The Shoe-Lace Breaching Experiment:
Norbert Elias as Ethnomethodologist - Commentaries on a Re-Discovered Text

General information: an almost unknown Text on a Breaching Experiment by Norbert Elias

In November 1967 a short text by Norbert Elias was published (in German) in the regular ‘travel section’ of the German weekly journal Die Zeit (= Elias 1967). It is titled ‘Die Geschichte mit den Schuhbändern’ (‘The story of the shoe-laces’), and until recently it has remained rather unknown – at least in the sense that it:
(a) has not been listed in any ‘official’ bibliography of Elias’s work (except the HyperElias©WorldCatalogue record 1967 (online since 2007);
(b) was not comprised in the respective volume of the German ‘Collected Works’ (Gesammelte Schriften vol. 14, as edited by Heike Hammer), and
(c) was up to now not really discussed within the German- or English-speaking scientific community of scholars interested in the work of Norbert Elias (except the (originally German) presentation by Hermann Korte at a basically French congress in 2000, see Korte 2000).

The only previous reference to (a manuscript version of) this text by Norbert Elias was made by Hermann Korte in his report on ‘The ethnological perspective of Norbert Elias’ at a congress in France 2000 (presented there in German), and published in French translation as late as 2004 (Korte 2000). But even Korte acknowledges, that ‘he was not able to find out, when the text was really published’, and his citations therefore pertain to the provisional manuscript version and not to the later really published text, as discussed here.

I re-discovered the ‘officially’ published version of this text in January 2007, by following a different trace: the hint on the manuscript context (and also on the Die Zeit context) in a 1985 report by Michael Schröter, and then digging up the really published text with the help of Mrs. Andrea Beekmann, the current archivist of Die Zeit in Hamburg.

The text testifies to Elias’s ‘professional sociological gaze’ even when he was only being a tourist, and it may be described as a premature breaching experiment. Harold Garfinkel, recognised as the founder of ‘ethnomethodology’, invented the term and used the method of ‘breaching experiments’: experiments in which his students breached the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying everyday situations, thereby generating consternation and embarrassment among other people present. But Garfinkel’s experiments were not widely known until after the publication in 1967 of his book Studies in Ethnomethodology, after which they were widely copied. But Elias’s little breaching experiments, testing the reactions to his (at first accidentally and then deliberately) untied and trailing shoe-laces, were conducted in 1965–6, and in that sense they are ‘premature’!

On  the context

After retiring as Reader at Leicester in 1962, and completing his subsequent appointment as professor at the University of Ghana at Legon near Accra in the summer 1964 Norbert Elias obviously enjoyed his new emeritus existence and spent a considerable amount of his spare time travelling as more or less private tourist, or with ‘tourism’ extensions of journeys to give lectures or participate in conferences. He also changed his private residential circumstances according to spare-time requirements, moving from his old small apartment to a more spacious house in Leicester, where he built a swimming pool and accommodated his collection of African art, remaining there until the late 1970s (1977-8), when he definitively moved to Amsterdam, where he lived until his death 1990.

But as we know from biographical sources (like ‘Reflections on a life’, Elias 1994, or ‘Erfahrungen mit Norbert Elias’, Schröter 1997, and Johan Goudsbloms obituary to Abraham van Stolk, Goudsblom 1997), Norbert Elias continued with travelling and spending a considerable amount of time away from his residence(s) until the last years of his life, including extended holidays in Greece (starting 1966 and several times later), in Morocco (1972), the Seychelles (1974), and East Africa (1977).

The hereby rediscovered contribution to Die Zeit reflects these first – and probably for the first time in the life of Norbert Elias really ‘relaxed’ – spare-time, touristic and travelling experiences as a self-determined voyager and (also) as tourist 1965 and later, definitely contrasting (and contrasted by) his former biographical experiences, when he was primarily ‘forced’ – by history and biography – to move and to travel (e.g. 1915-17 as volunteer in WW-I; 1925-33 as student and young scientist; 1933-41 as refugee and exiled person, 1942-1964 as professional scientist; all this comprising residences in Breslau, Heidelberg, Frankfurt/M. (Germany), Paris (France), London, Cambridge, Leicester (England), Legon (Ghana); and finally (1977-1990) Amsterdam (Netherlands; see above).

Hermann Korte (Korte 2000) gives valuable background information to this mainly ‘touristic context’ of the here discussed published text as a biographically new experience and perspective. Korte travelled together with Norbert Elias in late fall 1966 to Greece (Peloponnes, Mani peninsula), and they met there by chance (in the small southern Mani village of Gerolimena) Wolfgang Boller (then editor working for Die Zeit, and responsible for the travelling section). After discussing travelling experiences at a dinner enjoyed together in a harbour tavern at Gerolimena, Norbert Elias consented to write an article on the theme ‘A travelling sociologist’, which was afterwards completed in January 1967 (manuscript version) and finally published November 1967 (Elias 1967).

In this finally published Die Zeit text Elias therefore refers explicitly to mainly touristic or spare-time experiences: when on holiday in Spain (Torremolinos, in the spring of 1965); while in London in 1965 to give a lecture on ‘Sociology and psychiatry’; on a private trip to Paris (probably in spring 1966); during a visiting professorship in Münster (autumn 1965 to January 1966); and on a semi-private journey to Switzerland (in the early autumn of 1966) to negotiate the re-issue of ‘Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation’ with the new holder of the copyright = Francke in Bern.

On the text

Elias starts his reflections on being a ‘sociologist on the move’ by emphasising the inevitability for him of taking a sociological point of view, in addition to all the ‘merely’ touristic perspectives, such as ‘indulging in beaches, museums, ruins, landscapes’ and so on. The additional perspective is provided by his ‘sociological spectacles’: ‘I cannot help it: I am fascinated by the people, their differences, their behaviour, their way of life ...’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).

The key experience took place in Torremolinos (probably in May or June 1965), when Norbert Elias strolled around in the small original fishermen’s village, wondering about the people’s everyday life and world, and conceptually applying an exclusive Gemeinschaft model to their social life, distinguishing it from Tönnies’s model of ‘Gesellschaft’, and feeling more or less excluded from their community.

Eventually he experienced signs including him as addressee of communication, without – at the beginning – knowing the context: ‘I had the impression of women shouting after me. Then a little girl approached me laughing, but hid her head, and was running back to her mother ... Finally I understood through an older girl: she pointed to my shoes, where at the left shoe the laces were untied and trailing.’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).

By retying the loose shoe-laces, Elias had the feeling of being included in the village community – at least for a moment, and based on the community aspect of the everyday reality in the village: people took notice and nodded approval of his rectifying something that had a disturbing appearance in their everyday reality.

After reflecting on this experience Norbert Elias started a series of breaching experiments, beginning ad hoc, and ending in various situations in Spain, France, England, Germany, and Switzerland. He strolled around in all these contexts with intentionally untied and trailing shoe-laces. The results of these purposefully conducted breaching experiments are reported as follows:

(1) Spain - Torremolinos 1965 (upper village): In the mostly touristic context of ‘upper’ Torremolinos the loose shoe-laces were sometimes noticed, but never communicated, which Elias explained by a predominantly anonymous Gesellschaft context, brought about by a predominance of tourism.

(2) England - London 1965 (Regent Street, Bond Street): Here Elias conducted three experiments, all of which lasted three hours. He got nine reactions, mostly by older ‘citizens’, as Norbert Elias notes: ‘In England mostly elderly gentlemen reacted by communicating with me on the danger of stumbling and falling’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth). This might be interpreted as an established ‘society-context’, where the anonymity is overruled by engaged and experienced citizens watching the public space.

(3) France - Paris 1966 (Champs Elyseés, Boulevard St Michel, Montparnasse): Here Elias conducted three experiments of three hours, but with much less reaction. Only two people communicated directly with him about the visible shoe-lace problem, both sitting in street cafés on the Champs Elyseés, besides a youngster who shouted directly ‘prenez garde’ (‘take care’) into his ear, much to the amusement of the young man’s group of companions. As an explanation of this different reaction, perhaps a different character of ‘public space’ in France may be relevant: mere observation in contrast with engagement and direct intervention, as in London/UK or in Germany (see the following discussion, as cited below).

(4) Germany - for instance Münster 1965: Here the ‘society-context’ mentioned above was – according to Norbert Elias – watched and communicated not by gentlemen, but mostly by women: ‘In Germany older men only looked at me somewhat contemptuously, whereas women reacted directly and tried to ‘clean up’ the obvious disorder, in the tramway as well as elsewhere. Here in most cases a short conversation, comprising more than the obvious ‘shoe-lace disorder’ took place, such as a short warning about what might happen if I didn’t take care of the basic problem’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).

(5) Switzerland: Bern 1966: Here Elias experienced the most elaborate conversation about dangers related to untied shoe-laces, including admonitions about dangers of eating grapes and using trains. He explicitly states: ‘This was probably an exception, from which no conclusion on a Swiss national character can be drawn' (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).

Discussion and final remarks

The hereby presented Die Zeit text (Elias 1967) is remarkable in four respects:

(1) As a contribution to and illustration of the classical ‘community vs. society’ problem as defined by Ferdinand Tönnies. Elias enlarges the classical dichotomy by hinting at public spaces, which can be defined as either community or society, according to participating groups and individuals (see points 3 and 4, below).

(2) As an anticipation of what Garfinkel (Garfinkel 1967) was to call a ‘breaching experiment’, used to uncover underlying assumptions of everyday life. The breaching character of Norbert Elias’s shoe-lace experiments might be considered as rather low, but they are still among the very first examples in print of such an approach.

(3) As puzzle-piece leading up to his important 1974 essay ‘Towards a Theory of Communities’, (Elias 1974), emphasising the varying community-character of social spaces, measured by the respective reaction within the social space to a (mildly) breaching experiment and intervention. In the underlying reflections of the conducted breaching interventions Norbert Elias summarizes accordingly: 'Maybe the world is not divided so precisely into ‘communities’ and ‘societies’ as assumed above. People generally oriented towards order might see it differently, with respect to different contexts' (Norbert Elias, manuscript version, as cited after Korte 2000/2004, and translated by Ingo Moerth).

(4) As starting point for a methodological reflection on qualitative approaches to reality. In the manuscript version Norbert Elias writes: 'The results of my inquiry are not really conclusive. Maybe the social world cannot be divided so sharply into communities and societies as assumed according to the needs of ‘orderly people’. In addition my method (of experimenting with shoe laces, I.M.) needs more testing. It makes fun, but it could be improved to meet the challenges of a really up to date scientific method' (Norbert Elias, manuscript version, as cited after Korte 2000/2004, and translated by Ingo Moerth).

Ingo Moerth
Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria


(ref. 1) Elias 1967 = Norbert Elias (1967): ‘Die Geschichte mit den Schuhbändern - Soziologe auf Reisen'’, in: Die Zeit, Hamburg (Zeit-Verlag Gerd Bucerius), 22. Jg. Nr. 46 (17. November 1967), S. 55; bibliographical informations and the full German text of the discussed article can be found at, and an English translation will be included in Essays on Sociology and the Humanities, volume 16 of the Collected Works of Elias (Dublin: UCD Press, 2008). [back1]

(ref. 2) Elias 2006 = Norbert Elias (2006): 'Aufsätze und andere Schriften I', Frankfurt/M. 2006: Suhrkamp (= Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 14, hg. von Heike Hammer, comprising essays 1947-1978). [back2]

(ref. 3) Korte 2000/2004 = Hermann Korte (2000), ‘Der ethnologische Blick bei Norbert Elias’, lecture at the congress ‘Norbert Elias and Anthropology / Norbert Elias et l’ethnologie, Colloque du Société d’ethnologie française; Université de Metz, 21–23 September 2000’ (mentiond briefly by Heike Hammer in her congress report in ‘Figurations’, no. 14 (Nov. 2000), pp. 12-13, including a hint on Korte’s reference to the shoe-lace experiments), later published in French: ‘Le regard ethnologique de Norbert Elias’, in: Sophie Chevalier & Jean-Marie Privat (eds.): Norbert Elias et l’anthropologie: ‘Nous sommes tous si étranges …’, Paris 2004: CNRS Editions, chapter 1. [back3]

(ref. 4) Schröter 1985 = Michael Schröter (1985), 'Bestandsaufnahme der wissenschaftlichen Manuskripte von Norbert Elias', Bochum 1985 (Abschlussbericht zum 1. Arbeitsgang des Forschungsprojektes ‘Vorbereitung einer deutschsprachigen Edition zentraler Arbeiten von Norbert Elias’, durchgeführt mit Unterstützung der Fritz Thyssen Stiftung unter der Leitung von Hermann Korte an der Fakultät für Sozialwissenschaft der Ruhr-Universität Bochum). [back4]

(ref. 5) Garfinkel 1967 = Garfinkel, Harold: Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs/N.J./USA 1967: Prentice Hall (esp. "Studies on the routine grounds of everyday activities", = chapter 2). [back5]

(ref. 6) Elias 1984/ 1987/ 1990/ 1994: see Elias 1984: ‘Notizen zum Lebenslauf’, in: Peter Gleichmann, Johan Goudsblom & Hermann Korte (eds.): Macht und Zivilisation, Frankfurt/M. 1984, pp. 9-82; see also Elias 1987: ‘De geschiedenis van Norbert Elias’, Amsterdam 1987: Meulenhoff (including the biographical interview by Arend Jan Heerma van Voss & Abram van Stolk, 1984); see also Elias 1990: ‘Norbert Elias über sich selbst’, Frankfurt/M. 1990: Suhrkamp; and see additionally Elias 1994: ‘Reflections on a life. Including biographical interview with Norbert Elias’, Cambridge/UK 1994: Polity Press. [back6]

(ref. 7) Schröter 1997: see Michael Schröter (1997): ‘Erfahrungen mit Norbert Elias. Gesammelte Aufsätze’, Frankfurt/M. 1997. [back7]

(ref. 8) Goudsblom 1997: see Johan Goudsblom (1997): 'In memoriam Abraham van Stolk', in: Figurations no. 7 (June 1997), pp. 1-2.  [back8]

(ref. 9) Elias 1974: see Norbert Elias (1974), 'Towards a Sociology of the Communities', foreword in: Colin Bell and Howard Newby (eds): The Sociology of Community, London/UK 1974: Frank Cass, 1974), pp. IX-XLI. [back9]


I wish to thank Stephen Mennell for his very valuable help in reworking my rather clumsy first version of this text into an (hopefully) idiomatically correct English version, for which I take full responsibility. 
In addition I am very much obliged to Hermann Korte for his background informations on the discussed text by Norbert Elias, and on his own congress report (2000), and especially for giving me full access to the original German version of his report.