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Seeing The Familiar As Strange at Pitchfork Music Festival

You are a strange person living in a strange world. It’s just that you are so much like all the people around you and each day is so much like the next that you slowly come to think of yourself and the world around you as normal. However, part of being a good sociologist is remembering just how strange our everyday world is. In this piece Nathan Palmer goes to the Pitchfork Music Festival to show us how different things look when we “see the familiar as strange”.

Do you know how you can spot a tourist from a local? Tourists look up, taking in the scenery, but locals stay heads down until they get to where they’re going. I am in Chicago this weekend for the Pitchfork Music Festival, so the tourist/local divide is as clear as ever for me. Every time I stop to marvel at some landscape, or look at a sculpture, or especially when I snap a picture, the locals who I share the sidewalk with either roll their eyes or give me a strange look. To the locals there is nothing remarkable- nothing worth looking at, because they’ve seen it a thousand times before. Locals may have more insider knowledge of the area than anyone, but so much of the world they live in has become so familiar that it is now unremarkable and just normal.

Seeing The Familiar As Strange

Sociology asks you to look at your life, your community, your world again for the first time. As a discipline we urge you to “see the familiar as strange”. Become a tourist in your own life, and notice all of the little details that have faded into the background. In many ways sociology is the study of human patterns of behavior. Put another way sociology is the study of the (often boring) routines of life.

The lessons that sociology has to teach you and the answers that sociological methods can provide you lie in the things you’ve always known were true, the assumptions you didn’t even know you were making, and the questions you never thought to ask. This isn’t a mantra or Chicken Soup For The Sociologist’s Soul it’s an approach and an opportunity for you to more deeply understand the world around you.

Seeing The Pitchfork Music Festival As Strange

I thought I’d take you along with me as I roamed the music festival this weekend and show you how I “see the familiar as strange”. Now mind you, a concert is not an everyday thing, but it is highly routinized. Walking around Pitchfork I saw many things that would be familiar to anyone who’s been to a concert before. There were far too many things to sociologically analyze, but I want to at least tell you about three of them.

Moshing & Crowd Surfing:

M.I.A. Performing

In any other place, running head long into someone else is called assault. At a concert it’s called fun. Moshing is a good place to start seeing the familiar as strange, because that behavior is so far outside the norm if you take it to any other situation. Imagine moshing in an elevator or at a bus stop. That wouldn’t end well for anyone.

Crowd surfing is another strange behavior. Crowd surfing should be called kicking-people-in-the-back-of-the-head-and-then-expecting-them-to-carry-you-anyways. Taken together, both crowd surfing and moshing show how norms (i.e. rules of behavior) change when we go into different environments. They also show us how our behaviors are often dramatically changed by how the people around us behave (sociologists call this collective behavior).


Usually the idea of being in a small hot plastic box filled with the pungent excrement of hundreds of other people would be revolting, but at a concert their called Port-o-Lets. These necessary evils are interesting to me as a sociologist for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of the orderly way people stand in line for them. There are no signs saying, “Line forms here” and yet for the most part people cue up in line. When someone broke the unwritten rules about standing in line, there was no shortage of people ready to shout them back into compliance. Given how easily it could all descend into a Lord of The Flies chaos, it’s remarkable that it doesn’t.

Watching the Show From Your Phone’s Screen.

I doubt there was a minute of the three day long concert that wasn’t being recorded on someone’s cell phone. When M.I.A. took the stage, the crowd twinkled with cell phone lights. If you stop and think about it, it’s sort of odd that you are at a concert and you can see your beloved musician a few feet from you, but instead of watching them with your eyes, you watch a 4 inch wide screen on your phone. Your iPhone my have a retina screen, but that phone doesn’t have anything on the resolution of the retinas in your eyeballs.

From a sociological point of view there are many reasons people record a concert, but I’d like to talk a bit about Thorstein Veblen’s idea of conspicuous leisure. Veblen’s idea here is that we try to distinguish ourselves and communicate our social class by the artifacts we collect from our leisure. T-shirts, photos, Facebook posts, Tweets, and FourSquare check ins are just some of the ways that we publicly broadcast our leisure habits. With each of these broadcasts we attempt to define ourselves to the people around us.

These are just a few of the many things at a concert that are strange despite the fact that they feel so familiar and so normal. The point of all of this is that normality is a mirage. The “normal” things we do everyday are really strange, but just not to us. Part of becoming a trained sociologist is taking a hard look at the world around you and noticing again for the first time all of the facets of daily life that you’ve grown accustomed to. So now that you’ve read this, spend the rest of the day (at least) asking yourself, “why is it like this? Isn’t this strange?”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe in your own words what you think it means to “see the familiar as strange”.
  2. Think of a situation that you experience often or everyday (like taking a bus or sitting in class). Now see the familiar in that situation as strange and describe any sociology you see going on.
  3. What other behaviors are common (i.e. familiar) at concerts that could be seen as strange?
  4. Watch this video “A Guide To Moshing and Concert Survival” describe a few of the unwritten rules of moshing and what happens when you don’t follow them.