscovery of the daily as „a way to bring forward and put under spotlight everything that
was left behind, neglected or deemed insignificant by the grand theories 4.
Auge discusses the difference between what anthropology describes as places, as opposed
to simple spaces. Thus, places are relational, historical and concerned with identity, while simple
spaces are recognizable by the absence of social and symbolic relations. Consequently, these
become non-places5. The economic and social dynamics that are specific to supermodernity create
Ph.D. candidate, National School of Political and Administrative Studies, Bucharest (e-mail:
andrei.balan@gmail.com). Beneficiary of the project “Doctoral scholarships supporting research: Competitiveness,
quality, and cooperation in the European Higher Education Area”, co-funded by the European Union through the
European Social Fund, Sectorial Operational Programme Human Resources Development 2007-2013
1 Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995), 12
2 Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 31
3 Vintil Mihilescu, “Introducere” la Etnografii urbane, coord. Vintil Mihilescu (Iaşi: Polirom, 2009), 16
4 Vintil Mihilescu, “Introducere” la Etnografii urbane, 16
5 Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 34

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