Stranger Studies 101: Cities as Interaction Machines


Editor's Note: Nothing has challenged our notions about what it means to "know" or "meet" someone more than the various ways we interact online. With geolocation services like Foursquare and augmented reality applications on the horizon, what it means to be a stranger or a friend is only getting more complex. We asked Kio Stark, a professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program to share her syllabus on Stranger Studies here. 

The students at ITP spend two years learning how to make and break all kinds of technology, and as Stark puts it, her classes "are about shaping a deeper, more rigorous understanding of the people my students are making things for." So, this syllabus focuses more on people and how they interact in cities -- the context for technology -- than gadgets or software themselves. Think of this annotated syllabus from Stark (@kiostark) as your cheat sheet to understanding how cities or technologies can mass produce new experiences for humans.  

I talk to strangers. It's one of my obsessions, and this class in many ways emerged from my desire to understand why. When I began teaching about human social dynamics at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (a graduate program for geeks, hackers, technologists, and artists), I jumped at the chance to design a course about stranger interactions. Since Stranger Studies is not actually a discipline, I pretty much wrote the book on it.

This is a class on urban culture. My fundamental premise is that strangers and cities are inherently intertwined. The everyday nature of interacting with strangers is a byproduct of urbanization, which has created a culture of dense populations with sparse interconnections. That density and sparseness of connections itself is part of what defines 'the urban.' Living in cities has made strangers into a multitude: we brush past thousands of them every day. Even the simplest exchange among strangers can contain a tangled accumulation of meanings: what transpires may have physical, emotional, social, political, technological and historical dimensions. I show students how to unravel and understand these charged moments.

There are three broad themes during the semester.

  1. Why stranger interactions in cities are meaningful
  2. The spaces and the significance of the spaces in which strangers interact, and
  3. How strangers 'read' each other, how they initiate interactions, how they avoid interactions, how they trust each other and how they fool each other, how they watch, listen and follow each other.

Then there is the secret theme. I want students to fall in love with talking to strangers, to do it more, and to make technology that creates more plentiful and meaningful interactions among strangers.

The educational goals of the class are developing a refined set of skills for observing and interpreting strangers and their interactions;  getting a general understanding of what has been established (by a variety of disciplines) about where, how and why strangers interact;  and getting familiar with existing art and technology projects that involve strangers.

At ITP, this has a specific application, which is learning to recognize points of leverage that allow space for technology and art to make interventions in the social field in which strangers interact, or in a specific type of interaction strangers engage in.


Week 1: The History of Strangers
Until pretty recently, most of the world's population didn't live in cities, and so their contact with strangers was limited--mostly to the road and the marketplace. So it's important to start with the fact that the ways in which strangers relate in public are both historically and locally contingent.

In the context of Europe and America, I give a grand tour of how these relations--and their meanings to participants--have changed over time and why. To begin to explore the emotional experience of these interactions, we read "The Adventure" by early sociologist Georg Simmel, one of his typological analyses of social roles. The adventure he has in mind is both an exterior and interior question, a state of mind as much as an activity.

We also read selections from Camera Lucida, a really wonderful book by Roland Barthes about how specific photographs produce emotional responses for specific people and not for others. Both of these have a lot to say about why and how we want to connect with people we don't and often can't know. What I want you to see is how lyrical and profound our smallest, most momentary connections can be.


Week 2 & 3: Disruption
Significant things happen when we talk to strangers: we're interrupting the expected narratives of daily life, shifting perspective, forming unexpected connections. For me, that feels like waking up. I'm interested in how artists and thinkers engage with the concept of disruption, what disruption accomplishes politically, emotionally, aesthetically, what it reveals. Brecht's alienation effect, Situationism, and the relational art movement are crucial here.

To see a personal form of disruption in action, we look at "Gotham Handbook," a collaborative project between artist Sophie Calle and writer Paul Auster, in which he gives her a series of instructions for interactions she must have with people in public places, and she (grumpily, reflectively) documents the process. Last time I taught this class, we also had performance artist Darren O'Donnell, the artistic director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, as a guest. All of this is geared to understanding the why of stranger interactions and their effects--as well as starting to learn some strategies students can carry into the world.


One of the things that makes me happiest about teaching this class is the passion with which the students conduct their field assignments. I watch how the experiments change their perceptions and their way of moving through the world. You might find it does the same for you. Take a chance next time you've got a Saturday to spare. Go out and muck around in human nature for yourself.

#1: Questions and Answers

It's time to do some disrupting of your own. I'm making that easy by giving you a structure within which to stage your own interactions with strangers, allowing you to explore the dynamics of stranger interactions first-hand. As a group, we decide on an interview question--last semester the question was, "What are you afraid of?" You will each get 10 strangers in public places to answer the question (you might need to ask more than 10 in order to get 10 responses). You will need to document their answers in one of two ways: a portrait with a transcription or, a video clip. You will also need to submit a written 'journal' of your own feelings during the interactions, and your interpretations of your subjects' reactions to the interaction.

#2: General observation
The goal of this assignment is to hone your ability to observe public behavior. Spend two hours in a public place where you are not likely to encounter people you know. Sit still. Unplug your devices, get off the grid. Watch people. Take notes on what they do and don't do, how they interact with one another. If you are inspired to invent backstories for any of them, make sure to specify the details about them that inform your narrative. So for example, if you conclude that someone is rich, what told you that? Their posture, their skin, their clothing?

#3: Iterative Requests:
This assignment playfully engages you with the dynamics of helping behavior. I suggest working with a partner--for your safety and to embolden you. It works like this. You start by asking someone for directions. If they give you directions, ask them to draw a map. If they draw a map, ask for their phone number in case you get lost. If they give you their phone number, call it. You'll need to document each encounter carefully, so write it up as soon as it's concluded. Note who you approached, why you chose them, what your impression is of the kind of person they are (i.e.what you can observe directly--male/female, tall short--and what you infer), and how they respond to your requests. Your partner should keep distance enough so they're not detected as part of the experiment, and should take their own notes on your interactions and vice versa.

Week 4: Who's a Stranger?
It turns out it's not such a simple question to sort out. I focus on how the stranger archetype has been defined and understood, and is relationship to how cosmopolitanism works.  We look at how cosmopolitanism is perceived and how it can be socially and structurally enabled or discouraged. Readings include another Simmel archetype, "The Stranger," and essays by urban theorists Richard Sennett ("Cosmopolitanism as Social Experience") and Kurt Iveson ("Strangers in the Cosmopolis"). These are critical political questions, and reveal another realm of motivation for connecting with strangers.

Week 5: The Rules of Engagement
There are rules for all of this, mostly invisible until they're broken. Turning from the why questions, we look at the classic and enduring work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who among other things pioneered the idea of the self as a fluid, situational performance. He very carefully documented how people display and perceive information about each other in public contexts, how they negotiate impressions and interactions, the kinds of 'engagements' that are possible, and the general unwritten rules by which they proceed. I assign selections from Behavior in Public Places and The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. His examples are dated, gender roles are very Mad Men, and everyone is wearing a suit, but be generous and read around that. You may never look at a casual conversation in the same way again.

Week 6: Fleeting Relationships
Momentary connections can be packed with meaning--and they have unwritten rules of their own. A generation of Goffman's disciples study the dynamics of what he called "fleeting relationships," transient connections that form emotional valences and momentary interdependence between individuals. We read studies of fleeting relationships in strip clubs and at dance events for singles to understand how and why they work, what their particular pleasures are, and how  communication works in this specialized context.

Both of these studies appear in a volume called Together Alone-- Irenee Beattie et al, "Momentary Pleasures: Social Encounters and Fleeting Relationships at a Singles Dance"; Joseph E. Massey et al, "A Personal Dance: Emotional Labor, Fleeting Relationships, and Social Power in a Strip Bar."

Week 7: Public Space--Uses of the Street
Cities are machines that produce interactions among strangers, so now we turn to studying how urban space is used and how it can be designed to encourage or inhibit that kind of sociability. We start with Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the best books ever written about cities. Jacobs' affable, no-nonsense observations of how people actually use city spaces led her to a series of concrete recommendations about city planning that shook up the profession. Her approach was a radical shift from city planning methods of designing spaces that aimed to change people's behavior. Jacobs proposed that we learn from what works and use those organic successes to plan better cities. We look at her work for its historical importance, and more specifically to understand the concrete and emotional value of a street culture that includes and promotes interactions among strangers. If you love your neighborhood, Jacobs' work will probably explain why. If you don't, it might just show you what you're longing for.


Week 8: Public Space--Behavior-Up Design
One of William H. Whyte's famous observations -- far more profound than it seems, and based on extensive study -- is that in public spaces, people sit where there is someplace to sit. Whyte gave us remarkable strategies for creating usable public spaces--his work is continued by the Project on Public Spaces today. These things may seem obvious now, but he designed and directed studies carried out by cadres of graduate students to understand how people were already using public space, and then derived principles from those observations. We look at the report from one of his biggest projects, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and watch the short, charming documentary of the same name that he made about the study. One of his findings, which you'll now see implemented all around you in well-used public spaces, is that moveable chairs make for good public spaces. And that people always move them. Whyte's work provides information about how the experience of spaces influences public interactions and even values and attitudes. Most significantly, spaces can be designed by taking cues from public behavior, rather than in order to manipulate public behavior. Radical stuff.

Week 9: Empathy & helping behavior

When was the last time you helped a stranger? Turning to the psychology of stranger interactions, we investigate helping behavior and the dynamics of empathy, self-interest, and self-presentation that drive altruistic acts. The basic (admittedly gigantic) question is: what produces human empathy, and why do we help each other in some situations but not in others? To tackle this, I start with child development studies that illuminate when empathy develops and on what capacities it depends. Much of this work depends on contrasting the outcomes of experiments with autistic children and neuro-typical children. Then, on helping behavior itself, which started to get a lot of attention from sociologists and psychologists in the wake of Kitty Genovese's murder in 1964. They tried to understand the conditions under which people choose to help or not to help a person in need. The concept of the "bystander effect" emerged from these studies, which holds that the more people you think may be available to help someone, the less likely you are to help. [Ed. note: This will soon be named the CC effect.]

There's quite a bit of material on this. Two interesting ways into it are a classic study of helping behavior by J.M Darley and C.D. Batson, "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior" (1973) in which seminary students in a hurry to give a lecture on the parable of the Good Samaritan were confronted with a person in need of help, and R.V. Levine's 2003 study, "Measuring helping behavior across cultures."

The combined message of the two papers: where you are and what you're doing radically affect your instinct to help. So much for human nature.

Week 10 & 11: Social Perception
Humans have evolved elaborate mechanisms for fooling each other--and for trying not to get fooled. Erving Goffman's sociological approach to how strangers 'read' each other (Week 5) has an analog in the psychology of social perception. We end the semester looking at how psychologists study the ways people perceive and make social judgments of each other, how those perceptions can be manipulated, and what we can control and not control about how we're perceived by people we don't know. 

We consider two approaches. First, the work of cognitive scientists who study the idea that perception, emotion, and attitudes are processes of the body moving through space (rather than simply neural signals in the brain). Second is the work of Paul Eckman, pioneer in the study of 'microexpressions,' whose theories got a big publicity boost from the TV show Lie To Me. Eckman invented the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which breaks down all possible single facial movements and the combinations in which humans use them to form meaningful expressions. Based on this system and special training in detecting fleeting (often imperceptible without slow-mo) expressions, Eckman claims to be able to read a great deal of personal psychology, and most significantly, to catch liars. 

Malcolm Gadwell's profile of Eckman gives you the basics, and much of Eckman's work--though not the FACS itself--is available online. Finally, to investigate the contexts in which strangers lie to each other, to what end, and how they pull it off, we read David Maurer's wonderful study, The Big Con. Maurer was a linguist who studied criminal argots, and in the process, was able to make a thorough study of the forms and techniques of long cons as reported by the con men themselves.

Although I do not recommend it, by the end of the semester my students could likely launch successful careers as grifters.


1. flickr/albedo20

2. Library of Congress. Crowd around a race car.

3. Library of Congress. A dance.

4. flickr/yourdon.