Summary: This video footage depicts a young man playing a violin in a Washington, DC Metro station during the heart of the morning rush hour. Unbeknownst to passersby, the musician is the world renowned Joshua Bell, playing one of the most difficult pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. In total, Bell played for about 45 minutes to about 1,100 people moving through the station. During this time, only a handful stopped to listen; he collected $32. Organized by the Washington Post, this social experiment was designed to broach questions around perception, beauty, and priorities; however, it can also be used to teach sociological concepts, such as Erving Goffman's theory of defining the situation and Pierre Bourdieu's theory of taste. Goffman argues that when individuals encounter one another, they (consciously or not) seek out information about the other so as to define the nature of the interaction. Morning commuters use the information around them to define the interaction between themselves and the violinist, including the fact that the musician is playing in a subway station, wearing everyday street clothes, standing beside an open violin case occupied by loose bills and change. Despite Bell's talent and professional status, given this information, the majority of commuters define the situation as an amateur musician playing for money, and they ignore him. Had the situation been defined with a sign that identified the world famous violinist playing an impromptu public concert, presumably more commuters would have stopped to listen. This latter point also speaks to Bourdieu's theory of taste, in which Bourdieu rejects a pure or genuine conception of aesthetics and instead argues that "good taste" is simply a reflection of the taste of the ruling class, demarcated by ruling class signifiers. Given that Bell is in a non-elite space, wearing non-elite clothing, playing for a non-elite audience, commuters are unable to recognize the highly skilled nature of the art. This demonstrates how good taste can be understood as a social (and Bourdieu would say classed) phenomenon, rather than an objective truth. This clip is one of several featured on The Sociological Cinema that illustrates social experiments, including experiments on racial bias, the Milgram experiment, and breaching experiments at Grand Central Station and on a college campus.
Submitted By: Valerie Chepp